When I see a guy embarrassing himself, why am I the one who’s cringing?
RYAN, BOKSBURG Because you’re an evolved, empathetic soul, Ryan. This is so common that it actually has a name: vicarious embarrassment. People who describe themselves as especially empathetic feel it more intensely, says relationship expert Sherry Amatenstein. Here’s what’s happening in your brain while someone flubs their presentation: two regions linked to empathy with another person’s physical pain probably become activated, a study in PLoS One suggests. This tends to happen whether the guy knows he’s screwing up or not, the research shows. Part of the cringe reflex (we made that term up) is that you can imagine yourself in the same situation. “We’re all afraid of making unintentional fools of ourselves,” Amatenstein says, “so when you witness it happening, it’s like feeling yourself falling and being unable to stop it.” Your blushing and sweating means you either feel bad for the poor guy, or you’re concerned for yourself. No-one has to know which.