Why do we feel shame on others?

Why do we feel shame on others?

If we look in the scientific literature about what shame is, we will find numerous articles and books. However, if we search on the shame of others, the number of findings is markedly reduced. And it is still not very clear why we feel the embarrassment of others. Although some studies, little by little, begin to shed some light.

Who has never felt the embarrassment of seeing another person with a piece of food in their teeth? Or doing some activity with a disastrous result? We put our hands on our heads, looked down a little but still paying attention to the scene and began to feel that strange sensation. But, What is it and why do we feel shame on others?

What is the embarrassment of others?

Describing this concept or this experience is not easy at all. It is a mixture of shame, compassion and mockery. When we are in a relaxed atmosphere and a friend begins to sing and his voice is not exactly melodic or harmonious, then the embarrassment of others may arise. "Don't you realize you can't sing? How ridiculous you are doing," We think many times. Nevertheless, It's funny that we are ashamed of us, not him.

"In complete solitude, the most sensitive person would be completely indifferent to their own appearance."

-Charles Darwin-

The doctor Frieder Michel Paulus, professor at the German University of Marburg, says that the embarrassment of others "it depends directly on the perspective of the observer"In his 2013 article,"Your flaws are my pain: link empathy with someone else's shame"He tells us that shame is one"transient reaction to a violation of the social label that endangers the particular public image of oneself and can be evoked in different situations".

However, it also ensures that shame can be experienced indirectlyeven without any link between the observer and the protagonist of the action and without any responsibility of the observer in the situation of the protagonist. That is, it does not need to be a friend or acquaintance, we can feel ashamed of someone we do not know.

Many times we are at home watching TV and watch a politician utter a meaningless phrase or making a mistake by saying a word. In this case we neither know the protagonist nor do we have any responsibility for the action. But still, being comfortably seated on the couch, we can feel this kind of indirect shame.


  • 1 Other people's shame, empathy and compassion
  • 2 Subjective Experience
  • 3 Bibliography

Embarrassment, empathy and compassion

Dr. Paulus's research group conducted an experiment that involved 619 Germans in shameful situations. He even subjected 32 of them to functional magnetic resonance imaging to observe which brain areas were activated when the subjects felt ashamed of others.

The results showed that the brain sets in motion the same regions involved in empathy: the insular cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. The conclusions of Dr. Paulus's team seem to point out that "When we feel the embarrassment of others we feel empathy for someone who jeopardizes their integrity by violating social norms". It could be said that it is a empathic shame.

On the other hand, the historian Tiffany Watt Smith, a researcher at the Center for the History of Emotions at Queen Mery University in London also contributes her grain of sand in the literature of the embarrassment of others.

The author of the book "The book of human emotions", says that feeling the embarrassment of others is a double torture. On the one hand, if another person makes a mistake we can get to feel it, and on the other, without being necessary the error, since just consider that the behavior of others is worthy of being ashamed To feel the shame of others.

The historian assures that the moments in which we feel the most shame of others is when the protagonist of the action is important seems to care little what he does. In this case we are left with the shame that should be happening. Like Paulus, he also states that it is a empathic emotion, since we put ourselves in the skin of the other person.

Subjective Experience

Despite all the data provided by science about this emotion, we must not forget that it is a personal experience. Two people observing the same action may feel completely contrary emotions. While I may be feeling someone else's shame, another person may be serious or laughing out loud.

That we feel this emotion is not always synonymous with the other person being ridiculous. Sometimes we should ask ourselves what is our limit of the sense of ridicule if we are surprised feeling often ashamed of others. Making a mistake does not always mean ridicule. While some see cause for shame others see learning. It all depends on how strict we are with ourselves and with others..


Krach S, Cohrs JC, from Echevarría Loebell NC, Kircher T, Sommer J, Jansen A, et al. (2011). Your flaws are my pain: linking empathy to vicarious embarrassment. Plos One 6 (4).

Watt Smith, T. (2016). The book of humans emotions.