September 11, 2023

Dear Colleagues,

The National Social Anxiety Center (NSAC) provides information about relevant and current research in service of disseminating and promoting evidence-based treatment. This month’s summary is written by Shmuel Fischler, LCSW-C, representing NSAC Baltimore, and examines the 2016 article by Muller-Pinzler et al., When your friends make you cringe: social closeness modulates vicarious embarrassment-related neural activity.

The degree of social closeness between two people may modulate the degree of vicarious affect one experiences. Prior research has explored the vicarious experience we feel at other injuries (Singer Et al., 2004), joy at their success, (Mobbs et al., 2009), disgust (Wicker et al., 2003), and embarrassment on behalf of others’ blunders (Krach et al., 2011). However, the modulating role of perceived social closeness has yet to be explored.

In the current article, Muller-Pinzler et al. (2016) closely examined vicarious embarrassment by tracking differential neural responses of participants while witnessing threats to either a friend or stranger’s social integrity. They wanted to investigate how our social ties and friendships modulate vicarious embarrassment. Do we feel more or less vicarious embarrassment if that person is someone we perceive as a friend?

Researchers in this article share two models hypothesizing why and how social closeness impacts vicarious embarrassment. The first model suggests that greater social closeness creates a stronger affective link, increased internal mentalization of others, and subsequent heightened empathy. The second model proposes that stronger social closeness to one another also raises concerns about one’s own social image and the threat to that image a friend’s behavior poses.

They hypothesized that (a) a great response within the shared circuits of the AI and ACC when cringing in response to friends’ wrongdoings vs. that of strangers and (b) the area of the brain involved in processing self-related thoughts (the precuneus) would reflect great activity while observing friends’ behavior.

This study recruited 64 German participants, primarily university students (87.5%). All participants were exposed to social scenarios of ‘neutral’ or ‘embarrassing’ situations, (all previously validated). Participants in the ‘stranger’ category viewed the scenarios and were instructed to imagine the primary social target (the protagonist) as a ‘person.’ In the ‘friend’ group participants were guided to imagine the social target as ‘your friend.’ The situations covered a variety of social interactions that were benign to ones that violate social norms or being the center of an embarrassing situation (such as seeing your friend at the supermarket register realizing she had no money to pay for her groceries). Neural responses were monitored by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while viewing and imaging these scenarios. Additionally, participants were asked to rate their vicarious embarrassment on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (very strong) with the push of a button.

Activity within the shared circuits of the AI and ACC increased specifically when participants observed threats to their friends’ social integrity, which would seem to support higher levels of vicarious embarrassment. The embarrassing scenarios elicited higher levels of vicarious embarrassment (referred to as behavioral response which was collected by self-report) than the neutral ones. However, they did not find a significant difference in behavioral response between friend and stranger as they found neurologically. While they found an increase across all groups of mentalization (which includes mirroring and perspective-taking to build a model of another’s mind), they did not find it modulated by social closeness.

These researchers acknowledge the limitations of this experiment and its mixed results. They outlined their inability to support one proposed model over the other. In my observation, there are some additional limitations that may be of interest. This research did not look at the reaction of the social target in the ‘socially embarrassing’ situation. I wonder how the reaction of that person influences the reaction of their friend observing. Would seeing someone visibly experience embarrassment trigger our own (visualize a ‘cringy’ moment you have seen in a movie)? Additionally, the experiment did not look at the reactions of bystanders. Perhaps the intensity of bystander reaction would impact their friend’s reaction, whether subscribing to model one or model two.

How does this relate to social anxiety? While it may not examine social anxiety directly, this research raises interrelated factors for us to think about.

  • Individuals struggling with SAD often have their focus hijacked, intensified, and re-directed toward themselves or others around them. A theme of this research article is the role of focus and attention. Would someone with SAD who is hyper-focused on their own image and therefore struggles to engage in perspective-taking, experience less vicarious embarrassment? Or perhaps vice versa?
  • With a heightened perceived risk to their social standing would someone with SAD disproportionally evaluate their social closeness and the impact of their ‘friend’s’ behavior?
  • Mental Representation of Self is a prominent factor for those with SAD (Heimberg), Could the proverbial net of MPS expand itself to a person’s friend? That would imply their friend’s behavior is enmeshed with their own MPS.
  • Building off of that, could one suffer from SAD by proxy?

Muller-Pinzler, L., Rademacher, L., Paulus, F.M., & Krach, S. When your friends make you cringe: social closeness modulates vicarious embarrassment-related neural activity. Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, vol. 11, issue 3, pp. 466-475, March 2016.

Shmuel Fischler, LCSW-C
Representing NSAC Baltimore
(CBT Baltimore)