Why do we feel ashamed of others?

Basil Manning
Why do we feel ashamed of others?

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

Who has not ever felt ashamed of others seeing another person with a piece of food in their teeth? Or doing some activity with a disastrous result? We put our hands to our heads, we lowered our gaze a little but still paying attention to the scene and we began to feel that strange sensation. But what is it and why do we feel ashamed of others?


    • What is the shame of others?
  • Embarrassment, empathy and compassion
  • Subjective Experience
    • Bibliography

What is the shame of others?

Describing this concept or this experience is not entirely easy. It is a mixture of shame, compassion and mockery. When we are in a relaxed atmosphere and a friend begins to sing and their voice is neither melodic nor harmonious, then embarrassment can arise. "Don't you realize you can't sing? How ridiculous is you doing," we thought many times. However, it is curious that we are the ones who are embarrassed, not him.

"In complete solitude, the most sensitive person would be completely indifferent to his own appearance." -Charles Darwin-

Dr. Frieder Michel Paulus, professor at the German University of Marburg, assures that the shame of others "depends directly on the perspective of the observer." In his 2013 article, "Your flaws are my pain: linking empathy with the shame of others," he tells us that shame is a "transitory reaction to a violation of social etiquette that endangers one's particular public image. itself and can be evoked in different situations ".

However, it also ensures that shame can be experienced indirectly, even without any type of 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 have 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 we observe a politician uttering some meaningless phrase or making a mistake when saying a word. In this case we neither know the protagonist nor do we have any kind of responsibility for the action. But still, being comfortably seated on the sofa, we can feel this kind of indirect shame..

Embarrassment, empathy and compassion

Dr. Paulus's research group carried out an experiment that involved 619 Germans in shameful situations. He even went so far as to subject 32 of them to functional magnetic resonance imaging to observe which brain areas were activated when the subjects felt someone else's embarrassment.

The results showed that the brain activates the same regions involved in empathy: the insular cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. The conclusions of Dr. Paulus's team seem to indicate that "when we feel shame of others, we feel empathy for someone who endangers their integrity by violating social norms." It could be said that this is an empathetic 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 shame of others..

The author of the book "The book of human emotions", assures that feeling shame of others is a double torture. On the one hand, if another person makes a mistake, we can come to feel it, and on the other, without the mistake being necessary, since it is enough that we consider that the behavior of others is worthy of being ashamed to feel ashamed 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, it seems to care little what he does. In this case we are left with the shame that should be happening. Like Paulus, he also affirms that it is an empathic emotion, since we put ourselves in the shoes of the other person.

Subjective Experience

Despite all the data that science provides on this emotion, we must not forget that it is a personal experience. Two people watching the same action can feel completely opposite 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 making a fool of himself. Sometimes we should ask ourselves what is our limit of the sense of ridicule if we find ourselves frequently feeling shame of others. Making a mistake doesn't always mean making a fool of yourself. While some see reason for shame, others see learning. It all depends on how strict we are with ourselves and with others.


Krach S, Cohrs JC, de 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.

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