The Surprising Nature of Cringe and Why We’re Drawn to It

We examine the social mechanisms behind the hard-to-watch yet addictive empathy of cringe.

To cringe is to “experience an inward shiver of embarrassment or disgust.”

Picture it. You are walking along, minding your own business when suddenly, you catch a glimpse of someone you’ve been crushing on for years. Your heart begins to race. You make eye contact. They smile and wave. You attempt to smile and wave back, but suddenly, out of nowhere, you trip. We’re not talking about a slight stumble. We’re talking about a long drawn out descent to the floor, arms and legs thrashing as you desperately try to regain your stability and composure. Unfortunately, your attempts at salvaging your dignity only end up prolonging your slide towards the inevitable: you sprawled out and disheveled on the floor, numb from the crushing humiliation. This is what we like to call cringeworthy.

Remember that time someone slighted you or took a dig at you? Of course you do. Being the “quick” wit you are, you came up with the perfect retort. Too bad it was two years later while you were showering. How many hours do you think you’ve wasted reliving moments like that, over and over again in your head. You may feel alone during these times of self-inflicted misery but know that this phenomenon is utterly universal—a basic human experience.

Anyone who has made it to adolescence is intimately familiar with this feeling, and those of us who are in adulthood recognize that the awkward years never really leave you. Over time we improve at avoiding these types of situations but make no mistake about it, everybody experiences cringeworthy moments. The question is, do we even understand the phenomenon that is cringe? Do we really comprehend the complex feelings and social mechanics underlying this universal experience? To help us understand the compelling psychology of awkwardness, we look to Melissa Dahl’s latest book, Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness.

What is cringe?

Melissa Dahl describes the experience or cringe as a kind of hyper-sensitive empathy to the situations of others. This is most apparent with second-hand cringe. When you see the new guy at work start doing something that you know will end disastrously for him, you get nervous too. You feel that individual’s emotions, but what are you actually feeling? You are barely connected to this person, so why do you feel their shame?

In Cringeworthy, Dahl teams up with a pair of social neuroscientists to find answers to these questions. It turns out, the answers lie within the brain itself. When we think of a situation in which someone commits a cringeworthy act, the same area of the brain lights up as if we were experiencing their embarrassment ourselves. If we see someone in emotional pain, we feel the pain too. Every person is different, to be sure, but feeling embarrassed for someone is hard-wired into our social radars. As we understand it, this kind of empathy is completely normal and healthy for encouraging socialization.

Do others notice our embarrassing moments?

The research says that far fewer people notice our most embarrassing moments. A study was done that placed people in an awkward situation. They were asked to interrupt meetings while wearing odd clothing. Later they were asked to guess how many had noticed their awkward dress and uncomfortable behavior. The embarrassed participants guessed half or more, when in reality, less than a quarter noticed or remembered. It turns out this old quote continues to be relevant, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”

Why your family makes you cringe. 

About embarrassment in families, Dahl states, “Your empathetic reaction to someone else’s embarrassment is stronger the closer you are to that person. It’s why husbands and wives are so likely to be embarrassed by each other, or why your family’s weirdness, particularly in public, never fails to make you cringe. They’re a part of you, you’ve incorporated them into your self-concept.” In other words, you cringe because you care and because you self-identify with those closest to you.

Why are we drawn to cringe?

Anyone who spends a significant measure of time surfing the internet has surely come across infinite amounts of content that has made them cringe. One that sticks in my memory is a video where an over-zealous newsman, walking and reporting on a record-breaking matchstick sculpture behind him, trips and knocks it over. This massive, meticulously created work of art—the product of hundreds of hours, slowly crumbles to the floor in a heap. The artist’s face shifts from pure shock to deep frustration, as the newsman sheepishly declares his apologies as he flails about on the floor, truly making the matter much worse.

Watching this generates a flurry of emotions—sadness and anger on behalf of the creator, frustration and sympathy for the newsman. It is complicated, but at the same time, something about the emotional rush is addictive. This addictive nature of cringe is reflected in the growing online communities and content that exist solely to find and share this feeling, notably on Cringe – Reddit. A quick Google search of ‘cringe compilation’ will net hundreds of videos of people engaging in cringeworthy behavior. As we now know, seeing others cringe makes us feel their pain. So why do we like it so much? One explanation is that feeling such intense empathy makes us feel closer to people, and not the exact people in the videos but to humanity as a whole. Watching might be tough but the next time we make a faux pas or recollect a past mistake, we won’t feel quite so alone. We know that everyone out there (or at least most people) are just as weird and awkward as we are, and that’s a comforting thought.




Photo Credit: iStock


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