The Extreme Secondhand Embarrassment of Watching the Oscars

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Photo: Image Group LA/ABC via Getty Images

Even without the Best Picture fiasco — when La La Land won, until two minutes later when, yikes, actually Moonlight did — host Jimmy Kimmel had already made great strides toward making this the cringiest Oscars in memory. There was the excruciating secondhand embarrassment of watching that odd tour-bus bit, including the part when Kimmel poked fun at a tourist’s name. (This was just after shouting the name of actor Mahershala Ali, in an apparent punch line.) Or consider his hard-to-watch, brief encounter with 8-year-old Lion actor Sunny Pawar, when Kimmel picked the kid up and pretended to do the “Rafiki presents Simba to the animal kingdom gathered at Pride Rock” thing from The Lion King.

I am currently writing a book on awkwardness, which tends to mean lately that I look at the world through cringe-colored glasses, seeing mortification when, really, everything and everyone is doing just fine. But Sunday night, it wasn’t just me.

In 2011, a team of neuroscientists published what is perhaps one of my favorite psychology papers of all time, in which they investigated the neural correlates of secondhand embarrassment. Most of those scientists were from Germany, a relevant detail as the Germans, naturally, have a word for this feeling: Fremdscham, defined in that report as “embarrassment-by-proxy.” For that study, which was published in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers asked people to read vignettes and look at little sketches depicting people doing different sorts of embarrassing things, like walking around with their pants’ zipper undone, or giving a speech in which they indulged in “extensive self-praise,” or casually wearing a T-shirt that read, “I am sexy.” While the study participants took this in, the researchers recorded images of their brains, and found increased activity in two structures: the anterior cingulate cortex and the left anterior insula, both of which are thought to be involved in pain processing, including “vicarious feelings of others’ pain.” If you found parts of Sunday night’s broadcast too painful to watch — I, for one, felt compelled to get up and leave the room during the tour-bus bit — this could help explain why.

That series of experiments also found that people who scored higher in empathy — as measured by a little survey asking them how much they agreed with statements like, “I sometimes try to better understand my friends by taking their perspective” — also tended to exhibit more brain activity when reading the vignettes and looking at the images. (Whether more empathy is a good thing is a matter of perspective, and/or whether you have read Yale psychologist Paul Bloom’s new book.)

But perhaps the real experts here are the good people at the subreddit r/cringe, who have upvoted a clip of the Best Picture mishap to the top of the page. “This is the epitome of cringe,” one redditor wrote last night. “Close the sub, it’s done.” Another chimed in: “I highly doubt we’ll beat these levels of cringe anytime this year.”

The Extreme Secondhand Embarrassment of Watching the Oscars