Vicarious shame, why do some people suffer more from it?

There are many situations in which vicarious shame can arise. For example, children who are ashamed of their parents, partners of each other or colleagues among themselves. But it can also happen that you see something on television that makes you feel very uncomfortable. Like, for example, in a dating program where different candidates are looking for love. Or when a presenter or newscaster slips up. Where does that feeling of tremors come from?

When do we feel vicarious shame?

A blunder or unwanted social behavior can make us feel uncomfortable when we are not responsible for it at all. There are several reasons why this is felt. First, it may be a fear of reputational damage. We are so afraid that the behavior shown also reflects on ourselves. Like when other Dutch people misbehave during a holiday abroad. We fear that others will think that we, as Dutch, belong to the same group. Our self-image is so threatened. But it can also happen in embarrassing situations. When someone can’t say a word at an important moment, they trip or drop a cake or a full tray, for example. You just feel yourself how you would be in that situation.

Why do we feel vicarious shame?

There is a connection between shame for something of our own and vicarious shame. When we are ashamed of ourselves, it has a corrective effect. It’s an uncomfortable feeling when we think we’re overstepping the social norm. That means we probably won’t do it again. In the case of vicarious shame, something similar happens, only we will correct the one who acts out. Research on the brain by neuropsychologist Laura Müller-Pinzler has shown that at that moment processes begin to trigger the release of stress hormones. It can make us blush or sweat, even when we’re embarrassed by someone else, or increase our heart rate.

Also read: Where does the feeling of shame come from?

Signs of empathy

According to Müller-Pinzler, vicarious shame has everything to do with empathy. Opposite Fidelity and Psychology magazine she tells more about it. The more someone can empathize with someone else’s situation, the stronger the feeling of vicarious shame, she says. This is why, for example, children are so often ashamed of their parents. A strong sense of etiquette can also play a role. Anyone who attaches great importance to certain social norms is more likely to react with shame than someone who does not care. Finally, Müller-Pinzler’s research shows that socially anxious people, who are highly aware of their environment, are also more likely to experience vicarious shame.


Vicarious shame is not just an unpleasant feeling. It can also be useful. A study from the University of Tilburg by Stephanie Welten shows that we can also learn from the mistakes of others. By learning from the mistakes of others, we don’t have to make that mistake ourselves. In some cases, we can also help those we are ashamed of. For example, by alerting someone that his or her zipper is open.

Not bothered by (replaces) shame?

There may also be various reasons why someone does not feel vicarious shame. This is more often the case when someone doesn’t care what others think. Those with high self-esteem will not be ashamed when others believe that a standard is being exceeded. Just as they are more likely to laugh at others than to be ashamed of it instead. According to Müller-Pinzler, people with a form of autism are also less likely to experience vicarious shame. This is because the empathy is then less.

(Source: Psychologie Magazine, Trouw, Quest, Photo: Shutterstock)

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