It's one thing to be embarrassed when you've done something awkward in front of people, like flub someone's name, or leave your fly open. But when someone else does something cringeworthy, sometimes the secondhand embarrassment is even more powerful than anything you've experienced yourself.
"I think it comes from people relating to whatever the other person is going through, taking it on for themselves, and feeling embarrassed for them," she says. "It's very human and it's an empathetic and sympathetic reaction. I think people who are more empathetic feel this more often, people who are able to step into someone else's shoes."
Dr. DeSilva also says that when we see someone do something mortifying, it can trigger areas of the brain where we process pain. And the hippocampus in your brain, for example, lights up when you're re-experiencing that embarrassment — which can definitely make you cringe, especially if it what your witnessing reminds you of a time you did something humiliating
The study also suggested that there's something specific that happens when someone doesn't even realize that they're doing something embarrassing. When someone just does something cringeworthy and they know it, we vicariously experience their shame — but when they're oblivious, there's an added element of reacting to how you've judged that situation (i.e., yikes, they don't even know they've made a fool of themselves).
You might feel like you'll die of embarrassment when you see someone fall over in public, but hey, take comfort in the idea that it means that you're probably at least a little bit empathetic.