Social Emotions


In the German language, embarrassment on behalf of others is referred to with the term “Fremdscham”. According to the official German dictionary, “Fremdscham” [ˈfʁɛmtʃaːm] means “To be vicariously ashamed for another, whose manner is perceived as embarrassing”. This umbrella term “fremdschämen” [ˈfʀɛmtˌʃɛːmən] thus refers to various social encounters in which another’s social integrity is threatened. 

A good example of this is what we feel when observing a waiter in a fully occupied restaurant stumbling and dropping dishes to the floor (Krach et al., 2011). Here, bystanders experience embarrassment with the waiter (i.e., the waiter is embarrassed and we share this embarrassment). However, a bystander can also experience embarrassment for another, without the other actually experiencing embarrassment. For example, a person walking around with their fly open might not be embarrassed, because he or she does not realize that their zip is open. A perceiver, however, notes the open zip and is well aware of others’ negative evaluations in that very moment, and thus may experience embarrassment for the social target (Paulus et al., 2013, 2014). 

In our research we examine the neural foundations of embarrassment with and embarrassment for another person’s mishaps. On this website, you can find details about the stimulus material we developed for this purpose.  

Publications on this topic

Krach S, Cohrs JC, de Echeverria Loebell NC, Kircher T, Sommer J, Jansen A, Paulus FM (2011): Your flaws are my pain: Linking empathy to vicarious embarrassment. PLoS ONE, 6(4)

Paulus FM, Müller-Pinzler L, Jansen A, Gazzola, V, Krach, S (2015): Mentalizing and the role of the posterior superior temporal sulcus in sharing others’ embarrassment. Cerebral Cortex, 25(8), 2065-2075

Paulus FM, Müller-Pinzler L, Westermann S, Krach S (2013): On the distinction of empathic and vicarious emotions. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7(May), 196.


The High-German term for embarrassment “peinlich” [ˈpaɪnˌlɪç] and the English “pain” both stem from Latin “poena”, for penalty or punishment. In old German, the meaning of “peinlich” originally referred to the experience of physical pain. 

The publicity of one’s failures and the surmised negative evaluation by others during public deficiencies are the main cause of embarrassment, and constitute the origin of the most central human fears within social encounters. Using novel approaches we combine functional neuroimaging with psychophysiological indicators of arousal to examine the neurobiological pathways of how humans process embarrassment (Krach et al., 2013; Müller-Pinzler et al., in press). 

Publications on this topic

Krach S, Müller-Pinzler L, Westermann S, Paulus FM (2013): Advancing the neuroscience of social emotions with social immersion. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36(4), 427–8.

Müller-Pinzler L, Gazzola V, Keysers C, Frässle S, Einhäuser W, Sommer J, Jansen A, Paulus FM, Krach S (2015): Neural pathways of embarrassment and their modulation by social anxiety. Neuroimage, 119, 252-261