Stimulus Material

We developed this set of stimuli to examine (vicarious) embarrassment as a form of (empathy for) social pain (Paulus et al., 2013b). From a conceptual point of view, the term ‘empathy’ reflects incidents where perceivers (i.e. participants involved in our studies) and social targets (i.e. protagonists displayed in the depicted set of situations) have a shared affective experience, with the perceivers being fully aware that the source of their own affective experience is the other’s emotion (de Vignemont and Singer, 2006). This does not always account for the experiences of embarrassment on behalf of others. For example, the experience of embarrassment would not be shared in an ‘isomorphic fashion’ (Engen and Singer, 2012) between attendees of a scientific conference observing a presenter with toilet paper stuck to his trousers (Paulus et al., 2013b). Thus, the term ‘vicarious’ offers a wider scope and also includes non-shared affective experiences.

Our stimulus material and the underlying psychological conceptualization of vicarious embarrassment as a form of social pain was established first in 2011 (Krach et al., 2011) and since then has been used in several other studies to investigate the neurobiological correlates of vicarious embarrassment and empathic processes in healthy subjects (Paulus et al., 2014), autism spectrum disorder (Krach et al., in revision; Paulus et al., 2013a), or juvenile myoclonic epilepsy (Paulus et al., 2015).

Each stimulus consists of a hand-drawn sketch depicting a social scenario with a target person and several other surrounding observers making it a public scene. In (vicarious) embarrassment situations the social target, which is indicated by a red arrow above his/her head, is violating a social norm in public and thus threatens his or her social integrity. 27 neutral control stimuli display the social target in a public context without violating socially normative standards. For clarification each sketch is accompanied by a two-sentence description of the current situation.

To cover a broad variety of accidental public norm violations which potentially elicit embarrassment on behalf of others, situations model different types of scenarios, varying the degree of awareness (aware vs unaware) about the momentary norm violation.

In A situations the predicament occurs while the social target is fully aware of the inappropriateness of his or her behavior. Therefore, in these types of situations the social target supposedly feels embarrassment him-/herself and observers may empathically share the embarrassment with the social target (i.e. embarrassment with someone). We developed 24 examples of A situations.

In U situations the social target in unaware about the mishap in that specific moment. The incident is outside of the social target’s attentional or perceptual focus. Hence, the social target does not experience embarrassment him-/herself in these types of situations, but observers may vicariously experience embarrassment for the social target (i.e. embarrassment for someone). Our stimuli include 24 U situations.

If you are interested in further information about our stimulus material or would like to use it, please contact us.

Publications on this topic

De Vignemont F, Singer T (2006): The empathic brain: how, when and why? Trends Cogn. Sci. 10, 435–441.

Engen HG, Singer T (2012): Empathy circuitsCurr. Opin. Neurobiol. 23(2), 275-282.

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 embarrassmentPLoS ONE, 6(4)

Krach S, Kamp-Becker I, Einhäuser W, Sommer J, Frässle S, Jansen A, Rademacher L, Müller-Pinzler L, Gazzola V, Paulus FM (2015): Evidence from pupillometry and fMRI indicates reduced neural response during vicarious social pain but not physical pain in autismHum Brain Mapp.

Paulus FM, Kamp-Becker I, Krach S (2013a): Demands in reflecting about another’s motives and intentions modulate vicarious embarrassment in autism spectrum disordersRes. Dev. Disabil. 34, 1312–1321.

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’ embarrassmentCerebral Cortex, 25(8), 2065-2075

Paulus FM, Müller-Pinzler L, Westermann S, Krach S (2013b): On the distinction of empathic and vicarious emotionsFront. Hum. Neurosci. 7, 196.