Watching cringey stuff is painful. Our eyes are running away from it, our gut is repulsed, maybe even our muscles are involuntarily contracting. But we can't help it. Teens congratulating their classmates because they are black, a woman licking a toilet bowl in hopes of starting the 'coronavirus challenge'... For some reason, we need to see how these things play out. Even if our body is refusing to allow it.
The subreddit r/Cringetopia is a gold mine for this type of content. With 1.1 million active members constantly sharing some of the cringiest things they can find on the Internet, it's just getting bigger and bigger, too. Continue scrolling and check out what they have collected so far!
Frieder Paulus, a psychologist at the Lübeck University in Germany, told Quartz that embarrassment is social: it tells us when we have violated a social norm and makes us feel bad for doing so. But it's not clear why exactly we have the capacity to cringe or as scientists call it, feel vicarious embarrassment.
We feel others' embarrassment because we are empathetic—we imagine how someone else thinks and feels because it determines how we treat others and cooperate with one another. Feeling second-hand embarrassment might be just a byproduct of a more important trait, much like how the belly button is a symbol of the umbilical cord.