Reality TV and vicarious embarrassment: an fMRI study

Neuroimage. 2015 Apr 1;109:109-17. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.01.022. Epub 2015 Jan 14.


Background: Vicarious embarrassment (VE) is an emotion triggered by the observation of others' pratfalls or social norm violations. Several explanatory approaches have been suggested to explain the source of this phenomenon, including perspective taking abilities or ingroup identification. Knowledge about its biological bases, however, is scarce. To gain a better understanding, the present study investigated neural activation patterns in response to video clips from reality TV shows. Reality TV is well known for presenting social norm violations, flaws and pratfalls of its protagonists in real life situations thereby qualifying as an ecological valid trigger for VE.

Methods: N = 60 healthy participants viewed stand stills from previously watched video clips taken from German reality TV-shows while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging. The clips were preselected for high versus low VE content in a pilot study. Besides the investigation of differences in brain activation elicited by VE versus control stand stills (blocked design contrast), we performed additional exploratory functional connectivity analyses (psychophysiological interaction; PPI) to detect VE related brain networks.

Results: Compared to the low VE condition, participants in the high VE condition showed a higher activation in the middle temporal gyrus, the supramarginal gyrus, the right inferior frontal gyrus and the gyrus rectus. Functional connectivity analyses confirmed increased connectivity of these regions with the anterior cingulate in the VE condition. Moreover, self-ratings of VE and brain activity were correlated positively.

Conclusion: Reality TV formats with high VE content activate brain regions associated with Theory of Mind, but also with empathic concern and social identity. Therefore, our results support the idea that the ability to put oneself in other person's shoes is a major prerequisite for VE.

Keywords: Inferior frontal gyrus; Middle temporal gyrus; Perspective taking; Psychophysiological interaction; Supramarginal gyrus; Vicarious embarrassment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Television*
  • Young Adult