Social closeness is a potent moderator of vicarious affect and specifically vicarious embarrassment. The neural pathways of how social closeness to another person affects our experience of vicarious embarrassment for the other’s public flaws, failures and norm violations are yet unknown. To bridge this gap, we examined the neural response of participants while witnessing threats to either a friend’s or a stranger’s social integrity. The results show consistent responses of the anterior insula (AI) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), shared circuits of the aversive quality of affect, as well as the medial prefrontal cortex and temporal pole, central structures of the mentalizing network. However, the ACC/AI network activation was increased during vicarious embarrassment in response to a friend’s failures. At the same time, the precuneus, a brain region associated with self-related thoughts, showed a specific activation and an increase in functional connectivity with the shared circuits in the frontal lobe while observing friends. This might indicate a neural systems mechanism for greater affective sharing and self-involvement while people interact with close others that are relevant to oneself.
When your friends make you cringe: social closeness modulates vicarious embarrassment-related neural activity. Müller-Pinzler L, Rademacher L, Paulus FM, Krach S. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2016 Mar;11(3):466-75. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsv130. Epub 2015 Oct 29.