I would understand if it was your friend or someone you liked going through something embarrassing – you would naturally empathize with them. However, people get secondhand embarrassment from strangers and even people they don’t really like. What evolutionary advantage could this possibly serve?
“This capacity likely evolved because it served our ancestors’ survival in two ways. First, like every mammal, we need to be sensitive to the needs of our offspring. Second, our species depends on cooperation, which means that we do better if we are surrounded by healthy, capable group mates. Taking care of them is just a matter of enlightened self-interest.”
Well, empathy helps people bond with one another. You’re probably more likely to befriend someone who shares your pains than you are with someone who is quick to say “I don’t get it”.
If firsthand embarrassment can help someone learn social etiquette, I would expect secondhand embarrassment to do the same thing. If you feel embarrassed for your sibling when he gets in trouble, then you’ll be diligent about not getting in trouble yourself.
But it doesn’t have to be adaptive. It could just be an unfortunate side-effect of being an emphathic person.
I experience it when I see a little bit of myself in the one causing the embarassment.
It doesn’t even stop at strangers. I’ve experienced that feeling even watching television. Especially Steve Carrells character in “The Office”, Michael Scott.
An old thread about whether fictional embarrassment is more disturbing than fictional horror.
I can understand why empathy about physical pain or hunger or the like is a good thing. But how on earth does that translate into empathy about embarrassment? Does embarrassment itself serve some evolutionarily advantageous function?
Yes (probably). The social hierarchy may have been more important to our ancestors than now. Because for one thing being cast out of the group could have been a virtual death sentence. So fucking up in some way is something that (probably) evolved to hurt so consciously we make every effort not to repeat such mistakes.
As for the OP, “mirror neurons” and empathy in general is useful for a number of reasons. But feeling someone else’s embarrassment may just be a side-effect of that useful functionality.
A general-purpose sense of empathy is probably easier to explain than a collection of specific ones.