The Science of Cringe

As a human on YouTube, I am vaguely aware of some of the YouTubers who are, unlike me, actually very popular on this platform. They show up in my feed sandwiched between true crime police interrogation videos and old men giving tips on improving my bean harvest, and sometimes I watch them, and sometimes I am surprised to find that I actually like them. One of the latter cases is MoistCr1TiKaL, aka Charlie, an affable and intelligent guy who comments on things that I would otherwise have never heard of. I’ve seen a number of his videos but have never felt called upon to respond until this very day, when I watched this video about how “Cringe is Unforgivable.”

In the video, his main thrust is that people seem to respond to “cringe” in a really over-the-top, angry way, especially compared to the way they react to people doing actual harmful things to other people. Cringe, meanwhile, hurts no one but causes us all to lose our collective minds. Charlie points out that this isn’t just an internet problem:

(9:16) “Howard Dean and the now infamous Dean Scream. Howard Dean was a very prominent political figure and in 2004 was a presidential candidate, and his entire world got fucking blasted when he was doing a rally and got a little too excited…and that one silly little screech ruined his entire presidential run just from a droplet of cringe.”

Charlie goes on to say that that means it may not be an “internet-specific phenomenon but a “human-specific thing where we’re just hard-wired to dislike cringe and always it against the person who made us feel the cringe, I don’t really know. I’m getting scientific about something that has no basis in science.”

In fact, there HAS been research done on cringe, so scientists in several fields have an idea on why we hate cringe, why we love cringe, and why we cringe at all.

But before I get into that, as an elder millennial, or as I prefer to think of myself, an infantile Gen-Xer, Charlie has repeated a common misconception about Howard Dean. His scream DID go viral, and in fact may have been the first political meme of the nascent internet era, and he was mocked viciously for it. It probably even contributed somewhat to his downfall. But it actually happened on the night that he lost the Iowa Caucus, where he had basically gone all-in and was considered the Democratic front-runner. He came in third, which meant that his presidential run was all but over. The campaign had been plagued with mistakes prior to the caucus, all while the establishment Dems did their best to smear Dean as an angry, unpredictable crazy man. You may recognize this play from the way establishment Democrats treated Bernie Sanders just a few years ago: they didn’t want a guy who talked about giving people healthcare, pulling out of forever wars, and empowering voters to create real change. They wanted John Kerry. So “the scream,” which wasn’t heard by the crowd at the Caucus but was picked up by media microphones, was a gift that helped put the final nail in Dean’s campaign coffin.

Interestingly, years later Dean would tell Five Thirty Eight that his team knew that he was being spun as too enthusiastic, but when he tried to tone things down and be boring and monotone and more like the establishment politicians he was up against, he couldn’t do it. He wasn’t being his true self, and so he just stopped trying. The passion and excitement and yes, the weird little happy yell, went against the establishment, against the way we expected a serious politician at the time to act, and so we saw it as “cringe.”

And that’s just one of several acceptable descriptions for something that makes us cringe: seeing someone violate social norms can cause us to cringe, but why? For decades now, psychologists have explored this question of embarrassment and shame and why we might feel these emotions when we aren’t even involved in a situation. The hypothesis is that these emotions are much more complicated than “basic” emotions like happiness or anger, because they’re actually social emotions. Humans are extremely social animals, and so we have a set of emotions we seem to have evolved to keep our pack happy. These emotions rely upon our possibly unique ability to be empathetic–to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and imagine how we would feel if we were experiencing the same emotions or even physical experiences as them.

For that reason, cringe is a really fascinating area of study, because you cannot cringe unless you have an automatic empathetic response to what you’re seeing, meaning that you are immediately and without thinking about it putting yourself in another’s place. And while we often think of empathy as being the opposite of this, that means that cringe is also very ego-centric. You aren’t cringing because another person has embarrassed themselves; you’re cringing because YOU are embarrassed to be in the same position as them. And in many “cringe” situations, it becomes even more ego-centric than empathetic, as in a case where you see someone who unknowingly has spinach in their teeth. THEY aren’t feeling any embarrassment because they have no idea about the spinach, but YOU are experiencing tons of embarrassment–not for them, but for YOU.

What I’ve noticed again and again in the literature on this topic is best summed up in this abstract of a study that observed groups of women watching each other do something embarrassing: “Empathic embarrassment for others was clearly subjective, depending more on who was watching than on who was being watched.”

The psychologist Philippe Rochat suggests that our automatic response to cringe is either contempt or compassion, and that which one you feel is entirely dependent upon you, the cringer, and not the person at whom you are cringing. And what exactly does it say about you if your immediate, gut reaction to seeing something “cringey” is to feel contempt? Well, it means you’re insecure in your society.

A person who feels safe and secure in their position in society will either not find the supposed embarrassing act cringey at all, or else they will respond with compassion in an attempt to help and correct that person so that they don’t lose status. Consider Billy Madison, the titular character played by Adam Sandler who has to go back to elementary school as an adult. When one of his new little kid friends has an accident and pees himself on a class trip, instead of showing contempt and mockery, Billy is secure enough to instead feel compassion and make peeing your pants socially acceptable.

All of which brings me back to Charlie’s original question: why does “cringe” seem to bring out the worst in many people? Why can’t we just let embarrassing people be embarrassing? Because people are insecure, and, desperate to show that THEY would NEVER behave in such a status-losing way, they log on to TikTok or Reddit or wherever to tell the embarrassing person to “unalive” themselves.

And it sucks because not only are the targets of this abuse worse off for it, but society is worse off for it, as well. Yes, in general there are social norms that we want to hold up. Feel free to feel cringe-induced contempt for the Ricky Gervais’s of the world who punch down with terrible jokes. And I don’t just mean his character on the Office, I mean Ricky Gervais in general. But there are loads of social norms that need some shaking up–things like gender norms or just being an excited little nerd about something. Charlie mentions that he doesn’t think Howard Dean’s scream would be considered cringey today and I think he’s right, and I think the reason for that is in part because Dean helped change social norms so that we are more forgiving about who we consider a serious politician. Though, um, I guess you can also see how that might be a bad thing.

But anyway, the take home here is this: the way you respond to cringe tells us more about you than it does about the person creating the cringe. Keep that in mind the next time you want to attack someone for being weird.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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