Study links social anxiety to a lack of this one kind of empathy

You know exactly how this feels.

Originally Published: 
Psychology concept vector illustration. Mental health, depression, seasonal affected, sleep disorder...

We are all too familiar with the internal cringe. Someone you care about screws up, and you, mortified on their behalf, try not to make matters worse. Your face turns red, you can't stop staring, and your palms start to sweat.

These are the symptoms of second-hand embarrassment. For some, these moments are so uncomfortable as to merit a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder.

To understand why some people become overwhelmed by their embarrassment for others' debacles, a team of scientists in Japan sought answers from the brains of 23 Japanese people who suffer from taijin-kyofusho.

Inverse is counting down the 20 stories redefining 'human' from 2020. This is number 19. See the full list here.

Taijin-kyofusho is a subtype of social anxiety disorder thought to be common to East Asia. The term refers to people who exhibit an irrational hypersensitivity to the emotions of others. It’s basically a phobia of embarrassing or offending other people when they do something embarrassing.

Awkward moments — In a study published in October, researchers scanned the brains of 16 men and 7 women while they watched a video of a bad singer. The hapless crooner onscreen was either shown as none-the-wiser to their imperfect pitch, or was depicted as clearly wishing the ground would open and swallow them up. (If you've ever been forced into karaoke, you know exactly how this feels.)

“People with social anxiety may be... less accurate in recognizing emotion."

The brain activity of participants who displayed more traits of taijin-kyofusho was characterized by heightened affective empathy — an increased ability to relate to the feelings of others. At the same time, the researchers saw a drop in the subjects’ cognitive empathy — the capacity to understand another person’s emotions.

“Our brain and behavioral data suggest that people with social anxiety [taijin-kyofusho] may be characterized by not just only hypersensitive to other’s feelings, but also less accurate in recognizing emotion,” Shisei Tei, a researcher at Kyoto University and the lead author on the study, told Inverse at the time.

The results suggest people with taijin-kyofusho may have a tough time putting the emotions of those experiencing embarrassment into context — leading to irrational and over-the-top feelings of embarrassment. Tei described it as a “relatively reduced capacity in the flexible inference of other’s perspective”.

If the research were to be replicated with a larger and more diverse sample size, then the results could enable the development of new treatments for taijin-kyofusho and other forms of social anxiety.

Inverse is counting down the 20 stories which redefine what it means to be 'human' from 2020. This is number 19. Read the original story here.

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