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Has a hypersensitivity to depictions of embarrassing situations in media been described in the psychology literature?

How would I go about researching this?

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If you have access to online databases via a university or public library, I would recommend searching for scholarly articles using keywords such as “embarrassment” and “media.” Using my university’s library website I was able to search two major psychology databases, Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection and PsycARTICLES. First I searched using the term “embarrassment” by itself, which produced the largest and broadest set of hits. Then I tried combinations of “embarrasement” plus other keywords, including “media,” “art,” “film,” “television,” and “sensitivity.”

While I did not find any articles specifically pertaining to hypersensitive reactions to embarrassing situations in media, I did find some that seem tangentially related, and which may be of interest. The lack of results also points to a need for scholarship in this area, if you are looking for something to research!

My search yielded multiple articles about the feeling of embarrassment itself. One that seemed promising is "The Unwanted Exposure of the Self: A Phenomenological Study of Embarrassment” by Robbins and Parlavecchio. From the abstract:

Through a synthesis of prior theory and empirical research, these authors propose a model of embarrassment in which embarrassment is understood to signify the core, essential theme of a self that has been exposed to unwanted attention. Through an empirical, phenomenological method of analysis of data from 6 undergraduate college students, the authors identify 8 themes of embarrassment and relate them through a structural description of the phenomenon. The findings support the unwanted exposure model of embarrassment. (Robbins and Parlavecchio 2006)

This article may offer a useful framework for understanding of how embarrassment is viewed in psychology.

Only one article I found made mention of embarrassment in media, and it was Tom Ballingall’s book review of Documentary's Awkward Turn: Cringe Comedy and Media Spectatorship by Jason Middleton. In this review, Ballingall writes that the book examines the evolution of “cringe comedy” and mockumentary, and the various dimensions of spectatorship the genre engenders. He states:

“When individuals sense and feel the rules of social life and/or documentary filmmaking breaking down (i.e., when awkwardness emerges), they are confronted with nothing less than the constructedness of documentary's criteria for truth and authenticity.” (2015)

Middleton's book may be a good place to start.

Sources: Ballingall, Tim. "Documentary's Awkward Turn: Cringe Comedy and Media Spectatorship." Journal of Popular Culture 48, no. 1 (February 2015): 209-211. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed December 5, 2016)

Robbins, Brent Dean, and Holly Parlavecchio. 2006. "The Unwanted Exposure of the Self: A Phenomenological Study of Embarrassment." Humanistic Psychologist 34, no. 4: 321-345. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed December 5, 2016)

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for this incredibly well researched and thoughtful answer. I'm going to try and get my hands on the sources you mention above and start there. $\endgroup$
    – Keith
    Dec 16 '16 at 20:54

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