Saturday, September 4, 2010


Have you ever been watching tv and a scene comes on that is just too socially awkward to watch and you changed the channel? I do it all the time. If it's a never-before-seen scene, I obviously catch some of it, but if it's something old, I do a preemptive channel change. It actually hurts to see these people/characters as they navigate their social minefield. And as an observer, someone removed from the situation, someone who has personal control over my part in that situation, I often choose, when possible, to briefly remove myself. There's apparently good reason for this.

This research isn't brand new, but there's been a bunch of support to the idea that social pain is very much related to physical pain. At the most basic level, there's research to support that mammalian brains have similar, overlapping neural circuitry for social and physical pain (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2004). Acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol), when taken daily, can even mute social pain, just as it does physical pain  (Dewall et al., 2010).

Obviously not an exhaustive review, this work illuminates why we often describe social pain with physical characteristics (e.g., broken heart). And though most of the research, to my knowledge, involves the pain-experiencer, it doesn't take much effort to extrapolate this to pain-observers. Just as I may wince when I see a football player's compound fracture (especially when they insist on 23049.3replays), I'm going to have a similar visceral (neural, physical) reaction to extreme social pain.

Any personal experiences with this? TV or otherwise?

[This all came to mind while watching the first half of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That movie is the poster child for social awkwardness. It was also reinforced while just watching the trial scene in Legally Blonde. Shut up. Don't judge.]


  1. Wow, you sound just like a psychologist--big words and everything. And some profound comments. I evince this reaction less towards pain-filled moments and more towards injustice that occurs in whatever I'm watching. Does that count? This is the kind of thing, for instance, in the movie FLASH OF GENIUS where the guy who invented intermittent wipers is screwed over by the auto industry. Sensations of frustration and tension physically manifest themselves, even though my brain tells me all will be well and that he'll win in the end. But viewing his agony as he fights for his rights nevertheless impact me in reality. I want to see him wreak havoc on his persecutors. Is this what you're talking about? However, I do not get this response from LEGALLY BLONDE!!

  2. YES. Yes I do. I can't watch people feel awkward and uncomfortable, especially in movies that are supposed to be funny but aren't. Best example I can remember is 'Meet the Parents' with Ben Stiller. Everyone was cracking up in the theater, and I couldn't wait to leave.*shudder*

  3. I'll turn the channel when a tv show is showing something socially uncomfortable. geez, i thought i was the only person who did that.