Michael Scott makes me cringe.
I've also been known to hide my face, squirm or even yell "No, no -- stop. What are you doing? Argh! " at the screen during episodes of The Office -- he's just so awkward. The same is true for other klutzy, but lovable characters on television -- Liz Lemon on 30 Rock. Rachel Berry on Glee. Then ten seconds later, I laugh.
Apparently, there's a science behind this cringe and laugh cycle and researchers are just beginning to study it.
Researchers made people watch other people make fools of themselves and recorded their brain activity. They discovered that the incidents trigger a part of the brain that processes pain, resulting in vicarious embarrassment.
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From the article:
The appeal of observing others' plights exploited via television or internet seems to be present regardless of whether the person in focus realizes the mishap (e.g., tripping, as "America's Next Top Model") or not (e.g., singing with a bad voice, as a German "Superstar"). Although the effect of laughing about others' misfortunes has always been picked up in theater plays and comedy movies (e.g., early slapstick comedians such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Laurel & Hardy exactly utilized this type of humor), today's media increasingly focuses on these everyday situations not only to laugh about but to feel with and for others to the entertainment of millions of spectators.
TV shows exploit this empathy to get viewers emotionally invested in a TV show. So what's the key to keeping The Office afloat after Steve Carell makes his exit? Creating a character with little hand-eye coordination and a good catch phrase (That's what she said.)