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Individuals with autism spectrum disorder are unable to process embarrassment efficiently on a neural systems level. This is one of the key findings of PhD research conducted by Laura Müller-Pinzler.

Lincolnblues Flickr CC

Her studies could open the way for a better understanding of the etiology of the psychological disorders associated with social behaviour, such as autism spectrum disorder and social anxiety disorder. Müller-Pinzler will receive her doctorate from the University of Amsterdam on Thursday, 17 March.

A social emotion

Embarrassment is a social emotion arising during the interaction with our surrounding social world. We experience it in various situations in our daily lives and it has a regulative function, telling us how to perform according to prevalent norms and moral values. One of its most common forms is vicarious embarrassment, which relates to the embarrassment one feels when someone else knowingly or unknowingly does something awkward.

Neural systems

For her dissertation, Müller-Pinzler investigated how embarrassment and its vicarious form are processed on a neural systems level. This involved developing and implementing social paradigms that focus on the belief that embarrassment and vicarious embarrassment are both social phenomena. To gain insight into the physiological and neural processes underlying both phenomena, she assessed brain imaging, pupil size, eye-gaze behaviour, and somatovisceral measures, using multimodal approaches. She also used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to infer brain activation among participants.

Vicarious embarrassment and social cues

Her results show the involvement of two neural networks during embarrassment and its vicarious form. ‘What we discovered was that social closeness affected the processing of vicarious embarrassment and increased the interoceptive sharing of others’ embarrassment’, says Müller-Pinzler. ‘However, individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder showed deficiencies in neural processing of vicarious embarrassment. Moreover, increased levels of the trait social anxiety were associated with increased activations of the mentalizing network, thereby corroborating the assumption of heightened attention to social cues and negative thoughts about others’ evaluations in social anxiety disorder.’

Clinical implications

Müller-Pinzler believes her study might have broader clinical implications for the understanding of autism spectrum and social anxiety disorders. ‘By highlighting the physiological basis of embarrassment and the neural networks involved in this process, it might be possible to create social paradigms, including more complex situations, that could help better characterise the difficulties associated with autism spectrum during situations involving social interaction.’


Laura Müller-Pinzler, The Social Emotion of Embarrassment: Modulation of Neural Circuits in Response to Own and Others’ Social Predicaments. Supervisors: Prof. C. Keysers and Prof. S. Krach. Co-supervisors: Dr V. Gazzola and Dr F.M. Paulus.

Time and location

The PhD defence will take place on Thursday, 17 March at 10:00. Location: Agnietenkapel, Oudezijds Voorburgwal 229-231, Amsterdam.