British and German scientists have found out why some TV programmes are almost too painful to watch.
They showed that the part of the brain that we use to process pain also lights up when we cringe at other people's actions, reports the Daily Mail.
The intriguing finding comes from scientists who began by asking a group of students how they would feel in a series of embarrassing situations - and whether they thought the person involved would be unsettled by the experience.
The hypothetical scenarios ranged from making a mess of a speech to walking around with an open zip and wearing a t-shirt with a sexual slogan.
The volunteers said they would feel the most "vicarious embarrassment" when the person realised they were making a fool of themselves. But they would still feel embarrassed for people who were completely unaware of the impression they were making.
The researchers showed a group of men and women sketches of situations, while scanning their brains.
Watching other people's embarrassing mishaps triggered the brain regions more usually associated with processing physical pain.
These areas - the anterior cingulate cortex and the left anterior insula - even lit up when watching someone who was unaware they had made a faux pas.
The researchers said it appears we are feeling their "social pain" for them - or empathising with their misfortune.
The study has been published in the journal PLoS ONE.