The Science of Cringe // Maria Peters

As a child, Maria Peters went to school early every day to conduct a secret science project (investigating the effects of shampoo on hair strength). But she stopped when she could no longer keep it a secret from her friends, fearing social rejection. This is just one of many personal 'cringe-cidents' revealed during the course of her show, which uses comedy and science to explain what cringe is, why we feel it, and whether sharing the most cringeworthy experiences of her life will help her control her fear of rejection.

The audience, too, is invited to share, albeit anonymously. Everyone has the chance to write down an embarrassing memory that Peters will later use as the basis for an improvised reenactment or song. We get to cringe for each person's remembered experience as well as for them having it replayed in front of all of us. How much we cringe or laugh depends on our level of empathy - people's capacity to feel each other's emotions, including social and emotional pain, is a strong part of human culture. Cringe, it seems, helps bind us together and exclude anyone who doesn't quite fit. Peters pulls in arguments from neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to support this idea.

Research into modern-day emotions can be complicated and sophisticated, but can it help us cope when excessive cringe interferes with our lives? 'Shame attacks' form part of some types of behavioural therapy designed to ease social anxiety. Participants are tasked with going out and committing small acts of social disorder (loudly calling out every floor in a crowded lift, for example) in order to learn that cringing is not the end of the world. Peters seems to be trying something similar with this show, and her conclusion is that while cringe may sometimes save us from social embarrassment, it also sometimes stops us being who we truly are. Her suggestion is to embrace the cringe, and when everyone in the audience joins her in a most cringeworthy dance at the end of the show, it is hard to argue.

- Michael Regnier 


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

The Science of Cringe

Reputation is the Modern Purgatory - The History of Emotions Blog (2012)

The Centre for the History of Emotions - Queen Mary, University of London

Cells That Read MindsNew York Times

Evolutionary Psychology - Science Daily

Shame Attacks - The Albert Ellis Institute