Cringe humor combines the seemingly opposite emotional experiences of amusement and embarrassment due to others’ transgressions of norms. Psychological theories and empirical studies on these emotional reactions in response to others’ transgressions of social norms have mostly focused on embarrassment and shame. Here, we build on this literature, aiming to present a novel perspective on cringe humor. To do so, we introduce the psychological literature on embarrassment and shame, as well as the processes involved that allow humans to also experience these emotions on behalf of others, and draw theoretical links to cringe comedy. We then systematically disentangle contexts in which audiences experience vicarious embarrassment, and structure our argument based on the ongoing processes and consequences of the observed transgressions of norms based on the constituting dimensions of awareness
of the normative transgression by the social target. We describe how the behavioral expressions of the target along with the social distance and the current motivations of the audience shape the emotional experience and negotiation of social norms, specifically in response to intentional normative transgressions. While this perspective makes it evident that cringe humor is closely linked to the debate around social normative standards between the actor/actress and the audience, we conclude that the different manifestations and specific situational characteristics have fundamentally different consequences for the affirmation or renegotiation of social normative standards.
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