8 Mar 2023PopsciHave we reached peak cringe?

Every cell in your body is curdling and screaming at you to look away – but your eyes remain glued to the screen in fascination and wonder. It’s cringe, it’s painful, and it’s everywhere on the internet. Dive into the science behind the cringe, and how it signposts a shift in Gen Z behaviours.

Rachel ChoiRachel Choi is a junior behavioural analyst at Canvas8. With a degree in archaeology and anthropology from Oxford University, she is always curious about diverse cultures and societies. Her interests revolve around stories that capture the nature of human experience, whether that be through writing, media, or material culture. Outside of work, she can be found attending exhibitions and live performances or rewatching her favourite (usually Ghibli) films.

While cringe in mainstream media can be traced back to the early 00s with the rise of ‘cringe comedy’ – think The Office, Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Miranda Sings – in 2023, cringe discourse has taken a turn and reached fever pitch.

Cringe is currently thriving and proliferating across pop culture: take Amelia Dimoldenberg’s Chicken Shop Dates, full of awkward lapses and disjointed transitions. Or the internet’s obsession with Julia Fox, who has become a Gen Z icon with her offbeat persona. And of course, the second coming of sleazeball Matt Healy as a heartthrob and sex symbol, this time on TikTok.

On the creator front, people are deliberately making and embracing content designed to instigate embarrassment and discomfort with countless videos captioned ‘ending the video when we cringe’.

So, what exactly makes us cringe?

The feeling of cringe is a personal, empathetic embodiment of embarrassment that someone else is experiencing – but it’s rooted in bodily survival instinct. “Cringing is essentially a mechanism to deter us from behaving in ways that risk us losing status or gaining the negative judgement of others,” says Dr. Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist and the author of Emotional Ignorance: Lost and found in the science of emotion.

As human beings, we have a finely tuned sense of social norms and are highly susceptible to pride, shame, or guilt depending on how we conduct ourselves according to societal expectations. Transgression results in a feeling of disgust and avoidance of the ‘threat’ that could result in social alienation (which, in our evolutionary history, usually ended in death).

And why is cringe surging in popularity?

Cringe content is entertaining precisely because it exploits that social awareness – allowing us to simulate social transgressions without their repercussions and having to experience them personally. In a 2018 research paper, Marc Hye-Knudsen writes that “audiences find benignly masochistic pleasure in such cringe-inducing media because they offer vicarious experiences with social worst-case scenarios.”

Gen Zers are highly cringe-aware, leading them to subvert social norms through ironic and earnest transgressions. However, at the crux of it all lies a deep-rooted desire for unfiltered realness. Gen Zers value authenticity and self-expression more than any other generation, with 92% saying that being true to oneself is important to them. It’s part of a wider cultural shift away from hyper-curated perfectionism and conformity towards content that feels fresh and real.

With unemployment, inflation, climate anxiety, and sociopolitical issues at an all-time high, Gen Z is the most stressed and anxious generation to date – meaning they’re seeking escapism and catharsis wherever they can find it.

Alongside the rise of ‘bad taste’, ‘bad beauty’, and ‘ironic fashion’, cringe content encapsulates the desire to be unapologetic, messy, and true to oneself, whether or not it meets societal standards. Brace yourselves as we enter the era of cringe – if we can’t avoid it, let's enjoy it.