The Role of Witnesses in Humiliation
If we look at the consequences of humiliation—depression, school shootings, suicide, genocide, terrorism—there is no doubt that humiliation deserves attention from researchers. However, humiliation, as an emotion, has been very much neglected. What exactly does humiliation feel like?
Our research group (IPSADEYO) tries to answer questions such as:
- What differentiates the distinct emotional experience of humiliation from other emotions, such as shame or anger?
- Why do certain contextual clues, like publicity or the perpetrator's power vis-à-vis the victim, facilitate humiliation?
- What are the thoughts that a person most intensely experiences when feeling humiliated?
Humiliation is considered a self-conscious emotion, where the way people see themselves stands at the very center of the emotional experience, either because the self is at stake, like in shame, guilt, or embarrassment, or because the self is particularly highlighted, like in pride. Self-conscious emotions imply therefore a quite elevated degree of thinking: humans feel these emotions because they have a high degree of self-consciousness and because they make sophisticated judgments about how a particular situation affects the self-concept—both in terms of how one sees oneself and how others see the self.
Furthermore, the thoughts that underlie self-conscious emotions are often related to morality, which contributes to the complexity of these emotions. Among the self-conscious emotions, humiliation is a particularly complex one because two contradictory, almost paradoxical, appraisals converge on it: first, to feel humiliated a person needs to feel somehow devalued, demeaned, or unworthy. In this regard, humiliation relates to shame, as internalizing a devalued self-view is a key part of the emotional experience of shame. However, a second key judgment underlying humiliation differentiates this emotion from shame, namely: unfairness. Unlike shame, humiliation requires the belief that the devaluation is unfair or undeserved, relating humiliation to anger.
The question then arises: How is it possible that a person internalizes a devalued self-view if they perceive that this devaluation is unfair? Why don't they simply reject the unfair devaluation, feeling mostly angry and not humiliated?
We propose that the answer lies in the contextual factors that force the victim to internalize an unfair devaluation of the self. In other words, in order to experience humiliation, the victim must be trapped in an oppressive context that facilitates the paradoxical outcome of internalizing an unfair devaluation of the self.
The Audience Factor
One of the oppressing contextual factors is the presence of an audience who witnesses how the victim is being devalued by someone else. This would be so because being devalued in public exposes a person in a negative way, increasing the threat for the self that the devaluation implies, and making it more likely that the devaluation is internalized. Furthermore, being devalued in public is often experienced by the victim as particularly unfair, which contributes also to the emotional experience of humiliation.
The publicity factor is only one of many contextual variables that may lead to humiliation. In our research, we have also found that the high status of the perpetrator contributes to humiliation by facilitating internalization. The hostility of the perpetrator is another important contextual factor that facilitates humiliation, mainly because it triggers the unfairness appraisal, although, in recent research, we are also finding that hostility (or more precisely evilness) may contribute decisively to humiliation via internalization too.
Understanding the factors that can lead to humiliation can help protect potential victims from experiencing this particularly aversive emotional state and help them recover from it, when they have suffered it.
For Further Reading
Fernández, S., Gaviria, E., Halperin, E., Agudo, R., González-Puerto, J. A., Chas-Villar, A., & Saguy, T. (2022). The protective effect of agency on victims of humiliation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 102, 1–11. https://doi-org/10.1016/j.jesp.2022.104375
Fernández, S., Saguy, T., & Halperin, E. (2015). The paradox of humiliation: The acceptance of an unjust devaluation of the self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41, 976–988. https://doi-org/10.1177/0146167215586195
Tracy, J. L., Robins, R. W., & Tangney, J. P (2007). The self-conscious emotions: Theory and research (J. L. Tracy, R. W. Robins, & J. P. Tangney (Eds.)). The Guilford Press.
Saulo Fernández is an Associated Professor in the Social Psychology Department at the UNED University in Madrid, Spain. His research focuses on humiliation and evilness from the victim's perspective and on the role of morality on conflictual intergroup relations.