Humiliation Is the Most Intense Emotion?

Brain outlined in neon
Image by dierk schaefer (CC BY 2.0)

Did you know that Humiliation Studies is a thing? I didn’t!

Sadly, these researchers have no interest in helping us to scene better. They’re in it because they consider humiliation to be at the heart of all kinds of social turmoil and global conflict.

The underlying assumption, of course, is that humiliation is a particularly intense emotion. And a couple of scientists decided to test this question empirically using an EEG!

Participants read short one or two sentence stories describing an emotionally laden event. The content of each story was either humiliating (“You see your internet-date at the arranged location. Your date takes one look at you, turns around and quickly walks away.”), angering (“Your roommate has organized a party while you were away for the weekend. When you return the apartment is a mess, and all your wine glasses are broken.”), or happy (“You find out that the person that you have had a crush on for a while likes you too.”).

The findings were that humiliation is indeed more intense than happiness or anger (Experiment 1 above) or shame (Experiment 2). At least, according to the wires gummed to the participants’ heads.

As always with academic research, there were a bunch of caveats. In this case, I am convinced. (Though the editors need help with hyphens and angar.)

But I’m struck by their definition of emotional intensity as amount of brain activity. It reminds me of another academic finding from the delightfully titled book The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, that negative emotions use up more cognitive capacity than positive emotions. Maybe you’ve noticed how difficult it is to remember what events led up to particularly bad fights? And it makes sense! Negative emotions must be the brain’s way of telling you it doesn’t like to work hard.

It also reminds me of something I have said before, that masochism is about the liberating experience of losing your ability to think. And it sounds like humiliation does that particularly well, by driving everything else out of your head. No wonder I’m an emotional masochist.

I’m intrigued that humiliation is more powerful than shame. Excuse me, Otten and Jonas would probably prefer me to say that it “evokes more longlasting cortical activation”. I wonder if that could be culturally specific? But it does explain something. If humiliation trumps shame, then no wonder punishment is effective in washing away guilt.

Thanks to the wonderful Augusta Columbine for alerting me to this research via the Wired report!


6 thoughts on “Humiliation Is the Most Intense Emotion?”

  1. Interesting report. I always wonder how they calibrate the stimuli for these types of research though. For instance, the three scenarios given would not, for me, elicit the emotions assigned to them. The first one would provoke resignation and disappointment, maybe confusion, but not humiliation (there’s a relationship with my depression, incidentally); the second would provoke frustration and sadness, but the closest to anger would be “exasperation” (which might all come across as “passive-aggressive”). The third would provoke excitement, nervousness and hope but not “happiness” (except inasmuch as hope is a happy state, I suppose). Happiness would wait until we discovered a bit more in common!

    1. It’s always good to hear from you! What you say makes sense, but that’s more about what labels to apply to the three scenarios. It sounds like they do still elicit different emotions from you?

      The researchers mention that they consider publicity and loss of social status to be essential components of humiliation. I’m curious if that would be part of your reaction to the ‘humiliation’ scenario. If so, maybe your ego is just sensible enough not to react the way others might.

      My first concern was that the stories might not be controlled for emotional intensity. So I was happy that the researchers checked that by asking people for ratings afterwards.

      1. I was trying to think through what my distinction between “shame” and “humiliation” was, and couldn’t find one that correctly sorted the scenarios I could think of for each (as you might guess, I’m also not convinced by the researchers’ definition of “publicity and loss of social status”!) But I think the scenario as described, of an instant rejection by an internet date, didn’t seem “public”, and also didn’t involve “social status”. No one else knows why either of you are there, so neither “public” nor “status” can be affected.

        I tried to think of a scenario to make me feel humiliation, based on the “internet date” theme, and the best I could come up with was arriving and approaching the wrong person by mistake. That still didn’t have the “public” “loss of social status” (you’d need the wrong person to then make it very obvious to everyone else what had just happened – and even then, I would be more affected by my initial mistake than by the public announcement of it).

        “Your ego is sensible” – not quite! My reaction to the story has more to do with my history of depression. My “depression voice” still says things like, “you will never have anything good”, “no one really wants you”, “don’t expect any return on your time and effort” – so an internet date turning up and immediately leaving just seems like, “Oh well, I suppose that was the most likely outcome.” (And in the “happy” scenario the “depression voice” is telling me to expect nothing good, reminding me of all the times it hasn’t worked out.) It sounds bleak, but I’m a pretty positive person, a twisted form of “expect the worst, believe in the best”. And good things do actually happen to me from time to time.

        As for “elicit different emotions”, I think there are overlapping themes: both “humiliation” and “anger” involve a sense of “picking up the pieces” (literally in “anger”, figuratively in “humiliation”); “happy” and “anger” share a sense of looking to the future (one cautiously, the other assessing what repairs/tidying are needed); “happy” and “humiliation” are both strongly affected by the “depression voice” expecting the worst (again, one cautious, the other resigned).

        1. I am sorry about the depression voice. I knew it was there, I just think it is also sensible in this respect. I am beginning to think humiliation is a fairly complex emotion, combining anger and shame (or something in that neighbourhood). So I would hazard a guess that depression can stop people from having enough ego to feel they have the right to be angry?

          Thinking about humiliation play in BDSM, I guess publicity is not the best word, because you don’t need an audience, you only need one other person there. But it’s certainly not an emotion I can feel without external help, unlike shame, which is what I think they were trying to get at.

          You have also made me wonder if humiliation is a word that we use for more than one thing. Maybe it doesn’t just subjectively refer to an emotional reaction, but also objectively to the kind of situation that makes most people feel that way (but not all)?

What do you think?