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The One Emotion That Really Hurts Your Brain

New research reveals the fearsome impact of humiliation.

Key points

  • Humiliation is the emotion one feels when their status is lowered in front of others.
  • After humiliation, the degree to which one's brain is activated is more pronounced than with other emotion-inducing conditions.
  • Because humiliation is an emotion that follows from feeling a loss of status, it may help to reframe situations to de-emphasize the status piece.

Being told you’re wrong when you're wrong may make you a more knowledgeable person, but not necessarily a happier one. Even if you’re not the kind of person who needs to have the last word in a debate, you may still feel a sting when someone else points out your errors. The pain can be particularly sharp if you’ve got an audience—reminding you perhaps of stumbling over a new word while reading aloud to your fellow third graders, being shown to be incorrect when others are in earshot can make you feel embarrassed and humiliated.

Johan Larson/Shutterstock
Source: Johan Larson/Shutterstock

Even some of our closest friends and loved ones can be brutal and insensitive when faced with our errors. They gleefully point out your mistake in pronouncing a difficult word (bringing back those childhood memories) or shout, “I told you so!” to anyone within earshot. Depending on the thickness of your skin, you may dismiss the entire episode, but it's more likely you'll retreat sulkily into the corner, wishing you could just disappear altogether. Culture also plays a role in determining people’s responses to humiliation: In some societies, saving face is valued above all else, and to be proven wrong constitutes a significant violation.

Being told you’re wrong doesn’t have to involve humiliation. Your kinder and gentler friends and family will point out a mistake tactfully, perhaps in a private moment when no one else is nearby. If you’ve put the forks on the right instead of the left of the plate while setting the table, a genteel older relative may take you aside and correct you quietly, or may just make the swap for you when you’re out of the room. If the mistake is one that could create problems for you down the road, this person might instruct you in the right way to handle the situation to prevent you from subsequent embarrassment.

So being corrected doesn’t always have to mean you’re humiliated. However, if you’re being corrected in a way that causes you to feel shame, it’s unlikely that you’ll feel that good about yourself, regardless of your cultural background. Taken to the extreme, instilling humiliation in a victim is a basic tactic of torturers, prison guards, and certain kinds of domestic abusers. Even in the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, when the “guards” were ordinary college students, humiliation became a part of the drill. Similarly, from the playground to the workplace, bullies seem to revel in the opportunity to humiliate targets, particularly when there’s an audience to impress.

Humiliation is defined as the emotion you feel when your status is lowered in front of others. You may feel annoyed with yourself when you make a mistake or fail to know an answer, but unless others are around to witness it, that’s all you’ll feel. You generally need someone else on hand in order to feel humiliated by mistakes.

As you may recognize from your own experience, then, humiliation is a highly negative emotional state. Surprisingly, it’s one that is studied relatively infrequently in the field of psychology. Other negative emotions—anger, anxiety, jealousy, and fear—are more likely to be the subject of lab investigations, perhaps because addressing them has such obvious practical implications: Anger is bad for your health; anxiety can impair your performance; jealousy can lead to relationship conflict; fear can set the stage for developing a phobia. Humiliation is unpleasant, but at least on the surface, may not seem to have as many consequences.

However, given the central role of humiliation in victimization, it seems worthwhile to investigate its potential effects.

Psychologists Marte Otten and Kai Jonas of the University of Amsterdam decided to peer into the brains of participants while they were exposed to various emotion-inducing scenarios. They compared the electroencephalograms (EEGs) of participants who were led to feel angry, happy, or humiliated. The humiliation scenario took the following form: "You see your internet date at the arranged location. Your date takes one look at you, turns around, and quickly walks away." I think we can all agree that this scenario is one that could make you feel humiliated.

Otten and Jonas were able to measure their participants' responses in terms of whether their brains registered a negative affect and how intense this affect was. Comparing the three conditions, they concluded that the participants' responses to humiliation were both more negative than to anger, and more intense than to happiness.

From this pioneering study, we can see that your brain doesn’t like being humiliated. You not only feel bad, but the degree to which your brain is activated is more pronounced than with other emotion-inducing conditions.

It’s perhaps expected that being brought down in status in front of others will cause you to feel badly. But if you’re the one causing the humiliation, you’re exacting far more hurt than you may realize. If that's the goal you’re hoping to achieve, your method is working. However, if you think you’re “helping” friends or family members by pointing out their mistakes or in some other way bringing them down a notch, you’re probably wrong. There are kinder and gentler ways to impart corrective messages to those we care about, want to teach, or otherwise want to help. Making sure your criticism or teaching is presented in a way that preserves the other person’s self-respect is the most basic way to avoid causing humiliation.

Turning the tables, how can you manage your own feelings of humiliation when someone else proves you wrong? Elsewhere, I’ve discussed how to handle criticism. Dealing with humiliation is similar, but because it is an emotional state, it is particularly important for you to manage your negative feelings.

As with all emotions, handling humiliation depends on how you construe the situation. According to cognitive theories of emotion, the way you feel is a direct function of the way you think. Hamlet said it best: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” If your skin isn’t that thick, and you hate being shown wrong in front of others, you might benefit from taking a look at the thoughts you feel while in the situation. If humiliation is an emotion that follows from feeling a loss of status, perhaps you should redefine the situation to de-emphasize the status piece of the equation.

It’s possible that a friend, loved one, or teacher just wants to help prevent you from making the same mistake again, and so the slight in status is only an imagined one. Redefining the situation to deemphasize the loss of status will ease the pain considerably. However, even if the other person or people have more ominous motives, you can still benefit. By not allowing yourself to feel a loss of dignity, self-respect, or position, you’ll be detracting from their pleasure in watching you squirm. It’s possible that, like the learning process of extinction, their aversive behaviors will eventually diminish.

In either case, if you feel justifiably aggrieved, there are ways you can seek recourse: If it's an innocent misunderstanding between friends, take a page from the kinder-and-gentler playbook and speak to the person privately, with just the two of you present. If your rights are truly being violated, though, you may need to take the problem to others who can help rectify the situation.

Humiliation comes in a variety of forms, from being rejected to being publicly shamed for a mistake you made. By understanding its connection to your brain's reactions, you can better cope with, and perhaps avoid this negative emotion's intense pain.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014.


Otten, M., & Jonas, K. J. (2014). Humiliation as an intense emotional experience: Evidence from the electro-encephalogram. Social Neuroscience, 9(1), 23-35. doi:10.1080/17470919.2013.855660

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