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Humor and Humiliation

What we can learn from Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars.

Key points

  • Because humans are social animals, a threat to our place in the group could feel like a threat to our very survival.
  • Humor that humiliates is likely to escalate conflict, but done in a specific way can help to transform perspectives positively.
  • Different people interpret humor differently, and those interpretations contribute to conflicts.

Neuroscientists who study aggression list insults as among the common causes of sometimes sudden and surprising acts of violence, like when Will Smith went on stage at the Oscars to slap Chris Rock. Smith said in a later apology, “A joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear, and I reacted emotionally.”

Psychologists studying morality and violence have argued that “cultures of honor” are ones in which, in particular, men feel the need to defend their reputations and those of their families through violent retribution against people who belittle them. When an individual (or even a whole country) feels that they’ve lost their dignity and been victimized, this often leads to seeking revenge.

But why would someone take the dangerous risk of getting in a physical fight over something as apparently meaningless as a bad joke (even one in poor taste)?

Research in this area highlights how insults are threats to one’s standing within a social group. Because humans are social animals, we rely on each other for survival. So a threat to your place in the group could feel like a threat to your very survival. This may be why experiments seem to show that we’re evolved to experience the social pain of insults in much the same way that we experience being physically hit.

Conflict experts have long pointed to the role of humiliation in driving violent conflicts, so much so that an international consortium works on this issue, and there’s even an academic Journal of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies.

“Humiliation is the most potent way of alienating anyone,” explained Karen Ridd and Michael Nagler, two professors of conflict studies. They point out that humor can powerfully bring people together and, in that way, it can help transform conflicts. But it can also be a major driver of conflict.

The difference is in how humor is used and received. What research explains, then, is that if you want to have a positive influence on someone’s behavior and transform a conflict with them, don’t humiliate them. Instead, said Ridd and Nagler, “Whether we ourselves or others are the target, the key is to poke fun at the behavior or the attitudes that are causing the problems, not at the person.” Done in the right way, this kind of humor doesn't escalate the conflict by attacking or humiliating anyone. It lightens the mood by broadening perspectives, so people see the situation in a new light.

Another feature highlighted by the incident at the Oscars is the power of interpretation. Humor, in particular, can land in different ways for different people. One study even found that people who hold opposing political views can watch the same satire show and interpret the jokes as supporting their views!

After delivering the joke, Rock said, “That was a nice one,” apparently interpreting the joke as mild and not intended to humiliate. Clearly, Smith interpreted it very differently. Actress Tiffany Haddish later told reporters her interpretation—that jokes about GI Jane are a way to insult a woman’s sexuality and physique.

Rock did not indicate that he was thinking at all, but that’s what Haddish got from the joke. Many other people took to social media to offer their interpretations. Interpretation and its role in driving messy conflicts is so fascinating and important that I’ve written on it previously.

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