humiliated cat


If you look back, you’ll find that some of your most treasured memories are linked to powerful emotions, be them positive or negative. Somehow, it may seem that negative emotions linger longer in our lives, long after the event that triggered them passed. Now, research has garnered tantalizing proof that suggests the most intense of human emotions is humiliation.

The rainbow of feelings

Love, hate, happiness, anger, dismay, relief. Our whole lives are influenced and governed by a whole spectrum of emotions – it’s what makes us human after all. Gift and curse, feelings make life worth living, even though at times they can cause terrible pain that makes you wish you were never born. Such is life, yet some feelings are more intense than other. Is there a master emotion dominating all the rest by magnitude or is everything kept in a delicate balance of negative and positive, action and reaction, ying and yang? If there were such a thing, the feeling of being humiliated might take the emotional crown.

Marte Otten and Kai Jonas, both psychologists, decided to investigate some claims that humiliation is a particularly intense, even unique, human emotion with great personal and social consequences. Some humiliating scenes can haunt people all their lives and leave dents in personalities that are had to mend. In extreme cases, humiliation may be responsible for war and strife. Otten and Jonas knew, like most of us, that humiliation is intense, but their efforts led them to turn this view into an objective analysis.

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Dissecting humiliation

The researchers performed two separate studies. In the first one, they asked participants, both male and female, to read short stories involving different emotions, and had to imagine how they’d feel in the described scenarios. The first study compared humiliation (e.g. your internet date takes one look at you and walks out), anger (e.g. your roommate has a party and wrecks the room while you’re away) and happiness (e.g. you find out a person you fancy likes you). The second study compared humiliation with anger and shame (e.g. you said some harsh words to your mother and she cried).

Throughout the reading and imagination process, all participants had an EEG strapped to their scalps which read their brain activity. Two measures particularly interested in the researchers: a larger positive spike (known as the “late positive potential” or LPP); and evidence of “event-related desynchronization”, a marker of reduced activity in the alpha range. Both these measures are signs of greater cognitive processing and cortical activation.

Imagining being humiliated resulted in higher LPPs and more event-related desynchronizations than any other emotion.

“This supports the idea that humiliation is a particularly intense and cognitively demanding negative emotional experience that has far-reaching consequences for individuals and groups alike,” they concluded.

The study tells us that humiliation causes strain on the brain’s resources and mobilizes more brain power, but it doesn’t tell us why this happens. It’s a cause, not an effect. The researchers have yet to identify the mechanism that leads to this neural build-up. Then, the study setting itself wasn’t the best for this kind of evaluation. Imagining your being humiliated or falling in love doesn’t come close to the real thing (you can’t expect to cause genuine feelings of humiliation in a study either). At best, the study does indeed lend credence that humiliation is the master emotion relative to intensity, but it’s far from being a settled thing. Where’s all the love?

The findings appeared in the journal Social Neuroscience.