People who suffer from harassment at work, school or online probably feel humiliation, one of the negative emotions that has had the least research done in psychology. A study by the Spanish National University of Distance Education (UNED) describes the cognitive bases of this emotion to help identify and prevent it.
Humiliation is one of the least-studied emotions in psychology and there is little consensus on how it differs from other related emotions. Research by the Spanish National University of Distance Education (UNED) argues in a study published by the journal ‘Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin’ that thoughts triggered by humiliation and its predisposed behaviour differ significantly from those of shame and anger.
“Humiliation is an emotion which, although similar to shame (both share the acceptance that there is something intrinsically negative in the self), differs from it in a crucial aspect: humiliation involves considering the devaluation of the self as unjust. The perception of being a victim of an injustice makes humiliation closer to anger,” Saulo Fernández, social psychology lecturer at UNED and main researcher of this study, tells SINC.
Therefore, humiliation is an emotion in which the person accepts or interiorizes a devaluation of the self which, paradoxically, they perceive as unjust or has been caused by an unjust action of others.
Another conclusion of the research is that humiliation predisposes two antagonistic types of behaviour: flight (typical of shame) and confrontation (typical of anger). “This is due to the base of humiliation having cognitive valuations that are typical of both emotions,” says the expert.
Confront angrily or accept the debasement
The studies presented by the scientists are based on two different and complementary methodologies. “In the first study, 540 UNED students were presented with a scenario which described how a university lecturer strongly devalued the work done by a first-year student,” explains Fernández.
The variables observed were: acceptance of the devaluation of the self; valuation of the lecturer’s actions as just or unjust; awareness of the event, i.e. whether the student thought that the whole class knew or just the lecturer and themselves knew, and lastly, the status of the lecturer (whether the student held the lecturer in high or low regard).
Each participant read one of the 16 scenarios proposed by the researchers (arising from the combination of the four variables mentioned above). Then, each participant was asked how they thought the student would feel (anger, shame, embarrassment or humiliation) and how they thought they would act (confronting or avoiding the lecturer).
“What we saw was that the valuations of acceptance and fairness are key to predicting humiliation and in differentiating this emotion from shame, anger and embarrassment,” stresses the researcher.
As expected, the participants considered that the student would feel more humiliation when the scenario that they had read combined injustice with acceptance by the individual of the humiliating situation. Awareness of the event, i.e. that the rest of the classmates knew about it, also influences in the degree of humiliation expected, but this valuation is not key to differentiating between humiliation and shame.
Humiliation, shame and anger
In the second study the participants (150 UNED students) were divided into three groups: humiliation, shame and anger.
“First of all we asked them all to write anonymously about an autobiographical episode in which the dominant emotion had been humiliation, shame or anger. Afterwards they had to answer a questionnaire which included measures about how they had considered the situation and how they had acted,” says Fernández.
What they found was that the participants who were in the ‘humiliation’ group scored highly in the valuation measures of acceptance of the self and of injustice, those in the ‘shame’ group scored highly in the acceptance of the self and low in considering it an injustice, and those in the ‘anger’ group scored highly in the valuation of the injustice and low in acceptance of the devaluation.
In terms of the behaviour, the participants in the ‘humiliation’ group scored highly in the measures linked to behaviour of flight and confrontation, while those in the ‘shame’ and ‘anger’ groups only scored highly in the type of behaviour traditionally associated with the emotions of flight (the ‘shame’ group) and confrontation (the ‘anger’ group).
According to the researcher, the work deepens the understanding of this complex emotion, which can help therapists and other professionals to better understand victims of humiliation.
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.DOI:10.1177/0146167215586195.
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