Why Humiliation Is the Most Intense Human Emotion

Like anyone, I suppose, I take great pains to avoid humiliation. But as a fat person, humiliation is built into my everyday existence—just living in my body is coded as humiliating by the culture at large—so when I was younger, I always went out of my way to be more in control of my image than I needed to be. More centered, more measured, more private, more dignified (or, as dignified as I could manage), because just doing ordinary, neutral things could get me laughed at.

Nowadays, I don't give much of a fuck. I'm 32 and I eat cupcakes in public and I read Robert Jordan on the train and I'm certainly not "dignified" and YOU HAVE NO POWER OVER ME, GOBLIN KING. But six or seven years ago, it was a big deal when I stopped by the Domino's shack at the Sasquatch music festival and purchased myself a Domino's personal pepperoni pan pizza and a Diet Pepsi. I didn't want a Domino's personal pepperoni pan pizza, particularly, but festival food is a horror show and I was starving and Domino's was the only shack without a massive line (because, Domino's). I paid $100 (APPROXIMATELY) for my garbage pizza and scuttled back into the press area.

I don't know if you've ever been in a music festival press area, but it's basically a bunch of people who are cooler than you jacking off a bunch of other people who are even cooler than them, in hopes that some of the cooler cool-juice will splatter on their skin and they can absorb its powers and finally start taking normcore to the next level and call it normcorewave and maybe next year they'll get the kind of lanyard that gets you into the VIP area with the unlimited free Gardetto's. (JUST KIDDING MUSIC JOURNALIST FRIENDS, I LUV U.)

So I was in there, sitting at an empty picnic table by myself, trying to eat my Domino's personal pepperoni pan pizza WITH DIGNITY and hoping nobody looked at me, and I remember someone was interviewing the band YACHT at the next table, and I was sort of dispassionately staring at my phone, pretending like my friends were texting me even though they weren't because I think they were all back in the free Gardetto's area playing four-square with Santigold or something probably. I didn't know where they got their lanyards. Jerks.

Suddenly, a little gust of wind came up and blew my Domino's napkin off the picnic table and on to the ground. No big deal. I leaned over, nonchalantly, to pick it up. Gotta have a napkin! Can't be a fat lady with red pig-grease all over my face! Unfortunately, due to my intense preoccupation with NOT drawing attention to myself while eating a Domino's personal pepperoni pan pizza in public at a music festival while fat, I misjudged the flimsy plastic picnic table's center of gravity.

When I leaned over to grab the napkin, the table leaned over too.

I fell in the dirt. The pizza fell on top of me. The Diet Pepsi tipped over and glugged out all over my dress. The table fell on top of the Pepsi on top of the pizza on top of me. The napkin fluttered away. EVERYONE LOOKED AT ME. The music journalists looked at me. YACHT looked at me. In an attempt at damage control, I yelled, "IT'S OKAY BECAUSE I'M REALLY DRUNK, SO." (I wasn't. But good save, Lindy.) All that anxiety about trying not to be that gross, gluttonous fat lady eating a "bad" food in public— and I wound up being the fat lady who was so fat and clumsy and excited about pizza that she tipped over an entire picnic table and injured her stupid fat leg. It was, literally, the worst.

I'm sure nobody else in that dusty press paddock remembers the time some rando fat chick fell down. Of course they don't (and if they do, they're weird and they should have that looked at). But I WILL NEVER, EVER FORGET IT. That's the thing about humiliation—it sticks with you. It becomes a part of you. Because it's not an external emotion, like anger, it's internal. It's losing your grip on the image of yourself you're trying so desperately to control and project. It tears down the curtain. It undermines who you think you are as a person, and that's frightening.

Some new research suggests that humiliation might be the most intense human emotion—triggering more activity in the brain than anger, happiness, and shame.

Via Wired:

The researchers conducted two studies in which dozens of male and female participants 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 researchers used EEG (electroencephalography) to record the surface electrical activity of their participants' brains. They were interested in two measures in particular – a larger positive spike (known as the "late positive potential" or LPP); and evidence of "event-related desynchronization," which is a marker of reduced activity in the alpha range. Both these measures are signs of greater cognitive processing and cortical activation.

The take-home result was that imagining being humiliated led to larger LPPs and more event-related desychronization than the other emotions. This means, Otten and Jonas said, that humiliation, more than the other emotions they studied, leads to a mobilization of more processing power and a greater consumption of mental resources. "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.

Christian Jarrett at Wired is careful to note that he doesn't necessarily buy the researchers' conclusions:

The brain seems to be doing more when you're feeling humiliated, they're effectively saying, but we don't really know what. One possibility, which in fairness they acknowledge, is that humiliation requires more mental processing, not because it's so intense, but because it's a complex social emotion that involves monitoring loss of social status.

But I still think that's a valuable observation. The theory that humiliation is cognitively different from other emotions predated this research, and there's something to the fact that we perceive it that way, whether or not science bears us out.

Think about how much time and mental energy you spend just trying to prove that you're worthwhile as a human being—that you deserve this job, this raise, this relationship, this platform, this respect, this love, this happiness. Think about how many areas of your life (dating, friendship, fashion, assertiveness, salary negotiations, etc.) are defined by confidence. When something undermines your confidence, the aftershocks are global. Humiliation is a cousin of social ostracism, too—a tacit reminder that you could be expelled at any time from this communal structure that gives life order.

That also makes humiliation a particularly effective tool for reinforcing social hierarchies—a phenomenon about which we could probably argue all day. Is it ethical to use people's worst insecurities as weapons against them? Is it even effective? What if it's done with positive intentions, like correcting violations of the social contract? Or stigmatizing abusive behaviors like domestic violence? What about doxing trolls? What about when those same tactics are maliciously/mistakenly used against victims?

I'm not sure. I've never forgotten that moment, lying on the ground covered in dirty pizza, but what I learned from it wasn't to hide myself better, to conform better—it was to get the fuck over my fear of embarrassment and live every pizza to the fullest. So thanks, humiliation, I guess. (You dickhead.)

Image by Jim Cooke.