Humiliation is when someone’s social identity or status has been lowered or removed. The key to humiliation is setting up situations where the person is unable to demonstrate that they have a characteristic they value. This typically happens through intimidation, mistreatment, trickery, or embarrassment. Humiliation has 4 ingredients that control how intense the humiliation is.
Ingredient 1: Status Claim
Ingredient 1 is the status claim. The person directly or indirectly claims to have a certain status. For example they might claim to be a caring teacher or a hard worker.
- Wears sporty clothes, jerseys, or hats.
- Dresses like they have money.
Ingredient 2: Public Failure
Ingredient 2 is a public failure to claim that status. This usually involves an event where they could prove their status to the group, but they come up short. For example a hard worker might not be able to finish a task in front of a group of people. A caring teacher might be seen scolding or yelling at students.
- The sporty dressing individual is terrible at basketball or throwing a baseball.
- The person who appears rich is seen with a government food stamps card.
Ingredient 3: You Must Have this
Ingredient 3 is that the person who points out the failure must have status. Just like an appeal to authority is legitimate or illegitimate based on the person’s relevant skills and experience, the ability to humiliate is dependent on the person’s status “skills.” For example, a quack could be insulted by a regular person and a doctor. The doctor’s insult would carry more weight since they have more status and experience in the medical field. A family member humiliating someone might be more painful than a random person because the family member knows the individual better.
- If you are terrible at sports, an insult about the other person’s athleticism wouldn’t work very well.
- A poor person has a harder time poking fun at the fake rich person’s lack of money.
Ingredient 4: Method of Rejection
Ingredient 4 is the method of rejection. How the rejection to the status claim happens also contributes to how humiliating a situation is. Take for example, a college rejecting an applicant. If the rejection letter says “we received hundreds of application, many from qualified applicants such as yourself,” it is a ‘softer’ humiliation. In contrast a rejection letter that says “we receive many highly qualified applications and are unsure why you thought you would ever have a chance of getting in,” would be more harsh and humiliating.
- For the person who appears athletic, “you are as athletic as a rock” would be worse than “you totally missed that shot.”
- If you appear to be rich but aren’t, a public announcement that your card is declined over the store microphone would be more humiliating than someone explaining that your card isn’t working directly to you.
- Make it public and visual. Public punishments of the past like tarring and feathering were used to mark shame. Visual symbols are used to separate or mark the person in a negative way.
- Make it verbal. Insulting comments, names, or brands.
- Make it stick. Tell embarrassing stories. Bring up topics where a person regrets their actions. People remember stories.
- Make it threatening. Use threats or create fear through intimidating actions.
- Make a straw man. Misrepresenting their statements can make them look bad socially. See character assassination techniques and logical fallacies.
- Make it well timed. Catching someone in the act of doing something embarrassing makes it more humiliating.
- Make it powerful. Insults and humiliation are more potent when they highlight something the person already believes.
- Make it subtle. Use mockery through tone, facial expressions, or exaggerating the person’s behavior.
How To Respond When Someone Tries To Humiliate You
1. Ignore it
One way to respond to a humiliation attempt, is to brush it off like nothing happened. Since humiliation in part relies on you getting embarrassed, if you can play off the station like it isn’t a big deal, the humiliation will have less effect. Simply go about your day as if nothing happened. If you have a hard time doing this, try meditating and exercising as both can positively effect how your brain reacts to stress and fear.
2. Lean in
Another way to respond to humiliation is to make a joke of it. Similar to the ignore it response, making a joke of it reduces the effectiveness of humiliation by showing that it doesn’t bother you and that you don’t take yourself too seriously. This is an extremely effective strategy if you already have social power since it can keep you seeming down to earth.
3. Use the Momentum
Next you could use the humiliation to get people on your side. Depending on your strategy, being humiliated might help you win in the long run. We don’t recommend this approach, but there could be some infrequent situations where people pitying you might actually help your cause if it fits into a larger strategic plan for power.
4. Fight Fire with Fire
Finally you can fight back. Fighting back probably should be used when the humiliation happens frequently. You can fight back through insults or domination attempts. See our articles on both topics for more.
Why Some Insults Hurt, on the psychology of insults.
See also our master list of insults.
Or check out a list of ways to respond to common toxic people or comments.