Have you ever felt humiliated in public? What triggers social humiliation?
If you ever try to fit into a new group, you’ll likely feel humiliated if your efforts don’t work out. This is a common consequence of status games, according to Will Storr.
Continue reading to learn more about the psychology of social humiliation.
Status Games Induce Feelings of Grandiosity—and Humiliation
One way that a status game can go wrong is by producing a dangerous mix of emotions in its players. In The Status Game, Storr explains that a natural consequence of status games is that the competition induces a sense of grandiosity, or exaggerated self-regard, in the game’s players. However, if the game fails to reward us in the way we expected, or we gain status and then lose it, our sense of grandiosity turns into social humiliation or a loss of pride or self-respect.
(Shortform note: Grandiosity and humiliation sometimes come up in the context of narcissism, a trait experts describe as an intense desire for appreciation or admiration. There are two kinds of narcissists: grandiose narcissists, who are dominant and overconfident, and vulnerable narcissists, who are introverted and resentful. Both have high opinions of themselves and think they deserve special treatment. So when their identity, or status, is threatened, they respond with “humiliated fury”: a mix of shame and depression they try to hide with rage. Most of us don’t display that level of narcissism, but experts say that nearly everyone shows narcissistic traits occasionally, which might explain some of the emotions we feel when playing status games.)
On an individual level, humiliation can result in poor mental health outcomes like depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation. When the humiliation is damaging enough, it can prompt us to react with rage and violence. The consequences can be dangerous: Storr writes that in extreme cases, a history of repeated humiliation is linked to violent crimes. For example, as a student at Harvard, Ted Kaczynski joined a psychological experiment where every week for three years an experimenter verbally abused and humiliated him. Kaczynski later carried out terror attacks with homemade bombs and became known as the “Unabomber.”
(Shortform note: Some people have suggested that Kaczynski’s behavior might be explained by narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), a condition in which a pattern of grandiosity, a need for admiration, a lack of empathy, and shame play a prominent role. People with NPD are so sensitive to others’ negative reactions that they feel shame and humiliation in response, and they either withdraw or lash out aggressively. The experiment that Kaczynski participated in sought to subject participants to “psychic deconstruction” through humiliation. It’s possible that this experience might have been particularly destructive in Kaczynski’s case, given that narcissists are thought to experience humiliation as undermining their sense of self.)
Storr writes that sometimes, it’s not just an individual but a group of people who lose status or don’t receive the status they feel that they’ve earned. When this happens, they may band together to overthrow the people at the top of the hierarchy.
(Shortform note: Is a loss of status enough to start a revolution? Some experts think it’s a crucial factor. In How Civil Wars Start, political scientist Barbara F. Walter identifies three catalysts that seem to predict which nations experience civil war: a transition toward or away from democracy; a “factionalist” system of political parties based on ethnicity, race, or religion; and a dominant group’s loss of status. Walter argues that this “downgrading” of status predicts which groups are likely to initiate conflict, especially if they have high status and experience a status reversal.)