Humilitainment: Why the internet thrives on other people's humiliation

A meting out of justice, or pure sadism? Experts weigh in on the meaning of the popularity of "humilitainment"

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published February 20, 2022 10:00AM (EST)

A group of women laughing at their smartphone (Getty Images/Lucy Lambriex)
A group of women laughing at their smartphone (Getty Images/Lucy Lambriex)

With its volley of gruesome slapstick, serious bodily injuries and overall emphasis on public humiliation, "Jackass Forever" was number one at the domestic box office its opening weekend. The enduring popularity of the "Jackass" series attests to an interesting trend in entertainment, known as "humilitainment": taking pleasure in watching the suffering or pain of others, whether emotional or — in the case of "Jackass" — physical.

Of course, co-creator Johnny Knoxville and his comrades are not alone in making mint on human suffering. The humilitainment genre lives largely online, rather than in the movie theater. Social media is full of shaming campaigns in which users — whether sincerely motivated by social justice concerns or not — seem to get off on the downfall of public figures and ordinary citizens alike. Old TV shows like "To Catch a Predator" are still popular online, with YouTube personalities forming careers off analyzing and mocking creeps who get their just desserts. While most people would agree that those subjects deserve their fate, it is harder to say the same thing about people like "American Idol" and other reality TV show contestants who become public laughingstocks because of mortifying performances.

Yet the rise and normalization of humilitainment may not be entirely psychologically healthy — both for the viewers and, obviously, for the people being humiliated. 

According to media researchers Steven Reiss and James Wiltz, people who take enjoyment out of the public humiliation witnessed on reality TV generally have two motives: "a desire for prestige and self-importance and a desire to get even or a sense of vindication." In the case of the former, it involves believing that they are somehow superior types of humans because they have not embarrassed themselves in the manner seen by the humiliated subject. For the latter, it is because they feel it is valid to enjoy seeing justice done to those who deserve it — an emotion that Dr. Colin Wayne Leach, professor of psychology and Africana Studies at Barnard College, has referred to as "genugtuung."

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Speaking to Salon by email, Leach explained that entertainment which focuses on humiliating people — colloquially known by the portmanteau "humilitainment" — is "problematic for a lot of reasons."

"Emotions are defined by what they are about (a point taught us by the philosopher of emotion Robert Solomon)," Leach explained. "The more common forms of pleasure at misfortune often involve someone getting their comeuppance — being put in their ('rightful') place or losing an unfair gain or advantage, perhaps because they took advantage of a pitied adversary." That said, those types of misfortunes can be seen as righteousness occurring on its own, and therefore as a sign that morality has prevailed. This is different than simply enjoying seeing people get degraded.

"Norman Feather likens this to the pleasure of seeing 'tall poppies' cut down to size," Leach explained. "If one is experiencing pleasure at a genuine sense of seeing justice done, I call the pleasure genugtuung." This is contrasted with schadenfreude, in which the victim is not perceived as morally deserving but the suffering is relatively minor, and therefore it feels less malicious to enjoy their downfall.

"Gloating is taking pleasure in causing another the misfortune of losing or otherwise being bested," Leach explained. "It is more pleasurable than schadenfreude.  That is partly because our victory against a rival "entitles" us to some outward pride and even a boastful display that rubs their face in our victory and their loss.  Obviously, gloating is more and more antagonistic than schadenfreude."

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Dr. Aaron Balick, psychotherapist and author, told Salon by email that it can be helpful to think of emotions as existing on a spectrum, rather than having clearly defined categories.

"At the far end you could say that sadism is the enjoyment of actually inflicting pain on another (though sometimes this is consensual) whereas something like schadenfreude is a natural (though not entirely noble) form of pleasure one gets from somebody else's misfortune," Balick told Salon. He also acknowledged that sometimes people feel justice is done when they see humiliation inflicted — and people have been this way since the start of recorded history.

"Unfortunately this does seem to be a rather universal human trait that goes back some ways," Balick explained. "We see this in the burning of witches, crucifixion, throwing Christians to the lions, the public stocks, etc. These days we tend to see it played out more in relation to public humiliation in the media — the collapse of celebrities, show trials, and social media pile-ons."

The difference today is that these traits, though always present in human nature, have been exaggerated.

"Contemporary culture is just an amplification of natural human tendencies," Balick told Salon. "You could argue that humans were 'made' to occupy hunter-gatherer groups of 150 people or less, and that these traits were originally useful in helping to create cohesion amongst small groups (where one's own social group projected their ire onto outside groups, or scapegoats within their own group)." Now that we live in a global society, however, these same tendencies can be used for less noble purposes like dehumanizing foreign countries or political opponents.

"We no longer have public hangings, which I think is a good thing," Balick explained. "But at the same time, we do can have 'mob justice' being meted out online without fair trial, and though people are rarely murdered to this effect, it can ruin reputations for a lifetime — and sometimes does end in people taking their own lives."

Perhaps the most important takeaway is for people who enjoy the suffering of others to ask themselves what exactly it says about them that they feel this way. The issue is not unique to the modern era, but we have the tools to better understand it while it is happening — and determine if it reflects poorly on the individuals who feel that way.

"Genugtuung tells us that people care about justice and thus they feel good at seeing justice done (in their eyes)," Leach explained. "Schadenfreude tells us that people can use another's minor misfortune to feel better about themselves by noting the fallibility of others. Gloating tells us that some people are poor winners who want to add to the joy of winning by putting themselves above those they've defeated. The most serious, sadistic, pleasure tells us that these people enjoy seeing the suffering of others itself."

He added, "There is no deeper psychological purpose in this. It is a sort of fetishization of others' suffering."

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Genugtuung Humilitainment Jackass Psychology Reality Tv Reporting Schadenfreude To Catch A Predator