Challenges in Clinical Studies on Humiliation

Jennifer Goldman

Graduate fellow at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and a graduate student at the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Yeah, I think so, partially because it's been such a horrendously hard experience. That might be because I'm just at the beginning of my career in running these studies. I think that's not the main reason it's been so hard, because I've been working with Peter and he's not at the beginning of his career doing this kind of stuff, so it's just been challenging because we are treading on new ground. There are probably lots of things that other people might be able to learn from the things that we've struggled with in trying to put together these kinds of studies. I don't know if it will be helpful, but we can see.

One thing is that ideally, you would want to run studies where you could actually simulate a humiliating experience, because then you would see actually how people react, and it seems like it would be just an easier way to do it, but because of ethical issues involved in having people come into a lab and humiliating them, we haven't gone that route. That's not to say that I think it's impossible. You could do it in such a way that you do a toned-down version of it. I think that if people, we or others, continue to do this kind of research, it might make sense to think about, "How can you do it a way that's real in the moment?" We have had people read case studies like the one I described where some one gets cut off in a meeting and told to go get coffee, things like that. We've had to do a lot of experimenting with the actual scenarios that we've chosen because either they are so humiliating we don't want to use them for ethical reasons or they're not humiliating enough, or they are humiliating but there is a power differential between the person who humiliated and the person who got humiliated.

If there is a power differential that's inherent in the story between the two people, then the likelihood What we're trying to do is we're trying to have some variance around people's responses. We want some people to say that they would be aggressive and some people to say that they wouldn't. We want to see, what are the reasons why some people would aggress and some people say that they wouldn't aggress? If everyone says, "Nope, I wouldn't be aggressive in this case," that might be because we wrote this case so that the context of it means that no one would be aggressive in that case. You just need to be really careful about how you write the case so that it enables people to have a range of difference kinds of responses.

Also, the kinds of questions that we ask -- we have people read the case, and then we have people answer a series of questions. It's because this research is so new on, "How do you measure humiliation? What are the different emotions that you should also be measuring when you measure humiliation?" We've been tweaking that and fine-tuning it, so we've been gearing up to run a second study, and have kind of figured out what some of the other emotions are like guilt and shame, sadness, and depression. Are there some people who get angry and lash out? Maybe there are other people who internalize their humiliation and get depressed and inflict themselves instead. I feel like each time we run another study, we'll be further along the path of figuring out how this is all really working and how do different people respond to it.