3 Psychological Reasons Even The Nicest People Are Willing To Be Cruel Sometimes

Photo: Dean Drobot | Canva 
embarrassed woman

Celebrity roasts, late-night show opening monologues, viral social media posts, the covers of tabloid magazines — wherever you turn, there's a feeding frenzy, hungry for public humiliation. And, we, the viewer, can hardly wait to watch the next sacrifice. What's up with that?

Why do we derive delight and happiness from watching the pain of others? Remember the Colosseum... cheering on the lions and gladiators?

We gleefully glue ourselves to the TV and scroll social media to see celebrities reduced to rubble with ridicule. Somehow, joining in the humiliation is a guilty pleasure most of us share. And this isn't new, there was something strangely compelling about watching Joan Rivers tear apart fashion choices on the red carpet in "What were they thinking?" terms.

Why do we secretly love humor that humiliates others? Does the humiliation make us feel more powerful? Does it make us, somehow, feel safe?

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Here are 3 reasons why even people who consider themselves 'nice' are willing to be cruel to others.

1. We enjoy belonging to the (supposedly) superior group.

Public put-downs and penance by humiliation feed a prurient human need to feel superior while also taking the heat off ourselves. When one person looks foolish, they pull focus away from us temporarily, allaying our fears of being attacked the same way.

A classic example:

More than two million people show up in response to this invitation from VH1's site? — "Tonight, The Roast of Justin Bieber will air on Comedy Central, and the masses will get what they've long been waiting for: a public shaming of Justin Bieber."

What's the appeal? Vulture says, "A good roast joke is undeniable; it's comedy at its most immediate and visceral. Cruel, harsh, and tasteless, sure. But also very, very funny."

How can we possibly feel good, right, or justified putting cruel, harsh, tasteless, and funny in the same sentence? If it makes us feel superior, and we apparently can justify it.



2. We feel safe from attack when we join a group humiliating others.

These folks have a fear of being the butt of a joke themselves, so if they point and laugh at someone else, they escape ridicule themselves for the time being. The researchers coined it "jeer pressure."

And, then, there's "throwing shade," which arose from the Black and Latino gay cultures featured in the film Paris Is Burning in the 1990s. Is it an art form, or is it a defense mechanism to keep you off the radar of bullies and sadists?

Maybe only RuPaul knows if shade is humor or humiliation. It's the latter, slathered in the paint of humor. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't — if you take it seriously.

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3. We use funny hit-and-run remarks to express contempt, dissatisfaction, and anger.

You know people like this — they throw a jibe at their partner during a dinner party so everyone can hear. It's intended to convey harsh truth in the form of humor.

If it lands without an "ouch," it may garner a few laughs, and the victim is left embarrassed, hurt, or seething. If the victim speaks out, they're told it was all in fun and to get "thicker" skin. This tactic is downright dirty and cowardly. If you've got something to say, have the courage to tell the truth directly to the person. Don't slip it in like a sucker punch, hoping to make a point without consequences!

Why humiliation humor is not OK?

Celebrities might welcome a roast and undoubtedly often set themselves up for public scrutiny through their outrageous public relations stunts. But most people wouldn't subject themselves to it willingly.


1. Your family and friends are not celebrities.

They don't deserve the put-downs and public penance forced upon them by off-handed comments and slur tactics. They don't deserve humiliation and bullying, despite how angry you are at them.

Humiliation was once contained to those who witnessed an embarrassing event and maybe told it to others. Public humiliation can go viral. In a recent NPR piece, sociologist C.J. Pascoe said, "We see people losing control of their identity all the time when someone videotapes a faux pas and posts it online. These humiliating rituals are seen by thousands and thousands of people."

As a relationship expert working with high-conflict people and their partners, I often see people seduced by addictive behavior. It's the addictive pleasure of inflicting pain, whether the person is present or not, whether it is you inflicting the pain or watching someone else do it. It's addictive, sad, and sadistic.

2. Ah! You're thinking, "Why be so serious about this? It's all good fun."

Secretly enjoying watching someone "get what's coming to them" from the sidelines is cowardly and distorted. Our mothers raised us to show empathy for the misfortunes and mistakes of others. So, ask yourself whether you'd willingly be on the receiving end of public humiliation.

Then, behave accordingly. You'll like yourself better, and so will everyone else!

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Rhoberta Shaler, The Relationship Help Doctor, has provided urgent and ongoing care for relationships in crisis for more than 30 years. She also hosts the Save Your Sanity Podcast.