This primer will provide a brief introduction to the relationship between negative emotions and group-targeted harm. Negative emotions play a key role in mobilizing groups towards escalation in an intergroup conflict context, as well as in contexts of one-sided identity-based violence and group-targeted harm. In particular, hate, fear, anger, disgust, contempt, and humiliation, often underlie the justification for committing violence and other forms of harm against other groups.

A number of emotions that motivate and/or justify group-targeted harm—particularly fear, anger, and disgust—are also closely tied to perceptions of threat. Threats to physical security often lead to feelings of fear at the group level;¹ threats to status and economic security tend to lead to anger; ,² and threats of contamination or to ‘purity’ on a symbolic level spark feelings of disgust.³ Understanding these negative emotions and the ways in which they motivate action can help us counteract the underlying dynamics that drive intergroup conflict, identity-based violence, and group-targeted harm.


What is hate? Research across time and discipline has described hate as: an emotional attitude,⁴ a form of generalized anger,⁵ a generalized evaluation,⁶ a normative judgment,⁷ a motive to devalue others,⁸ or simply an emotion.⁹

Renewed interest in understanding hatred has led to recent psychological studies seeking to define and clarify the experience of hate. To that end, research has revealed that:¹⁰

  • Hatred stems from repeated exposure: Unlike fear or anger, emotions which originate as responses to specific events, hatred towards a group does not result after one specific action. Instead, it is a sentiment that stems from repeated exposures and leads to a belief about the inherent nature of the hated person or group.
  • Groups and individuals who are the targets of hatred are seen by the "haters" as immoral and having malicious intentions: They are not expected to change, and are thus seen as dangerous and able to execute their malicious intentions at any time.
  • Haters themselves report feeling powerless and intensely unpleasant, because they also feel mistreated, unsupported, humiliated, uncared for, or ignored.
  • The motivational goal of hate is to eliminate or destroy the target, either on a mental level (humiliating, holding feelings of revenge), socially (excluding, ignoring), or physically (killing, torturing).10 For this reason, hate is especially significant when looking at conflict between groups because it transforms groups that are already marginalized into something to be eliminated.
  • In conflict contexts specifically, hatred can spread quickly through social networks, as groups can interpret events as confirming a negative appraisal of the outgroup.
  • Importantly, people in conflict contexts don’t always think of themselves as hating. They instead often understand the enemy’s motive as hatred, while understanding their own support for violence as love for their own group.¹¹


The emotion of fear keeps us safe by signaling when something is a threat to us or our group (e.g., dangerous animals, natural disasters, fire, etc). It is one aspect of human design that has kept us going for this long. Given that the stakes often involve survival, our minds and bodies are incredibly attuned to fear, which means we are more likely to perceive threats that aren’t real than we are to ignore threats that are real.¹²

Indeed, we are primed for fear. Through exposure to messages that spark fear or being told outright that we should be scared, we are more likely to feel fear—even if there is no imminent threat. Imagine watching a horror movie and then driving home through the woods. Suddenly, a normal drive home becomes terrifying.

When we feel fear, we become information seekers—we look for threats, and for more information about those threats. Furthermore, when we feel fear we don’t have access to the “thinking” part of our brain where we reason and process secondary emotions (like empathy). This means that when we feel fear, we may react in ways that do not align with our values.¹³


In an intergroup context, anger often stems from feelings of unfairness, including the perception that wrongs have been committed against one’s group or because of one’s group identification.¹⁴ As with threat, whether the wrongs actually happened may not matter—the emotion is felt when groups harbor these grievances. Perceived wrongs often come in the form of perceived loss: loss of power, loss of resources, loss of social status, etc.

When anger is manipulated, a group is often scapegoated as responsible for the anger or grievance. This is when anger becomes particularly dangerous in terms of mobilizing groups for violence. This idea of collective guilt helps pave the way for targeting an entire group rather than, for example, holding people accountable for specific actions or addressing underlying structural problems.


Disgust is another survival emotion that causes us to stay away from things that can spread physical harm, like bad food, bugs, or disease. When we feel disgusted by something, we reject it and want to create distance between us and the ‘disgusting’ thing. When groups of people are painted as disgusting, we experience the same desire to isolate and ‘get rid of’ them as we do with other sources of disgust. This can happen through dehumanizing language that compares them to disease or through accusations that the group is somehow threatening other forms of group “purity.“

Importantly, much of the dehumanizing language we often hear in hateful and dangerous speech uses metaphors that invoke disgust (e.g., cockroach, rat, vermin, pest, “swarms,” etc.).¹⁵


Contempt, which is related to the basic emotion of disgust, takes place when we dislike and feel superior over others. A common trigger for this emotion is a perceived “immoral” action by another group of people when one’s own group feels superior. While contempt is a standalone emotion, it is often accompanied by anger, viewing others as inferior, small, incompetent, or lesser-than “us.”¹⁶ Sometimes people compare contempt to hate, but contempt is not rooted as much in one’s beliefs about the innate character of the other person or group, and the intensity of hate is stronger than that of contempt.

The function of contempt is to signal a feeling of superiority, of not needing to accomodate or engage, and to assert power or status. The action goal of contempt is thus often social exclusion.¹⁶ Directed at another individual or social group, contempt can lessen feelings of compassion for that group, provoke emotions of anger and aversion toward that group, and lessen feelings of guilt or shame for harmful actions committed by our own group.¹⁷

Significantly, research has found that this emotional reaction leads to the use of hate speech against the concerned group.¹⁸,¹⁹


Humiliation plays a powerful role in conflict. Fighters often reference perceived humiliation—the attempt by another group to make their group feel low, or treat them without dignity—as motive for fighting, and acts of humiliation are often used as a tactic, tool, or goal of violence against another group. Indeed, some of the most extreme forms of violence, like genocide, include actions intended not only to hurt but also to humiliate the victim. Such actions include forcing Jews to kneel and clean streets or requiring men to watch sexual violence perpetrated against their family members.²⁰

Definitions of humiliation vary widely in the scientific literature; some portray humiliation as an act, others an emotion. But they consistently incorporate the idea of “being made low.” Psychologists view humiliation as an attack on self-esteem, consisting of four key elements: a perpetrator, a victim, an unjust lowering, and the existence of unequal power.²¹ Like with the experience of shame, the person or group experiencing the humiliating act accepts this ‘devaluation,’ but unlike shame, humiliation also involves a recognition that the ‘devaluation’ is unjust.  Laboratory studies show that the intensity of felt humiliation surpasses the physical experience of anger and  shame.²² Moreover, people who have experienced humiliation may be less sensitive to the consequences of their responses, both for themselves and their targets. In a lab-controlled setting, after participants experienced humiliation via minor social rejection, their physical pain thresholds were much higher, they were more aggressive, less empathetic, and more self-injurious.²³

What is key to conflict contexts is that people can experience humiliation vicariously. Research has shown that when one witnesses humiliating acts being perpetrated against members of their social group, it triggers feelings of humiliation in the observer that are equally as intense as those experienced in response to personal rejection. This emotional intensity is long-lived: group-based humiliation lives on in historical memory, which can be thought of as ‘remembered social interactions.²⁴

Research on humiliation is still developing. Future research will need to answer important questions, such as: when does humiliation lead its victims to engage in conflict versus avoidance?


By understanding the nuances of the emotions underlying the justification and commission of intergroup violence, identity-based violence, and other forms of group-targeted harm, we are better equipped to defuse these emotions in our own strategies.

As a starting point, we can more effectively identify intervention points based on the emotions and associations at play. For instance, an intervention aimed at someone who feels a sense of being wronged or humiliated will likely look very different than one aimed at someone who believes they are under threat. Practitioners can ask how to intervene around the root cause of the emotion, e.g., is it possible to provide new channels of accountability for people’s grievances?

Second, by understanding the power of emotions, and the behaviors associated with each emotion, we can move away from approaches that rely solely on facts and data in their attempts to defuse harmful emotional responses. Rather, we can consider how to meet people “where they are” by introducing competing appraisals and emotions related to the event or situation at hand, e.g., if people are reacting out of fear, can you influence the appraisal leading to that fear, or introduce a sense of hope and agency to defuse the strength and momentum of that fear?

Finally, by understanding how power differentials affect the way people mobilize based on emotion (for instance, isolating vs. attacking when feeling under threat of physical harm), we are able to more effectively analyze our own contexts and the risks for violence within them, as well as develop interventions most appropriate for the risks and dynamics at hand.


  1. Emotions are key drivers of human behavior and can often override secondary brain functions like reason and empathy.
  2. Different emotions fuel different behaviors, with the behaviors often associated with “fixing” the root cause, e.g. rejecting something disgusting or righting the perceived wrongs that caused anger.
  3. Emotions should be addressed in ways that recognize both the power of emotion and its distinctiveness from beliefs and knowledge.


  1. When working to counteract the negative emotions that lead to groups being targeted for violence and other forms of harm, consider which emotions can compete with and/or defuse the negative emotion at play.
  2. Similarly, how can you use positive emotions in your intervention in a way that motivates pro-social behavior? For example, can you offer belonging? Can you help someone feel proud of an action they took, or express gratitude when they do something positive? If someone has felt “unjustly lowered” or treated without dignity, can you find a way to restore their dignity?
  3. When addressing anger, consider how you can move away from scapegoating and build intergroup buy-in to get to the source of grievances together.
  4. Be aware of how dehumanization and narratives around ‘contamination’ are activating disgust.

¹ Adolphs, R. (2013). The Biology of Fear. Current Biology, 23(2), 79-93. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.11.055

² Fessler, D. M. T. (2006). The Male Flash of Anger: Violent Response to Transgression as an Example of the Intersection of Evolved Psychology and Culture. In J. H. Barkow (Ed.), Missing the Revolution: Darwinism for Social Scientists, 101-118. Oxford University Press.

³ Oaten, M., Stevenson, R. J., & Case, T. I. (2009). Disgust as a disease-avoidance mechanism. Psychological Bulletin, 135(2), 303-321. doi:10.1037/a0014823

⁴ Ekman, P. (1992). An argument for basic emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 6(3–4), 169–200.

⁵ Bernier, A., & Dozier, M. (2002). The client-counselor match and the corrective emotional experience: Evidence from interpersonal and attachment research. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 39(1), 32–43. See also: Frijda, N. H. (1986). Studies in emotion and social interaction. The emotions. New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press; Paris, France: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme; Power, M., & Dalgleish, T. (1997). Cognition and Emotion: From Order to Disorder. Psychology Press.

⁶ Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2000). The subtlety of emotions. Cambridge, MA, US: The MIT Press.

⁷ McDevitt, J., & Levin, J. (1993). Hate crimes: The rising tide of bigotry and bloodshed. New York, NY, US: Plenum.

⁸ Rempel, J. K., & Burris, C. T. (2005). Let me count the ways: An integrative theory of love and hate. Personal Relationships, 12(2), 297–313.

⁹ Elster, J. (2000). Strong feelings: Emotion, Addiction, and Human Behavior. Cambridge, MA, US: The MIT Press.

¹⁰ Fischer, A., Halperin, E., Canetti, D., & Jasini, A. (2018). Why We Hate. Emotion Review.

¹¹  Waytz, A., Young, L. L., & Ginges, J. (2014). Motive attribution asymmetry for love vs. Hate drives intractable conflict. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(44), 15687–15692.

¹² Neuberg, S. L., Kenrick, D. T., & Schaller, M. (2011). Human threat management systems: Self-protection and disease avoidance. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(4), 1042–1051.

¹³ Chang, L. W., Krosch, A. R., & Cikara, M. (2016). Effects of intergroup threat on mind, brain, and behavior. Current Opinion in Psychology, 11, 69–73.

¹⁴ Halperin, E., & Gross, J. J. (2010). Intergroup anger in intractable conflict: Long-term sentiments predict anger responses during the Gaza War. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 14(4), 477-488.

¹⁵Leader, J. L., & Benesch, S. (2016). Dangerous Speech and Dangerous Ideology: An Integrated Model for Monitoring and Prevention. Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal, 9(3).

¹⁶ Fischer, A., & Roseman, I. (2007). Beat Them or Ban Them: The Characteristics and Social Functions of Anger and Contempt. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(1), 103–115.

¹⁷ Miceli, M., & Castelfranchi, C. (2018). Contempt and disgust: The emotions of disrespect. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 48(2), 205–229.

¹⁸  Bilewicz, M., Kamińska, O. K., Winiewski, M., & Soral, W. (2017). From disgust to contempt-speech: The nature of contempt on the map of prejudicial emotions. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 40.

¹⁹  Winkiewski, M., Hansen, K., Bilewicz, M., Soral, W., Swiderska, A., & Bolska, D. (2017). Contempt Speech, Hate Speech: Report from research on verbal violence against minority groups (Rep.). Warsaw, Poland: Stefan Batory Foundation.

²⁰ Bloom, P. (2017, November 27). The Root of All Cruelty?. The New Yorker, Retrieved from

²¹ Fernández, S., Saguy, T., & Halperin, E. (2015). The Paradox of Humiliation: The Acceptance of an Unjust Devaluation of the Self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(7).

²² Recent EEG studies show increased late positive potential (LLP), indicating greater negative affect, in participants imagining themselves in a humiliating versus an angry situation (Otten, M., & Jonas, K. J. (2014). Humiliation as an intense emotional experience: Evidence from the electro-encephalogram. Social Neuroscience, 9(1), 23–35. They also found increased neural processing of emotional experience, for participants imagining themselves in humiliating (versus angry or shameful) situations.

²³  DeWall, C. N., & Baumeister, R. F. (2006). Alone but feeling no pain: Effects of social exclusion on physical pain tolerance and pain threshold, affective forecasting, and interpersonal empathy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(1), 1–15.

²⁴ Bennett, M., & Matthews, L. (2000). The Role of Second-Order Belief-Understanding and Social Context in Children’s Self-Attribution of Social Emotions. Social Development, 9(1), 126–130.