Humans are a highly social species, relying on constantly changing cooperation dynamics and other types of interpersonal relations to survive and thrive. Language has a major role in these relations, fundamentally structuring interpersonal behaviors. Although experience proves that words can hurt, not much is known about how people process insults.
Now, a research team led by Utrecht University in the Netherlands has found that hearing insults is highly similar to receiving a “mini slap in the face,” regardless of the exact context in which the insult is uttered.
“The exact way in which words can deliver their offensive, emotionally negative payload at the moment these words are being read or heard is not yet well-understood,” said study corresponding author Marijn Struiksma, a postdoctoral fellow in Linguistics at Utrecht University. “Understanding what an insulting expression does to people as it unfolds, and why, is of considerable importance to psycholinguists interested in how language moves people, but also to others who wish to understand the details of social behavior.”
Dr. Struiksma and her colleagues used electroencephalography (EEG) and skin conductance recordings to compare the short-term impact of repeated verbal insults to that of repeated positive or neutral evaluations on a cohort of 79 female participants. Then they read a series of repeated statements that realized three different types of speech acts: insults (e.g., “Linda is horrible”), compliments (“Linda is impressive”), or neutral, factually true descriptive statements (“Linda is Dutch”). In order to assess whether the effects of these statements depended on who the statement was about, half of the statements used the participants’ own names, and the other half different names.
“We assume that verbal insults trigger a cascade of rapidly consecutive or overlapping processing effects, and that different parts of that cascade might be differently affected by repetition, with some of them rapidly wearing off, and others remaining strongly responsive for a long time,” said Dr. Struiksma.
The results revealed that even under unnatural conditions – a laboratory setting, no direct interaction with other humans, statements coming from fictitious people – verbal insults can still have a powerful effect, regardless of who the insult was about, and continue to do so even after being repeated several times. The EEG showed an early insult effect in P2 amplitude – a waveform component of the event-related potential (ERP) that can be measured at the human scalp – which was very strong even after repetition.
“Our study shows that in a psycholinguistic laboratory experiment without real interaction between speakers, insults deliver lexical ‘mini slaps in the face’, such that the strongly negative evaluative words involved that a participant reads, automatically grab attention during lexical retrieval, regardless of how often that retrieval occurs,” Dr. Struiksma explained.
While insults appeared to immediately capture our brain’s attention, compliments elicited a less powerful P2 effect, showing a negativity bias in the amount of attention allocated to negative versus positive social interactions. Further research is needed to clarify whether these findings hold in real-life settings too.
The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Communication.