Verbal insults are like a mini slap in the face

Researchers have suggested that verbal insults are akin to mini slap in the face and that our brain responds to these verbal insults more than positive words.

Using electroencephalography (EEG) and skin conductance recordings researchers compared the short-term impact of repeated verbal insults to that of repeated positive or neutral evaluations. According to the study, the results are a window to intersection between emotion and language.

Humans communicate all the time and while our communication strategies and dynamics have evolved over time, verbal communication have a big role to play in our day to day relations. Verbal communication is a tool used to understand interpersonal behavior. As such, words can hurt, but we know little about how the impact of words comes about as someone processes an insult.

Because insults pose a threat against our reputation and against our ‘self’, they provide a unique opportunity to research the interface between language and emotion researchers say.

EEG and skin conductance

To check verbal insults is less sensitive to repetition than compliments researchers applied EEG and skin conductance electrodes to 79 female participants. They then read a series of repeated statements that realized three different speech acts: insults (for example, “Linda is horrible”), compliments (for example, “Linda is impressive”), and neutral, factually correct descriptive statements (for example, “Linda is Dutch”).

To examine whether the impact of the words depended on who the statement was about, half of the three sets of statements used the participant’s own name, and the other half used somebody else’s. The experiment involved no real interaction between the participants and another human. The participants were told that the statements were being said by three different men.

The researchers found that even under unnatural conditions — a lab-setting, no real human interactions, and statements coming from fictitious people — verbal insults can still “get at you”, no matter who the insult is about, and continue to do so even after repetition.

Specifically, the EEG showed an early insult effect in P2 amplitude that was very robust over repetition and did not depend on who the insult was about. P2 is a waveform component of the event-related potential (ERP) measured at the human scalp.

In the setting of the experiment, the insults were perceived as mini slaps to the face, explained scientists. Yet the study only shows the effects of insults in an artificial setting. The participants will have recognized the insults as such, but as decontextualized statements the actual emotional effects of insults lose power. Studying insults in a real setting remains ethically challenging.

Even so, the results show an increased sensitivity of our brains to negative words compared to positive words. An insult immediately captures our brain’s attention, as the emotional meaning of insults is retrieved from long-term memory. The compliments elicited a less strong P2 effect, showing a negativity bias in the amount of attention that is automatically allocated to negative versus positive interpersonal situations.

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