Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. Let’s not kid ourselves though. We’re not in recess anymore, and we all know that some words do actually hurt. Take insults, for instance. In a new study, researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands found that hearing insults is like receiving a lexical “mini slap to the face”, regardless of whether or not the insult itself is directed at us or some other person.
Why insults will always draw your attention
Some words and phrases are dull, while others are exciting. Some are empowering, while others are meant to put you down. Sometimes when people speak of love or with love, we actually feel it too. Conversely, hateful speech can make us feel uneasy, anxious, and perhaps hateful ourselves.
How exactly language regulates emotions is not particularly well understood, but what the research seems to show is that words can have both psychological and physiological effects. In one study, Maria Richter and colleagues monitored the neural response of people who listened to or read negative words. They eventually found that exposure to these negative words increased implicit processing (IMP) within the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sACC) — that’s just a technical way of saying negative words released stress and anxiety-inducing hormones.
In another related study, researchers found that children with high rates of negative self-talk had higher levels of anxiety.
So, we know that negative language can have both short- and long-term consequences on our cognition and emotional wellbeing. But what about deeply hurtful language, such as insults?
As a highly social species, humans have learned to weave complex social webs and hierarchies, from humble tribes to powerful empires. Cooperation has proven one of the keys to our success, but this also means that if you are not well regarded or appreciated in your community, chances are you won’t be able to thrive — and at some point in history, you might not have even survived.
It is no wonder then that insults, which hurt our reputation and standing in the community, can pierce our ears like an arrow.
Researchers led by Dr. Marijn Struiksma wanted to learn more about how we process insults versus compliments. They also wanted to see how sensitive each of them is to repetition (i.e. do we become desensitized to hearing the same insult or compliment over and over again?), as part of a broader research project that explores the link between language and emotion.
“The project focused on the link between language and emotion and what better topic to study this link than insults and compliments. The proverb “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall never hurt me,” was taught to children to respond to bullying. However, we believe that this is not true, words can definitely hurt. Moreover, unlike compliments, whose effect seems to brush off quite rapidly, insults do not seem to lose their sting. In the current study our main goal was to take these informal observations and study them in the lab. We wanted to examine whether we could find evidence for a rapid adaptation to repeated compliments and a sustained response to verbal insults and if so at which stage(s) of language processing,” Struiksma told ZME Science.
A lexical slap to the face
The researchers applied electroencephalography (EEG) and skin conductance electrodes to the scalps of 79 female volunteers. Each participant read out loud a series of repeated statements that conveyed three different meanings: insults (“Linda is horrible”), compliments (“Linda is impressive”), and neutral (“Linda is Dutch”). These were rather mild insults for people used to getting trolled online, but even these stung, as the researchers would later find.
“When pre-testing our materials we had to come up with a long list of insults. We came a long way and fortunately we had help from our assistants. But when we consulted participants we learned that insults can also become outdated!” Struiksma said.
Half of the participants read the three sets of statements using their own name, while the other half used someone else’s. There was never any interaction between the participants and another human, but the volunteers were told the statements were made by three different men.
Researching how people react to abusive language is no easy task since intentionally exposing people to hurtful things is in no way, shape or form ethical.
But despite the obvious limitations of a lab study with no real human interaction and insults made by fictitious people, the insults still got to the participants.
The EEG data showed that hearing an insult produced changes in the amplitude of P2, a waveform component of the event-related potential (ERP) measured at the human scalp. These effects were registered regardless of whom the insult was directed towards and proved robust over repetition.
“Our main findings are that the brain very rapidly responds to insults and compliments and this response is stronger to the insults. This early P2 component in the EEG signal points to a very rapid and stable capture of emotional attention, plausibly triggered by retrieving the meaning of the insults and compliments from long-term memory. The difference in response between insults and compliments is robust over time. So even after many repeated insults, the insults deliver a ‘mini-slap in the face’. This finding relates to such strongly negative evaluative words automatically grabbing attention during lexical retrieval. What is remarkable is that we find this in a lab experiment without any real interaction between speakers. This is not only indicative of our sensitivity to undesirable social behavior, but also in line with the idea that the evaluation of such behavior is to some extent automatic,” Struiksma said.
Compliments also elicited a P2 effect, but not as strong as insults. When either compliments or insults used the name of the participant, the P2 signal was stronger and skin conductance (a measure of arousal) was higher than in instances when the participants weren’t called out by name. There may very well be evolutionary pressures that could explain why humans have evolved to be so attuned to both compliments and insults, especially when they’re directed towards ourselves.
“Insults directed at you pose a severe threat to the self as well as to your reputation. For members of an ultrasocial species that specializes in cooperation beyond the family, threats to one’s reputation are not to be taken lightly. Insults also inflict harm on others, they are informative as to who is willing to do so, and they signal a social conflict in your vicinity, possibly even in your group. Members of an ultrasocial species may well want to pay attention to such nearby verbal “slaps in the face”. For a species heavily invested in cooperation, displays of an aggressive stance (such as a verbal or physical slap in the face) may automatically trigger negative emotion in the target of that aggression, as well as in those who witness somebody else being a target of aggression,” Struiksma explained.
These findings also add to a body of evidence that suggests humans have a negativity bias, allocating selectively more attention to negative versus positive words and situations, as the researcher explained.
“Research on the negativity bias has revealed that people are on average particularly sensitive to negative events: such events not only recruit more attention and intensified processing than neutral events, but also often do so relative to positive events. As might be expected, similar mechanisms of attention capture and subsequent intensified processing are at work when people read or listen to emotional language. The exact source of the bias is currently under debate, with some arguing that it simply reflects statistical properties of the environment, and others proposing an evolutionary analysis involving the degree to which negative versus positive stimuli affect fitness. Also, the negativity bias does not guarantee that every negative stimulus or stimulus set captures more attention than every positive stimulus or stimulus set. After all, a snapping shoelace is a lot less evocative than the birth of one’s child. The negativity bias is real, but it exists as an average phenomenon, emerging for reasons that remain to be fully explained.”
The findings appeared in the journal Frontiers in Communication.