Our brains react more strongly to insults than to compliments

(ORDO NEWS) — Scientists used electroencephalography to compare how the human brain reacts to insults, compliments and neutral statements.

It turned out that we pay much more attention to negative evaluative vocabulary, even if it is not addressed to us and is repeated many times.

Humans are a highly social species that need to appreciate the ever-changing dynamics of interpersonal relationships. Words play a big role in these interactions.

They can cause serious discomfort and pain, jeopardize reputation and pride. However, we still know little about exactly how the brain perceives hurtful words.

Scientists from the Universities of Utrecht and Leiden (Netherlands) decided to look into this connection between emotions and language.

The authors hypothesized that verbal abuse triggers a cascade of rapidly successive or overlapping information processing effects, and that repetition may affect different parts of this cascade differently.

For example, some of them are able to quickly disappear with repetition, while others remain pronounced for a long time.

The study involved 79 women. During the experiment, they read a series of three types of repeating statements: insults (for example, “Linda is terrible”), compliments (“Linda is impressive”), and neutral, factually correct descriptive statements (“Linda is Dutch”).

To test whether the impact of the words depended on who they were addressed to, the scientists used the name of the participant in the experiment in one half of the statements, and an unfamiliar name in the other.

In the experiment, there was no real interaction between the participants and another person, and the volunteers themselves were told that the statements they were reading were made by three different men. The brain activity of the subjects during the experiment was recorded using electroencephalography (EEG).

It turned out that even outside the real interaction, verbal abuse still hurt the subjects. Moreover, the effect persisted with repetition.

This was evidenced by the potential associated with the event (ERP), measured by the EEG response of the brain to stimuli (utterances).

One of these cues, called P2, was more pronounced when negative language was perceived and remained stable when it was repeated and did not depend on who the insult was about. This means that negative evaluative vocabulary attracts more attention of our brain.

Compliments caused a less strong P2 effect. Thus, the brain tends to pay more attention to unpleasant statements.

This is probably due to the fact that even written words are associated with situations of interpersonal interaction, some of which can be dangerous or unpleasant and require us to respond.

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