Scientists find evidence that verbal abuse causes a ‘mini-slap’

(ORDO NEWS) — Hearing an insult is like receiving a “mini-slap”, regardless of the context in which it was made. This is the conclusion of a new paper published in the journal Frontiers in Communication.

The researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) and skin conduction recordings to compare short-term exposure to repeated verbal abuse with exposure to repeated positive or neutral ratings. The findings provide us with a unique opportunity to explore the intersection of emotion and language.

Humans are a highly social species. To survive and thrive, we rely on the ever-changing dynamics of collaboration and interpersonal relationships.

Words play a big role in these relationships as they are the tools used to understand interpersonal behavior. As such, words can hurt, but we know little about how the impact of words occurs when someone processes an insult.

“The exact way in which words can convey their offensive, emotionally negative charge at the moment they are read or heard is not well understood,” said study author Dr. Marin Struiksma from the University of Utrecht.

Because insults threaten our reputation and our selves, they provide a unique opportunity to explore the interplay between language and emotion.” Struiksma continued:

“Understanding what an offensive expression does to people as it develops and why is of great importance to psycholinguists interested in how language moves people, as well as to others who want to understand the details of social behavior.”

Struiksma and her colleagues wanted to find out whether the processing of verbal insults is less sensitive to repetition than compliments, and if so, which cognitive stages are involved in adaptation and which are not.

“We hypothesize that verbal abuse induces a cascade of fast successive or overlapping processing effects, and that different parts of this cascade may be affected differently by repetition, some of which subside rapidly while others remain highly susceptible for a long time.” Struiksma explains.

EEG and skin conduction electrodes were placed on 79 participants. Then they were read a series of repetitive statements in which three different speech acts were implemented: insults (for example, “Linda is terrible”), compliments (for example, “Linda is impressive”), and neutral, factually correct descriptive statements (for example, “Linda is Dutch” ).

To test whether the influence of words depends on who is being spoken about, half of the three sets of statements used the participant’s own name, and the other half used someone else’s.

The experiment did not involve actual interaction between the participants and another person. Participants were told that the statements were made by three different people.

Mini face slaps

Researchers have found that even under unnatural conditions – laboratory conditions, no real interaction with people, and statements from fictitious people – verbal abuse can still “hurt” you, no matter who it was said to, and continue to work even after repetition. .

In particular, the EEG showed an early effect of insult in the P2 amplitude, which was very consistent with repetition and did not depend on who was insulted. P2 is the wave component of the event-related potential (ERP) measured on the human scalp.

In the experimental setting, insults were perceived as mini-slaps, Struiksma explained: “Our study shows that in a psycholinguistic laboratory experiment with no real interaction between speakers, insults produce lexical “mini-slaps”, for example, sharply negative evaluative words that the participant reads automatically attract attention during lexical search, no matter how often this search occurs”.

However, this study only shows the impact of insults in a simulated setting. Participants recognized the insults as such, but as decontextualized utterances, the actual emotional impact of the insults is no longer valid. The study of insults in real-world settings remains a complex ethical challenge.

However, the results show our brains are more sensitive to negative words than positive ones. The insult immediately grabs our brain’s attention as the emotional meaning of the insult is retrieved from long-term memory.

Compliments cause a less strong P2 effect, showing negativism in the amount of attention that is automatically allocated to negative and positive interpersonal situations.


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