Insults Can Feel Just Like 'Mini Slaps'

Research finds that our brains may be more sensitive to negative words than we realize
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 19, 2022 10:50 AM CDT
A Diss Can Feel Like an Actual Slap in the Face
Stock photo.   (Getty Images/Khosrork)

If you've ever felt the sting of an insult—as in it almost felt like a literal sting, as if you'd been physically hurt—you're not alone. Gadgets 360 reports on a new study out of the Netherlands' Utrecht University that shows verbal put-downs can feel "akin to receiving small slap in the face" by those on the receiving end of the insult. For the research published in Frontiers in Communication, Dr. Marijn Struiksma and her team recruited nearly 80 female subjects, then applied electroencephalography (EEG) and skin conductance electrodes to them before having them read a series of statements broken into three groups, per a release: insults (ie, "Linda is an idiot"), compliments ("Linda is an angel"), and neutral, factual statements ("Linda is a student").

Half of the statements used the subjects' actual names, while the other half used someone else's name, and the participants didn't have any interaction with any other humans. They were told the statements were made by men. Struiksma's group found that the verbal barbs caused a "P2 amplitude that was highly robust over repetition"—meaning, they got under the participants' skin, even though the subjects knew they were taking part in an experiment. The research shows that "in a psycholinguistic laboratory experiment without real interaction between speakers, insults deliver lexical 'mini slaps' in the face," says Struiksma.

Interestingly, the insults got the subjects' goat even if their own names weren't used in the taunt. The release notes that delving further into the effects of insults on subjects in the real world (ie, not in a lab) "remains ethically challenging." Still, "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." (More discoveries stories.)

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