To be insulted is to receive "mini slaps" in the face !

Do people get used to insults? This is the question raised by Dutch researchers in their study published on July 18 (source 1). “Because insults are a threat to our reputation and to our ‘self’, they offer a unique opportunity to research the interface between e-language and emotions”, they announce in the preamble.

To conduct their work, the authors recruited 79 volunteers, on whom they placed electroencephalography (EEG) and skin conductance electrodes. Participants were then asked to read a series of insults (such as “Linda is an idiot” or “Paula is horrible”), positive comments (like, “Linda is an angel” or “Paula is awesome”) and neutral factual descriptions (e.g. “Linda is Dutch”).

The researchers then used EEG and skin conductance recordings to compare the short-term impact of repeated verbal insults to that of repeated positive or neutral ratings. And to find out whether the impact of slurs depended on the person referred to in the slur, half of the three sets of statements used the name of the volunteer examined, and the other half used that of someone else. Detail which is also important, the volunteers never interacted with each other and they were informed that the statements they were reading were made by three different men.

The insults always reach us

The researchers found that even under unnatural conditions – a laboratory environment, no real human interaction, and statements from fictitious people – verbal insults can always “get at us”, no matter who they are directed at or who utters them, and continue to do so even after repetition. In other words, you never really get used to verbal abuse.

Specifically, EEG recordings showed an early insult effect in P2 amplitude (measured at the scalp) that was very robust across repetition and did not depend on who the insult was. “This P2 effect indicates a very rapid and stable capture of emotional attention,” the study says. According to the researchers, skin conductivity recordings showed that insults did not lead to greater arousal than compliments.

“Our study shows that in a psycholinguistic laboratory experiment, without real interaction between speakers, insults deliver lexical ‘mini slaps’such as the involved strongly negative evaluative words that a participant reads, automatically attract attention during lexical retrieval, regardless of the frequency of this retrieval,” says Dr Marijn Struiksma, from the University of Utrecht, in a dedicated press release (source 2). an insult immediately captures the attention of our brainbecause the emotional meaning of insults is retrieved from long-term memory.

But the study only looks at the effects of insults in an artificial setting. Participants will have recognized the slurs as such, “but as decontextualized statements, the actual emotional effects of insults lose their potency“, recognize the authors, who underline the fact that studying insults in a real setting remains an ethical challenge.

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