Psychologists Reveal That Verbal Abuse Is Comparable to ‘Mini-Slaps to the Face’

Our brains pay immediate attention to verbal insults because they trigger strong emotions, which are retrieved from long-term memories.

The social nature of humans is quite strong. We rely on the constantly shifting dynamics of interpersonal and cooperative relationships to survive and flourish. Since words are tools for comprehending interpersonal behavior, they play a significant role in these relationships.

Therefore, words have the potential to be hurtful. However, little is known about how the impactful words are when a person processes an insult.

Verbal abuse is against the general moral rule that one should not inflict harm on others. They also put one’s reputation or face in danger. Regardless of the specific circumstances in which an insult is spoken, hearing one is like getting a “little slap in the face.”


These “verbal slaps in the face” offer a rare chance to investigate the relationship between language and emotion. A recent article in Frontiers in Communication comes to the same conclusion.

According to the corresponding author Dr. Marijn Struiksma of Utrecht University, “It is not yet well understood exactly how words could deliver their hurtful, emotionally damaging payload after these statements are heard or read.

James Lange Theory of Emotion
James Lange Theory of Emotion by SoniaM2020 under CC BY-SA 4.0

A unique opportunity to study the relationship between language and emotion is presented by insults since they are a danger to our reputation and our sense of “self,” Struiksma continued:


“The impact of language on people who desire to comprehend the nuances of social conduct is a concern for psycholinguists. They believe it is important to understand what an inappropriate comment does to people as it develops and why it is crucial.”

EEG and skin conductance

The short-term effects of verbal abuse were compared to those of more positive assessments and neutral, factual descriptions using electroencephalography (EEG) and skin conductance (SC) recordings.

EEG recording
EEG recording by Petter Kallioinen under CC BY-SA 3.0

To determine if processing verbal insults are less responsive to repetition than processing verbal compliments, Struiksma and her colleagues wanted to investigate which cognitive stages are involved in the adaptation and which aren’t.


They also looked at how responses to these different speech acts change after a lot of repetition.

According to Struiksma, “We hypothesize that verbal insults cause a cascade of quickly following or overlapping processing effects and that different parts of that cascade might be differently affected by repetition, with some of them rapidly wearing off and others remaining strongly responsive for a long time.

EEG and skin conductance measurements

64 Ag/AgCl electrode BioSemi caps in a 10-20 configuration were used to record EEG. To measure the horizontal electrooculogram (hEOG), two facial electrodes at the left and right outer canthi, two additional electrodes at the left and right mastoid for re-referencing during the analysis, and two additional electrodes above and below the left eye to measure the vertical EOG (vEOG) were all used. At the distal phalanx of the left hand’s middle and index fingers, two stainless-steel Nihon Kohden electrodes were used to assess skin conductance. All EEG and SC data were sampled and recorded at 2,048 Hz using a BioSemi ActiveTwo system.


The study

Seventy-nine female volunteers had EEG and skin conductance electrodes placed on them. After that, they read a sequence of comments that were repeated and represented three different speech acts:

· insults (such as “Linda is nasty”),

· compliments (such as “Linda is remarkable”), and


· Neutral, factually accurate descriptive statements (such as “Linda is Dutch”).

Half of the three sets of statements used the participant’s name, while the other half used someone else’s, to examine how statement impact varied depending on who was being evaluated. The participants in the experiment did not interact with one another during the experiment. The participants were informed that three separate men were making the statements.

What the researchers found

The findings gave the researchers a rare chance to investigate the relationship between emotion and language.

shutterstock 501071983

The researchers discovered that verbal insults can still “get at you,” no matter what the insult is about, even under unnatural circumstances like a lab environment, the absence of real human interactions, and statements made by imaginary persons.

The EEG specifically displayed an early insult impact on P2 amplitude that was extremely robust over repetition and independent of the subject of the insult. The event-related potential (ERP), which is measured at the human scalp, has a waveform component called P2.

The “mini-slaps to the face”

The insults were seen as little slaps to the face in the experiment’s context. Struiksma states that “our study demonstrates that insults deliver lexical ‘mini slaps in the face’ in a psycholinguistic laboratory experiment without real interaction between speakers, such that, regardless of how frequently lexical retrieval occurs, the strongly negative evaluative words included that a participant reads immediately catch their attention.”


However, the study only demonstrates the impact of insults in a fabricated environment. The insults will have been obvious to the participants, but because they have been taken out of context, their actual emotional impact is diminished. It is still unethical to study insults in the actual world.

Even so, the findings indicate that our brains are more sensitive to negative statements than good ones. Our brains pay immediate attention to insults because they trigger strong emotions, which are retrieved from long-term memory.

Less of a P2 effect was produced by compliments, demonstrating a bias toward negativity in the attention that is naturally given to unfavorable rather than positive interpersonal situations.



Genuine verbal abuse violates the moral obligation to treat others with respect. In a species that depends on cooperation with constantly shifting partners, they are also risks to one’s face or reputation, which should not be treated lightly.

In contrast to more favorable evaluations, we demonstrated that verbal insults produced a P2 reaction that was very quick and did not decline with large repetition or depending on the party engaged.

The fact that verbal indiscretions effectively draw attention within 250 ms of their occurrence, in an undefined laboratory setting with no real interaction, is not only evidence of our sensitivity to inappropriate social behavior but also supports the notion that the assessment of such behavior is, in some ways, automatic.


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