We know verbal insults hurt. Words slung with spite or malice can feel like a proverbial slap in the face.
Now new research goes some way to explaining why visceral shocks to spoken insults linger longer than praise or compliments often do.
A team of researchers in the Netherlands explored people's emotional reactions to hurtful language by recording participants' brain activity as they heard insults hurled at them or others.
While it can be easy to brush off a compliment, a snide remark or wounding slur can bother us for days. Repeated insults also don't ever seem to lose their sting.
"In passing, we may gain more insight into the everyday experience of why some things continue to move us, while others do not," the team writes.
Understandably, there's a lot for our brains to process when we hear an insult. In the split second it takes to recall the meaning of words and to interpret the social situation quickly and a speaker's intentions.
Language researcher Marijn Struiksma and colleagues wondered how our brains respond to offensive language compared to compliments and neutral facts.
Struiksma and her colleagues placed electrodes on the scalps of nearly 80 female study participants to determine whether repeated verbal insults elicit strong responses that don't wear off as quickly as compliments do – finding that our brain's rapid-fire reaction to insults doesn't subside with repeated verbal affronts.
The researchers found insults uttered by a fictitious person triggered short bursts of brain activity in the front part of listeners' brains, regardless of who the insult was directed at, themselves or somebody else.
These very rapid responses, which the researchers say are akin to a slap in the face, did not diminish over time; offensive statements continued to grab the brain's attention, generating large responses of similar magnitude, regardless of how often the invectives were heard.
Insults elicited a larger response in brain activity than compliments, and they continued to do so throughout the session, the experiments showed.
"This suggests that whatever aspect of insults is responsible for capturing extra attention" – whether it be the emotional meaning of words or the memory of past experiences, something which the study couldn't untangle – "does so in a highly robust way," the team writes.
The researchers figure that the fact that insults seemingly captured the brain's attention within 250 milliseconds is indicative not only of our sensitivity to undesirable social behavior but also that our reactions to insults are somewhat automatic.
Surprisingly, the team found that our brains also react to compliments in a stable manner, at least on an electrical level.
Positive statements triggered smaller waves of brain activity than the pangs of insults, but they didn't taper off over time, as the researchers expected. That would have indicated a 'saturation' of sorts to the positive vibes.
It's a telling reminder of how our brains tend to fixate on negative events more intensely than they do positive things – what's known as the negativity bias.
Admittedly, being subjected to a barrage of 180 insults and swear words is a lot for study participants to endure, whether the slurs were directed at them or not. And, well, we didn't need a study to remind us how insults feel.
The study was also conducted in a lab setting and only involved women hearing insults voiced by fictitious men, so it might not generalize to natural social situations.
"This is a far cry from real life," Struiksma and colleagues note. They don't suspect men would respond differently to insults directed at them, but further studies could explore that.
Even so, the results thus far "show that even under these highly unnatural conditions, and in the absence of a richly defined interpersonal arena, verbal insults still 'get at you' and continue to do so over time, at least at some level," the team concludes.
The study was published in Frontiers in Communication.