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Our brains react stronger to insults than to compliments

Scientists used electroencephalography to compare how the human brain reacts to insults, compliments and neutral statements. It turned out that we pay much more attention to negative evaluative language, even if it is not addressed to us and is repeated many times.

Humans are a highly social species that needs to assess the ever-changing dynamics of interpersonal relationships. Words play a large role in these interactions. They can cause serious discomfort and pain, endanger reputation and ego. Yet we still know little about exactly how the brain perceives hurtful words. Researchers from the University of Utrecht and Leiden University (Netherlands) decided to look into this connection between emotion and language. The results of their study are published in the journal Frontiers in Communication.

The authors hypothesized that verbal insults trigger a cascade of rapidly following or overlapping information processing effects, and repetition can affect different parts of this cascade in different ways. For example, some of them can disappear quickly upon repetition, while others can remain pronounced for long periods of time.

Seventy-nine women took part in the study. During the experiment, they read a series of repetitive statements of three types: insults (e.g., “Linda is terrible”), compliments (“Linda is impressive”), and neutral, factually correct descriptive statements (“Linda is Dutch”). To test whether the impact of the words depended on who they were addressed to, the researchers used the name of the participant in one half of the statements and an unfamiliar name in the other half. There was no real interaction between the participants and the other person in the experiment, and the volunteers themselves were told that the statements they read were made by three different men. The subjects’ brain activity during the experiment was recorded using electroencephalography (EEG).

It turned out that even outside of real interaction, the verbal insults still hurt the subjects. Moreover, the effect persisted even with repetition. This was evidenced by the event-related potential (ERP), the EEG-measured brain response to stimuli (utterances). One of these signals, called P2, was more pronounced when the negative lexicon was perceived and remained stable when it was repeated and did not depend on who the insult was about. So, negative evaluative vocabulary attracted more attention from our brains.

Compliments elicited a less strong P2 effect. Thus, the brain tended to pay more attention to unpleasant remarks. This is probably due to the fact that even written words are associated with situations of interpersonal interaction, some of which may be dangerous or unpleasant and require us to respond.

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