Recently the search terms "insult psychology" brought someone to the blog.
Those terms linked to a 2009 post where I described some research I had conducted with some former students--Ryan Gertner, Grace Lozano, and Jasmine Bass--regarding the psychology of what we called insult sensitivity. This research was interesting as it led us to some unexpected reflections about pride and humility.
Consider the insults we all face on a daily basis. At the time of our research my students found a website that collected the top insults floating around the Internet. In 2009 some of the top insults on the Internet were:
Your birth certificate is an apology from the condom factory.These seem a bit lame to me. Regardless, the focus of our research wasn't about the content insults but about how we react to insults.
If you were twice as smart, you'd still be stupid.
It looks like your face caught on fire and someone tried to put it out with a fork.
I would ask how old you are, but I know you can't count that high.
We all know that people vary in how prone they are to feeling insulted or offended. Some people are very thin-skinned while others have thick-skin. Some people are routinely offended by things that others seem to easily brush off. The question our research attempted to address in 2009 was the following: What are the psychological correlates of insult sensitivity? What predicts being thin or thick skinned?
The first thing we had to do was measure insult sensitivity. Although self-report isn't the best method for a variable like this, we began there for convenience. Toward that end, we asked participants to imagine themselves in the following scenarios and then rate how insulted or offended they would feel in each:
- You are talking to a co worker and they respond with “f**k you” and walk away.
- You are in an important conversation and someone walks up and interrupts you.
- You wave and greet a co worker and they intentionally do not acknowledge you.
- Someone gives you “the finger” in a traffic jam.
- You are sharing a concern or complaint and the person rolls their eyes at you and walks away.
- The people close to you forget your birthday.
- You are sharing a goal or dream with a friend and they respond by saying, “I do not think you are capable of that.”
First, insult is a form of anger, often mixed, if the insult hits its mark, with feelings of deflation and shame. Consequently, we made two predictions. First, if insult is a form of anger it seemed reasonable that people prone to anger would be more likely to feel insulted. Second, we also expected neurotic people to be more prone to insult. Neuroticism is a person's vulnerability to negative emotional states (e.g., anger, stress, worry, sadness). Thus, if insult is a species of anger and dejection we expected people prone to these emotional states to be more sensitive to insult.
In sum, our first set of predictions suggested that insult sensitivity was an emotional issue, specifically an emotional regulation issue. People prone to feeling anger or dejection were predicted to be more vulnerable to insults.
Our second set of predictions followed the thinking of Jerome Neu in his book Sticks and Stones: The Philosophy of Insults. Neu's basic argument is that insult is an assault upon the ego. Often an insult is an assertion of dominance via an attempt at humiliation. Neu writes that, “Insult is about humiliation and the assertion of superiority, the assertion or assumption of dominance.”
Following Neu, we posited an ego-based model of insult in contrast to the emotion-based model discussed above. Specifically, if insult is an assault upon the ego then people with inflated egos should be more sensitive to feeling insulted. Consequently, we predicted that narcissism would be positively associated with insult sensitivity.
Summarizing, our research attempted to test two rival models concerning insult sensitivity. Is insult sensitivity an emotional regulation issue? Or is insult sensitivity related to protecting the ego and its feelings of superiority?
Our research found no significant associations between insult sensitivity ratings and the emotion measures (anger proneness and neuroticism). However, insult sensitivity was associated with narcissism. Specifically, the larger the ego the greater the sensitivity to insult.
It seems that insult is more about ego than emotion.
I found those results interesting. Specifically, I was surprised to discover how research about insult sensitivity led us to reflections about humility.
It had not occurred to me, prior to this research, that being thin-skinned might be a symptom of pride. Conversely, I had not considered that one of the benefits of humility might be a relative immunity to insults.
This finding is intriguing in that psychologists have wondered about if humility has any mental health benefits. More specifically, we all know that humility has enormous social benefits. We all like to be around humble people. But are there psychological benefits to being humble? Because it might seem that having a humble ego predisposes a person to low self-esteem.
But our research regarding insult sensitivity suggests that one important psychological benefit of humility might be a relative immunity to insult.
Which leads to an interesting paradox. The humble person can easily brush off insults while the prideful person can't let them go. That is, although a narcissistic person might seem to have a great deal of ego-strength and confidence a large part of his or her inner life is actually being dominated by perceived social slights and insults. The prideful heart is a constant buzz of worry about status and social standing.
By contrast, the humble heart seems to sail through the world of social status, critique and commentary with calmness and tranquility.