Search Term Friday: Insult Psychology

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.

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.
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.

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:

  1. You are talking to a co worker and they respond with “f**k you” and walk away.
  2. You are in an important conversation and someone walks up and interrupts you. 
  3. You wave and greet a co worker and they intentionally do not acknowledge you.
  4. Someone gives you “the finger” in a traffic jam.
  5. You are sharing a concern or complaint and the person rolls their eyes at you and walks away.
  6. The people close to you forget your birthday.
  7. You are sharing a goal or dream with a friend and they respond by saying, “I do not think you are capable of that.”
After creating this rudimentary measure of insult sensitivity we began to theorize about the psychological traits that might predict insult sensitivity. Two ideas came to mind.

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.

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10 thoughts on “Search Term Friday: Insult Psychology”

  1. It sounds to me like a problem with the definitions or concepts of what humility is. Many people seem to think that humility means a lack of self-worth. I disagree with that definition, and in fact think that humility actually leads to a greater sense of self-worth because you can more accurately judge yourself, both your capabilities and lack thereof.

  2. Agreeing with With bibliotecaria, I would add that, conversely, true humility is a product of a true sense of self-worth, the ultimate grounding of that true sense of self-worth being the depth-heart-knowledge that one is of infinite value to God unconditionally loved by God - i.e., it is not only exocentrically grounded but also theocentrically grounded.

    As for Richard's thesis, I think its veracity is demonstrated by one Jesus of Nazareth, as well as by the great saints non-Christian as well as Christian. The prototype is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 (see especially Isaiah 53:7).

  3. I think it's quite hard to judge one's own humility, and working towards being humble can often lead to the opposite. So perhaps to observe my feelings if I am being insulted or slighted can be an objective way of testing my degree of narcissism?

    A wise nun once said to me that true humility is not thinking of oneself too highly, or too lowly, or even as one truly is; but rather true humility is not thinking of oneself at all, but rather thinking of God.

  4. Screwtape to Wormwood:

    You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character….

    The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour’s talents ….

    Even of his sins the Enemy does not want him to think too much ...

    C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1942)

  5. Having personally experienced numbers 1-6, I think much of it has to do with feeling better by belittling others. Also, most insults originate from higher up the pecking Order and are directed downward. Thus the person of higher stature may interrupt any conversation and dismiss the person of lesser stature, and it is perfectly acceptable. Should this occur the other way, there will be hell to pay and you may get fired or severely punished for it. I had to have tough enough skin that the comments did not bother me and enough self control to not respond at all as any response would have branded me the perpetrator.

  6. I can certainly appreciate the comments stating that humility acknowledges one's self worth. However, this is the ideal, and like any other heavenly perfection, it hovers far above our stumbling humanity.

    There are sharp edges of life that often slice up our feeling of worth, causing us to fear the trap of thinking more of ourselves, yet never affecting our love for others.

    Humility takes root in the soil that has been prepared in each of our souls by experiences so diverse that the only definition that is real is the one that is seeking, through our emotional highs and our crumbling lows, to embrace the next person we meet as THE child of God.

  7. As an instance of "insult sensitivity," apparently even famous theologians can be thin-skinned, prickly, and quick to take offense at criticism or even disagreement: I am not suggesting that David Bentley Hart is a narcissist; I just think it's interesting that being able to think, and to expound, profound thoughts can go hand in hand with an easily wounded ego.

  8. I'd be curious to know how you're defining humility here. We often assume that the essence of humility is found in thinking of oneself as appropriately lowly - thus, the potential connection between humility and low self-esteem that you mention. However, I think humility is better thought of in terms of disinterest in ego, or disinterest in status. The humble person doesn't think poorly of herself; rather, she doesn't think much about herself - she's primarily interested in something else. Of course, I think this jives nicely with your findings about insults. In this case, the humble person isn't easily upset by insults because she's not preoccupied with the insult and what it says about her. Does any of this resonate with the understandings of humility/narcissism (did you set them up as a binary?) used in your research?

  9. All insult is context imbedded. Intentionality and outcome is measured within the mind of the recipient. We live in a "me and my agenda first" world where the needs and well being of others are habitually sublimated. Conversely, some insults can be manifestations of affection between good friends who are otherwise too embarrassed to show their true affection towards one another. Well, hey then.......Fu#€k You too? Ha!

  10. I just want to share my experience and testimony here.. I was in a relationship for 4 years with my fiance and all of a sudden, another woman came into the picture.. he started hailing me and he was abusive..but I still loved him with all my heart and wanted him at all cost? then he stoped calling and started to ignore me whole life was turning apart and I didn't know what to do..he moved out of the house and abandoned me .. a week late i saw a post of another lady and i contacted her via her facebook , she told me about trying spiritual means to get my fianve back and introduced me to a spell caster? so I decided to try it reluctantly..although I didn't believe in all those things? then when he did the special prayers and spell, after 2days, my fiance came back and was pleading..he had realized his mistakes..i just couldn't believe it.. anyways we are back together now and married and we are case anyone needs this man back or want to fix his relationship , his email address, his spells is for a better life. again his email is

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