Sticks & Stones: Part 3, Insult Sensitivity, Ego and Humility

Last week I talked about the first of three papers I recently presented with ACU students regarding insult psychology. The second paper I'd like to discuss is research conducted by Ryan Gertner, Grace Lozano, and Jasmine Bass concerning the psychology of insult sensitivity.

Last week I wrote about blasphemy, insulting God's Honor. But what about the insults we all face on a daily basis? To dip into the world of insults, the students found an internet site that gathers the current top insults floating around in the world. At the time of the presentation the top five insults were:

Your birth certificate is an apology from the condom factory.

If you were twice as smart, you'd still be stupid.

Shut up, you’ll never be the man your mother is.

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.

Some of these are pretty funny. But beyond the content of the insult, what 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 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 construct 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 due 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 find these 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 the 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 seems that having a humble ego might predispose a person to low self-esteem. But this research on insult sensitivity suggests that one important psychological benefit of humility might be a relative immunity to insult. This 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 have a great deal of ego-strength and confidence, a large part of his inner life will be dominated by perceived social slights and insults. The prideful heart is a constant buzz about status and social standing, mixed with feelings of anger and dejection. By contrast, the humble heart seems to sail through the world of social status, critique and commentary with calmness and tranquility.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

13 thoughts on “Sticks & Stones: Part 3, Insult Sensitivity, Ego and Humility”

  1. We used to hear the word "neurotic" often till sometime in the 80's, I think it was, that the some professional association began discouraging its use. I guess it must still be a useful term, if you are using it. Your results are encouraging and uplifting.

  2. Perhaps this means I'm growing more humble. I used to get so upset if I heard someone didn't think I was "all that" in some area (e.g., playing sports, doing my job, etc.) I realize, too, that I look for praise quite often, which I suppose would be the opposite of insult.

  3. Richard,
    I think one must also consider context, past history, and expectation of certain social groups...

    For instance, I thought being a Christian was being "an equal", which did a lot for my insecure feelings,self dejection and anxiety about rejection from others...that was "my past"...

    I thought that following Christ was learning humility by denying self and learning to be humble...BUT

    This is not the paradigm of all i ended up getting hurt by being rejected, because of a lack of social status or "connection, etc. but I kept on thinking that I would learn more humilty...But, there comes a point where one must ask oneself the question about letting "evil" prevail...which means, letting others continue in their arrogance and pride where it cocerns yourself or those you love...that then becomes a question of "rightness", justice, fairness, respect, dignity, etc...which is about "human rights"...

    I have a right to exist, as does my family and any other human being. And we do have a right to our choices about our lives...that is not pride, but a rightful respect for oneself, and holding another accountable to proper behavior toward another human being...

    Then, rejection does not become a personal "message" one internalizes, but one that one can "walk away" from understanding that it is a "sorry" "message" about another...

    Ego strength is not sinful, but can be if it is not moderated by accountability, as in "balance of power"...we can all be blind and misguided where it concerns others and we are desirous of certain "goals", etc...

    So, humilty comes as we understand our limitations in this world...we cannot conquer all evil...we cannot overcome all human falibility...etc...

    So, we live our lives the best we can with the knowledge we have...pick ourselves up when we fall, or fail and continue on our journey..learning along the way..

  4. The definition of humility is also paramount here, in my opinion.

    I used to think being humble meant I didn't think too highly of myself.

    Now I think being humble means I think that, as a child of God, I'm awesome and priceless. It's just that others are just as awesome as me. Maybe even more awesome.

    So humility and low self-esteem have no connection to me.

    p.s. -- you're awesome

  5. Really good start on theorizing why one is more easily insulted compared to another.

    Taking it a step further however, the issue becomes grey. What about insults that mix in a pinch of a racial slur, or religious slur as Angie mentions above, etc? These insults can be profoundly offensive to all targeted, especially fueled by a climate of cultural/political inequality.

    I KNOW you aren't measuring one's humility/arrogance against how successful/unsuccessful these type of insults are endured. But many times, insults can be a composite of 90% light joking/gest, with a 10% pinch of assult on one's "person".

    And I guess that's the difference -an insult vs. a verbal assult on one's "person" (i.e race, religion).

    In church situations, I'll just say that I have learned to read genuine humility vs. false, pious,
    humility. Within the grind of ministry, participants who serve for their own name/position/power (including if not expecially pastors), eventually expose their selfishness/arrogance when becoming "easily offended - 1st Cor 13" over relatively superficial matters.

    Finally (and I am guessing this is where you will go), is God/Christ easily insulted? How many of His human creatures will He barbeque for eternity in Hell for laughing at the exhibits in Part 2 of this series?

    Gary Y.

  6. Great post! I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on humility. How can we go about being humble and still have a healthy self-esteem?

  7. Rachael,
    You didn't ask me, but I think having a healthy self-esteem is knowing oneself (values), and being able to respond to others in an appropriate way. And that is not a formula... but, a learning curve throughout life...

  8. When you look at those who insult or get insulted, there's types: the insult out of anger/frustration, the attack on another to exert superiority or put another down, or the exercise of wit at another's expense. Seems that the type of insult - and the relationship with the insulter (family member/spouse, stranger flipping you off on a highway, classmate/co-worker/neighbor) - decides a lot of how deeply the insult cuts.

  9. I think you might be interested in this story about compassion and technology:

  10. Richard and the group: Just wondering how the footprint of this description fits over the area of personality and learning types.

  11. Annonymous,
    A valid point. Everyone can have an attitude about life that is one of learning. I try to do this everyday in everyday situations, reflecting on values, meaning, etc. This is of major importance in what I write about on my blog site.

    It seems that those who have more education, like Richard, have more to reflect upon, like on his bike ride. And we, who read this blog site, recognize that his expertise has given all of us more to reflect upon...Thanks...

  12. Richard, Others,

    Your post and the responses have triggered more questions for me than answers. I wonder what kind of attitude is at work when one is cut off or put in danger by someone driving wrecklessly or Slowly. Is that taken as an insult or an actual physical threat? Does pride or humility or something else play a role in one's responses? What within us does an insult threaten? Something social or personal? What chink in the armor of our persona does the insulter find? And how about insult in intimate relationships? Whose spouse does not know (instinctively?) how to insult the other? And finally, is feeling insulted gender-specific?


  13. Steve,
    Personality researchers use the term Neuroticism as it is part of the Big Five personality taxonomy. However, some use the term Emotional Stability instead.

    Hopefully we are all further along in the journey than we were in the past. I know I am, despite reports on the contrary.

    I hear the hurt in that first comment. I often worry that the Christian brand has been so damaged by the misbehavior (and pride) of Christians if the label is even useful anymore.

    I think that is right. A some point in the past humility began to be an ego-based construct. I doubt the ancients pondered things like self-esteem to the extend we obsess over it. For more on this, see my comment to Rachel next.

    As mentioned to redlefty, I think we've leaned too far to ego-based models. I, personally, have been thinking that humility is better understood as a behavioral issue, specifically an interpersonal issue. In my opinion, here are some of the behavioral traits of humility:


    You are right. The phenomenon is incredibly complex and nuanced. This study just scratches the surface. Neu's book is also a night resource.

    Thanks! That is a very interesting article. Who saw that implication for the world of Twitter?

    I definitely think personality is in play. I'm less sure how learning styles apply, but I don't know that literature as well. I'd love to here speculations on the relationship.

    Whew, those are a lot of questions. In this particular study, we did find that women were more sensitive to insults. Which we didn't expect. Given the finding for narcissism we predicted that males would be more sensitive. We are still puzzling about it. Our best guess is that the power differentials between men and women make women more hypervigilant (rightfully so) about behaviors that diminish them.

Leave a Reply