Verbal insults go against a universal moral imperative not to inflict harm on others, and
they also pose a threat to one’s face or reputation. As such, these “verbal slaps in
the face” provide a unique opportunity to explore the interface between language and
emotion. We used electroencephalography (EEG) and skin conductance (SC) recordings
to compare the short-term impact of verbal insults such as “Linda is an idiot” or “Paula
is horrible” to that of more positive evaluations (e.g., “Linda is an angel”, “Paula is
impressive”) and neutral factual descriptions (e.g., “Linda is a student”), examining how
responses to these various speech acts adapt as a function of massive repetition. By
using either the participant’s or somebody else’s name, we also explored how statement
impact depended on who was being evaluated. Multilevel ERP analysis with three
predesignated latency ranges revealed an early insult effect in P2 amplitude that was
highly robust over repetition and also did not depend on who the insult was about. This P2
effect points to a very rapid and stable capture of emotional attention, plausibly triggered
by the retrieval of evaluative word meaning from long-term memory. Insults also elicited a
larger late positive potential (LPP), again regardless of who the insult was about, but this
later effect did not withstand repetition. Skin conductance responses showed that insults
did not lead to more arousal than compliments did. In all, our findings suggest that in a
standard psycholinguistic comprehension experiment without real interaction between
speakers, insults deliver lexical “mini-slaps in the face,” such that the strongly negative
evaluative words involved (e.g., “idiot”) automatically grab attention during lexical retrieval,
regardless of how often that retrieval occurs.
Original languageEnglish
Article number910023
Pages (from-to)1-21
JournalFrontiers in Communication
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jul 2022


  • psycholinguistics
  • communication
  • emotion
  • insults
  • morality
  • EEG
  • ERP
  • skin conductance


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