Free associations

Free associations

The psychology of insults

With the Trump presidency we may be entering a golden age of insult and name-calling. Trump himself is exercising leadership in this regard. No fewer than 305 people, places and things have felt the sting of his derisive tweets.

Psychology has recently swung towards the study of the positive side of human experience. However a few brave researchers have explored the intricacies of verbal abuse. Their work offers an intriguing perspective on the ways in which we disparage one another, and the values derogatory terms reinforce.

Basic forms of verbal abuse

One of the most interesting lines of research investigates the basic forms that verbal abuse takes. Do insults share a few common themes, and what might they be?

A pioneering study addressed this question by examining highly evaluative personality characteristics. These characteristics were omitted from earlier studies that established the fundamental dimensions of human personality: the so called “Big Five”. Because they say more about the ill feeling of the user than the attributes of the person described they were deliberately set aside. But for precisely this reason they may reveal the fundamental dimensions of human animus.

I shall call these the “Foul Four” because the researchers showed words conveying negative evaluations exemplify four themes. Those themes are worthlessness, stupidity, depravity and peculiarity.

Words conveying “worthlessness” – such as piddling, pointless or incapable – signify that a person lacks all value or merit. Those conveying “stupidity” – brainless, dumb or moronic – communicate a lack of intellect. Those conveying “depravity” – beastly, disgraceful or deplorable – indicate immorality. “Peculiarity” terms – odd, bizarre, warped – signal violations of social convention.

These primary dimensions of negative evaluation conceal deeply held values. We use them when we judge others to have transgressed four kinds of standard. We value power, intelligence, morality and normality, and when people violate these values we show our disapproval with corresponding abusive expressions.

Of course, we don’t all hold these values equally. A cursory inspection of Trump’s twittering shows he specialises in the language of worthlessness. Enemies are routinely derided as “weak”, “ineffective”, “incompetent”, “failing”, “lightweight”, “third-rate”, “losers” or simply the “worst” at something or other. These insults are belittling, communicating a perspective of power and rank looking downward.

Stupidity, depravity and peculiarity are lesser quills in Trump’s rhetorical quiver. Opponents are frequently dismissed as “stupid”, “dopey”, “dumb as rocks” or “clowns”. Selected others were singled out for supposed immorality, most famously “crooked Hillary”, the rigged electoral system that delivered his victory and the corrupt liberal media. Rare individuals, notably Bernie Sanders, are damned for their rarity, ridiculed as “wacko” and “crazy”.

Insults and culture

Donald Trump derides his adversaries in a form of English, but the language of insult varies around the globe. Indeed, some fascinating work compares insults across cultures. One such study examined insulting expressions from eleven distinct language communities.

The researchers sampled almost 3,000 people, asking each how they might respond if someone rudely and unapologetically bumped into them. About 12,000 pungent expressions were generated. Their content varied revealingly between different national groups.

Germans, Americans and Italians were especially drawn to anal terms of abuse, such as variations on “asshole”, whereas Spaniards preferred to query the offender’s intelligence. British and Dutch participants leaned towards genital terminology, and Norwegians specialised in satanic expressions. Animal terms and sexual inadequacies and abnormalities were also common.

One finding of this study was that abusive terms implicating the offender’s family members were only common in some Mediterranean cultures. This kind of verbal abuse was the focus of my favourite study in the psychology of insults. The authors of the study used insults as a window into cultural differences in the understandings of personhood.

In collectivist cultures, they reasoned, people see themselves as inextricably embedded in a web of family relationships. Insults will therefore tear at the web rather than targeting the person in isolation. In individualist cultures, where people see themselves as autonomous and separate, insults are more likely to disparage the singular person.

The researchers collected an anthology of insults from participants in several cities in Italy, where the north tends to be less collectivist than the south. They classified insults as individualistic or relational. The former disparage the person’s intellect, physical features, manners or sexuality. The latter target family members, taboo family relationships or stigmatised group identities.

Sure enough, southern Italians were more likely to make relational insults than northerners (for example, “eff off, you and 36 of your relatives”). Individualistic northerners, in turn, were especially prone to deride an individual’s intelligence while sparing their relations.

How we disparage others reveals who we are and what we value. As a supreme individualist who values competition we should not be surprised Donald Trump repeatedly savages his competitors for their supposed personal failings.

At some level this is a rather harmless way to express hostility. As Freud wrote, “the man who first flung a word of abuse at his enemy instead of a spear was the founder of civilisation”. We might just hope that the 45th president becomes a little more civil.