“Imagine that someone calls you a ‘worthless nobody,’” begins a paper recently published in Social Neuroscience. I would rather not, but, fine, if you insist. “Now imagine,” continue the scientists, who are from the U.K. and the Netherlands, “that a number of people witness the situation and laugh at you.” What happens in the brain, these researchers wanted to know, when you are not only insulted — but when a laughing crowd is there to see it all happen?
Over at BPS Research Digest this week, psychologist and writer Christian Jarrett explains the way the scientists set up their study:
Marte Otten and her colleagues asked 46 participants to read 60 insults and 60 compliments presented on-screen one word at a time. Half these insults (e.g. “You are antisocial and annoying”) and compliments (e.g. “You are strong and independent”) featured the silhouette of a crowd of people at the bottom of each screen, and the end of the insult or compliment was followed immediately by a final screen showing the phrase “and they feel the same way” together with the sound of laughter lasting two seconds. Throughout this entire process, the researchers recorded the participants’ brainwaves using EEG.
After hearing the insults, participants’ brains showed greater signs of emotional processing than they did after hearing the compliments. (More specifically, the researchers were looking for evidence of something known as late positive potential, or LPP, which Jarrett describes as “a positive spike of brain activity that can occur 300ms to 1 second after a stimulus.”) And when the insult was paired with a guffawing crowd of jerks, that emotional processing activity was stronger, and lasted longer, than when the participants heard the insult on its own.
You hear a compliment, and you move on. But an insult lodges itself in your brain, and you mull the meaning over for longer than you would a kind word; this study suggests that this effect is made even stronger when you’re feeling laughed at. (I know. Shocking.) You could think of this as a neurological example of the negativity bias, the notion that negativity tends to register more strongly than positivity. If you’ve ever gotten a mostly positive performance review, but found yourself fixated later on the few criticisms your boss had for you — you’ve experienced a version of the negativity bias.
Your brain works harder to process insults than it does compliments, in other words. Your poor brain. You’re always embarrassing it.