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The Psychology of Insults

The desire to put others down may be as old as...chickens.

Source: lightwavemedia/Shutterstock

Now that we've lived through an election largely fought—and won—on the basis of insults, it's time for an epidemiology of the put-down. What is the underlying psychology of insults—and why do they suddenly seem to be everywhere?

Motivated by Anger?

Chickens are famous for having a pecking order, in which the bottom chicken in the hierarchy is pecked by everyone else and the top chicken is not picked on by anyone. The chicken hierarchy is settled by physical aggression.

In a verbal society, such as the human one, physical aggression is less often used to settle issues of status: These are mostly deferred to verbal interactions. An insult can thus be interpreted as an attempt to reduce the social status of the recipient and raise the relative status of the insulter.

If that logic is correct, we can assume that insults are often motivated by anger surrounding issues of status insecurity. Many insults are reactive: They are responses to real or imagined slights from others, such as a person accidentally cutting in front of someone else in a line.

We live in a period of extreme concern about how we are perceived by others; social psychologists are charting a steady increase in narcissism among college students.1 There is little consensus about why this is happening, but some scholars believe that the more children are measured on evaluative scales—aptitude tests, IQ scores, and GPA—the more sensitive they are to threats to their social rank.

Of course, this narcissism trend is only accentuated by social media, where participants are subject to unrelenting evaluation by other network members who encourage participants to inflate their egos, often at the expense of others.1 Concern with how one is perceived creates social insecurity that may be relieved by lashing out at other chickens (or people) in the area. Social networks are replete with individuals who deliver stinging rebukes because they enjoy doing so and because they are mostly exempt from the reprisals that one might expect for real-world put-downs.

Content: Status, Competence, Sex, and Hygiene

The purpose of a put-down is to reduce someone else in the imaginary status hierarchy. So it is hardly surprising that insults will often refer to a person's social status in terms of ancestry, lack of prestige, or membership in a despised out-group; for example, Nazis or vagrants. Otherwise, the content of insults across the ages is monotonously predictable: Many insults feature a sexual component, refer to sexual organs, or bring up shameful or ineffectual sexual behavior. In addition to status and sexuality, insults inflict shame by mentioning unappealing traits—fatness, shortness, baldness, spottiness, and contagious diseases.

Another way of taking a person down is by questioning their intelligence or general mental competence; for insult purposes, recipients are invariably "stupid" or "crazy."

The pecking-order logic of insults means that if the recipient is shamed, then the insulter rises in status relative to the victim: The insulter is the one doing the pecking rather than getting pecked. Not all insults are equal, of course: Some pecks miss their mark and have no impact upon relative status.

Aim: An Arrow Shot Over the House That Hits No One

We live at a time when insults are dispensed so freely that they threaten the financial viability of social media platforms like Twitter. Indeed, Twitter recently issued a code of conduct for users designed to exclude the worst offenders; other sites like Facebook have quickly followed suit.

For those who enjoy distributing insults, the internet is a perfect environment, one that can offer a shield of anonymity and an absence of consequences. The larger question is whether the frequency of ill-motivated personal attacks will ride the wave of increasing narcissism or succumb to social controls?

Is There a Future in Insults?

Effective communities maintain solidarity by keeping direct insults to a minimum. Hence the elaborate traditions of politeness and respect found in real-world communities of the past; people behaved that way to avoid unnecessary anger, disputes, and violence.

Online communities are becoming more concerned about the destructive consequences of tolerating the flamers, trolls, and vandals in their midst and are instituting mechanisms for group punishment in which those who violate codes of decency are identified and excluded.

Such mechanisms are already ingrained in applications such as Uber and Airbnb. Soon social media will also be regulated—and it's about time. The only problem is that users may ultimately receive an online civility score that will boost collective narcissism—and make us want to peck our neighbors even more.

The chickens are restless!


Twenge, J. M., et al. (2009). Egos inflating over time: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the narcissistic personality inventory. Journal of Personality, 76, 875-902.

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