THE BLOG
11/22/2016 05:26 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2017

Insults R Us

Having passed through an election that was fought, and won, on the basis of insults, the time has come for an epidemiology of the put-down. What is their underlying psychology? Why are they currently so thick in the air?

Motive: Anger?
Chickens are famous for their pecking order where the bottom chicken in the hierarchy gets 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 rarely 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 thereby raise the relative status of the insulter.

If that logic is correct, then insults are often motivated by anger surrounding issues of status insecurity. Many insults are reactive: they are a response 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 and social psychologists document a steady increase in narcissism of college students from decade to decade. There is little consensus about why this is happening but some scholars believe that the more children are measured on evaluative scales from aptitude tests and IQ scores to GPAs, the more sensitive they are to threats to their social rank.

Of course, the narcissism trend can only be accentuated by social media where participants are subject to unrelenting evaluation by other network members encouraging participants to puff themselves up, often at the expense of others. Concern with how one is perceived creates social insecurity that may be relieved by lashing out at other chickens in the vicinity.

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 might be expected 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 refer to a person's social status in terms of ancestry, lack of prestige, or membership in a despised out group such as Nazis or vagrants. Otherwise, the content of insults across the ages is monotonously predictable.

Many insults feature a sexual component and the f word is an accompaniment to most in less polite social circles. Many refer to sexual organs. Others bring up shameful, or ineffectual, sexual behavior.

In addition to status and sexuality, insults inflict shame by mentioning personally unappealing traits, fatness, shortness, baldness, stinkiness, spottiness, and contagious diseases.

Another way of taking a person down a peg is to bring their intelligence, or general mental competence into question. For insult purposes, recipients are invariably stupid and crazy.

The pecking-order logic of insults means that if the recipient is shamed, then the insulter rises in status relative to the victim: they are the ones doing the pecking rather than getting pecked. Not all insults are equal, of course. Some pecks miss their marks 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 businesses like Twitter. Indeed, Twitter recently issued a code of conduct for users designed to exclude the worst offenders and other social media sites like FaceBook had to follow suit.

For those who enjoy distributing insults, the Internet had been a perfect place offering a shield of anonymity and absence of consequences. Such insults are often sloppy and ill-directed. Whether the put-downs are effective or not, the real question is whether the frequency of ill-motivated personal attacks will ride the wave of increasing narcissism. Or will they 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 behave that way so as to avoid unnecessary anger, disputes, and violence.

Now the virtual community is becoming more concerned about the destructive consequences of tolerating the flamers, trolls, and vandals in their midst. They are instituting mechanisms for group punishment whereby those who violate codes of decency are identified and excluded.

Such reputational mechanisms are already well developed in applications such as Uber and AirB&B. Now they are about to regulate social media as well. About time. The only problem is that we may ultimately receive an online civility score that will boost our collective narcissism - and make us want to peck our neighbors even more. The chickens are restless!