I'm sorry for the length of this question, but to ask it I'll need to refer to two concepts.

Firstly, we see the escalating trend to weed out any and all examples of even very minor negativity or aggression in words. Those are deemed unacceptable, addressees of such messages may be called 'victims', and telling people to 'grow a thicker skin' is explicitly declared a non-solution to the problem. Examples of this are many: StackExchange's new Code of Conduct, strict rules of communication Riot Games is trying to enforce in League of Legends, punishing people for jokes, firing employees for not being nice enough to their colleagues, etc etc.

It is claimed that such policies are backed up by modern psychology:

One major mistake in this reasoning is "unlike with sticks and stones, with words the addressees have the choice: to accept the message or to drop it". They do not, the message will be received and the emotional reaction will happen, emotions are not subject to conscious control. One can choose to "get over it", but the same can be said of sticks and stones, so the real issue is the damage assessment. One reason for the new consensus is the undermining of folk misconceptions that heavily weigh physical damage over emotional one (as in the saying) by modern psychology.

-- @Conifold

Humans are social creatures. If a grief stricken person can be consoled by words and interactions. Why would you not expect the opposite to be equally effective that is turning a happy person depressed and mentelly unwell? To say that people should just "ignore it" is to assign all blame to the victim but that's not fair and ignores everything we know about human behaviour.

-- @Cell

Here I have to jump for a short while to the second concept... Monika and Marcin Gajda, in their book "Rozwój. Jak współpracować z łaską" (which is a Polish book on self-development that claims to be based on psychology and is written from an extensive Christian angle) introduces the concept of "emotional sovereignty". It distinguishes five levels of this sovereignty:

  1. Submission. For example, if a bum insults me, I'll have the rest of my day screwed because I'll think how useless I must be that even a bum holds me in contempt.
  2. Entering a symmetrical conflict. Here I'll insult back the bum or even start physically fighting him to defend my good name.
  3. Ignoring aggressively. Here, feeling superior to the bum, I'll walk away, maybe mumbling something silently to myself.
  4. Assertiveness. As described by modern psychology.
  5. Merciful love. Told you the book is written with an extensive Christian angle. Here, with no contempt, feelings of superiority, aggression, urges of vengeance, or anything of this sort on my side, I'll look at the bum with compassion, seeing how miserable he must be to behave that way.

The book claims that people can - and should - work themselves from the lower levels to the higher levels, for their own good. Staying on the lower levels is harmful, also from the psychological point of view, for the people who stay there. Also the book claims that a person may be on different levels in relation to different people: for example, a person may be on the 5th level with regard to this exemplary 'bum', but on the lowest level with regard to one's own mother. (Important: This self-development is not supposed to include trying to control one's own emotions).

And here is where the two concepts meet, at least in my mind. If such 'abusive' words and messages are treated as 'big deal', if growing a thicker skin is not to be advised, if, having received such messages, the correct action to take is deemed to be to report the offender to whoever is in charge of the community, if, as psychologists want, not attempting to stop receiving these messages is not respecting oneself enough… Then such beliefs and policies seem to me to hurt, rather than protecting, 'victims' of verbal abuse, because effectively they teach them to stay at the lower levels of emotional sovereignty. If, instead of attempting to cleanse the word of all verbal 'negativity', the emphasis was on empowering the addressees of such messages to be 'sovereign' over them, then the old adage that 'sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me' would become true. On the other hand, the current emphasis of fighting the 'abusive' messages themselves seems to me to give the abusers the power to actually hurt the receivers of the verbal abuse: and that's a lot of power to place in improper hands.

I understand that my reasoning may be very well wrong, as the general consensus seems to be in the opposite. Then do both models not contradict themselves, regardless of whatever would seem to me to be the case? Or is Gajdowie's model of emotional sovereignty wrong?

EDIT: Just to clarify: The precise point that is hard to reconcile for me is this one: It is impossible for the receiver of the 'abusive' messages to avoid being damaged by such messages (the quoted comments) vs it is possible (Gajdowie)


1 Answer 1


Most of your post is hard to follow and mixes a lot of topics. On the issue whether pain and social rejection have something in common, a highly-cited (2003) fMRI study found that

In summary, a pattern of activations very similar to those found in studies of physical pain emerged during social exclusion, providing evidence that the experience and regulation of social and physical pain share a common neuroanatomical basis.

Likewise a newer (2011) study concludes that:

rejection and physical pain are similar not only in that they are both distressing—they share a common somatosensory representation as well.

An even more recent study (Woo, 2014) has challenged these though:

Pain- and rejection-related representations are uncorrelated within regions thought to encode pain affect (for example, dorsal anterior cingulate) and show distinct functional connectivity with other regions in a separate resting-state data set (N=91). These findings demonstrate that separate representations underlie pain and rejection despite common fMRI activity at the gross anatomical level. Rather than co-opting pain circuitry, rejection involves distinct affective representations in humans.

Since most of the "hurtful" words on SE are of the kind that lead the receiver to experience some level of exclusion (not being "good enough" to be part of the site[s] etc.)... it seemed appropriate to mention this. Of course you can make someone feel excluded while being perfectly polite.

I'm less familiar with research on the effects of verbal abuse, but at least one study found it has long-term negative consequences for some children. In fact there's more than one study with the same conclusions.

I don't know if there are studies on the extent to which adults are just able to shrug off verbal abuse. But there certainly are books arguing for not tolerating it in the workplace, e.g. Bob Sutton's "No asshole" series.

And despite what your Polish Zen psychologists would like the reality to be, it just doesn't work like that in practice. Verbal abuse does have some effect, even on people (e.g. nurses) who encounter it often. Granted the effect is not huge. On a scale of 0 (no reaction) to 6 (extreme feeling), the average effects of verbal abuse (on nurses) are reported below:

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There are a lot more studies on the effects bullying, which combines verbal abuse with other behaviors. Actually a problem with work-related constructs including verbal abuse is that there's perhaps a bit too many of them. But there's a slightly narrower one that was studied namely incivility; from Hershcovis (2011) :

Incivility has recently emerged as one of the most studied variables in the workplace mistreatment [long list of citations]. It was defined by Andersson and Pearson (1999) as low intensity deviant acts such as rude and discourteous verbal and non-verbal behaviors enacted toward another organizational member with ambiguous intent to harm. This construct differentiates itself from other constructs on several dimensions. First, it is defined as a low intensity behavior. Andersson and Pearson explicitly argue that minor forms of mistreatment can have a significant impact on employee attitudes toward the organization. In contrast, most other mistreatment constructs are not defined in terms of their intensity, though intensity may be inferred by their definition or measurement. For example, bullying can be assumed to be of higher intensity than incivility because of its persistence and frequency. A second differentiating feature of incivility is the explicit statement that intent is ambiguous. Researchers in the workplace mistreatment literature have frequently debated the notion of intent. For instance, Neuman and Baron (2005) argued that when defining mistreatment from the perspective of the actor, intent is crucial. Otherwise, accidentally harmful behaviors such as being hurt by a dentist during a dental procedure may be considered aggressive. On the other hand, from a target’s perspective, perceived intent may be all that matters because victims will react based on their perception, whether or not their perception is accurate.

Nonetheless, the effects of incivility were comparable with that of bullying in a work environment:

enter image description here

Infante (2009) points out that the negative effects of verbal aggresion have been seen in multiple contexts:

Verbal aggression is message behavior which attacks a person's self-concept in order to deliver psychological pain (Infante & Wigley, 1986). Researchers in recent years have given considerable attention to verbal aggression in numerous contexts such as interpersonal, family, organizational, political, and intercultural. This research has been unequivocal in suggesting that verbal aggression is a highly destructive form of communication. For instance, it can result in violent crimes (Toch, 1969; Zillmann, 1979), it is a catalyst to interspousal violence (Infante, Chandler, & Rudd, 1989), it is associated with adolescents having problems when they are the victims of their parents' verbal aggression (Straus, Sweet, & Vissing, 1989), and it is a very negative factor in superior-subordinate communication (Infante & Gorden, 1991). [...]

The types of verbally aggressive messages, derived deductively from theory and research, are: character attacks, competence attacks, background attacks, physical appearance attacks, maledictions, teasing, swearing, ridicule, threats, nonverbal emblems (Infante, 1987). However, other types also can be specified: blame, personality attacks, commands, global rejection, discontinuation, negative comparison, sexual harassment, and attacking the target's significant others.

Continuation of verbal aggression after it is initiated, largely is due to reciprocity. People often feel compelled to return acts of aggression to save face and to discourage future attacks (Felson, 1978, 1982). Reciprocating verbal aggression can escalate tensions to the point of physical aggression (Berkowitz, 1962, 1973). Even if reciprocity does not result in violence the destructiveness nevertheless is more than what would have occurred had one party not reciprocated.

I.e. a tit-for-tat exchange or verbal aggression can result is what is nowadays more colloquially called a "toxic environment".

The research has focused on effects of verbal aggression in different communication contexts. Two basic effects are self-concept damage and aggression escalation. These can lead to reduced trust, relationship deterioration, and relationship termination in interpersonal communication. Organizational communication research has found that the verbally aggressive behavior of supervisors has negative effects (Infante & Gorden, 1985, 1987, 1991). Verbally aggressive subordinates are evaluated unfavorably by their supervisors (Gorden, Infante, & Izzo, 1988; Infante & Gorden, 1989). Family communication research has suggested that children may be harmed by their parents' verbal aggression (Straus et al., 1989). Other research suggests husbands of verbally aggressive wives are more depressed (Segrin & Fitzpatrick, 1992). Verbal aggression in a marriage is negatively related to marital satisfaction (Payne & Sabourin, 1990; Rancer, Baukus, & Amato, 1986). Several studies indicate verbal aggression sometimes leads to interspousal violence (Gelles, 1974; Infante et al., 1989; Straus, 1974). The use of verbal aggression in political communication has negative effects on source credibility (Downs, Kaid, & Ragan, 1990). A study which manipulated verbal aggression in an experiment suggests that the relationship with lowered source credibility is causal (Infante, Hartley, Martin, Higgins, Bruning, & Hur, 1992). It should be emphasized that the results of research have been remarkably consistent in suggesting that the effects of verbal aggression are negative, supporting the ethical stance that verbal aggression is a destructive form of communication that should be discouraged.

Infante also discusses mitigation strategies, although the existence of these doesn't justify your point that verbal aggression is harmless:

Once verbal aggression does occur in a situation, basic concerns are how the effects can be neutralized and how escalation of aggression can be prevented. [...]

[An] approach is based on symbolic interactionism and involves the strategies that victims may use to "dismiss" verbal attacks or render them ineffective (Wagner, 1980). Protecting self from abuse by manipulating symbols, according to this view, is one of the most highly developed functions of our symbol system. Wagner (1980) conceives of these as "strategies of dismissal." He presents numerous strategies that the victim of an attack can use while interacting with the attacker or while interacting with self in order to restore the attacked self to a state of equilibrium. Some of these strategies are reviewed below (see Wagner, 1980, for a more complete discussion).

Many dismissals of an attack rely upon finding an exception to the locus of attack. These can pertain to the situation of the attack, the victim, or the attacker. Dismissal strategies for the situation invoke misinformation (claim that the attack was based on incorrect information) or coercion (contend that the data which attacks self s judgment was obtained by coercion). Dismissals based on the victim involve one's conception of self and utilize the idea that the object of attack was not the "true" self. Some of these strategies are personal growth (maintain that the self characterized in the attack no longer exists because of change), the unconscious (agreeing with the unfavorable characterization by the attacker but claiming the matter is beyond personal control because the unconscious mind is responsible), and excuse (claim the behavior which suggests an undesirable self "was not my fault"). Strategies that focus on the attacker seek to derogate the source. These are based on ignorance (the attacker does not know what he/she is talking about), the dark side (the attack was motivated by lesser human tendencies to be jealous, envious, resentful, vicious, sadistic), and unacknowledged motives (the attacker has a hidden agenda). These strategies of "dismissal" seem aimed mainly at neutralizing the effect of verbally aggressive remarks so that the victim does not experience a sense of dissonance with self. This can be done to a considerable extent at the intrapersonal level.

Unlike your Christian-motivated book, Infante doesn't try to order these strategies. And these are just the purely self-oriented strategies. He spends even more space discussing (non-aggressive) communicative response strategies.

I'd also note that the paper Infante cites for dismissal strategies, Wagner (1980), doesn't have much in the way of citations (in Google Scholar).


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