Mel Gibson’s anti-semitic tirade while being arrested for drunken driving and comedian Michael Richard’s un-Kramerly racist rant after being heckled by a black man drew the predictable condemnations. But when it comes to the damage from insults these highly publicized single episodes pale next to the private, day-to-day variety.
Insults are more than emotional irritations, researchers find. If sustained, they harbor a biological toxicity, a hidden toll sensed by their victims and now assayed by physiological research. The occasional epithet poses little problem; it’s the ongoing assaults that matter, which come less often as outright taunts than disparagement.
Such routine slights are all-too-common, for instance, in rigid hierarchies, where bosses tend to be authoritarian in style, freely expressing contempt for their subordinates and their problems. Such put-downs serve an insecure boss by reaffirming his status and power, sociologists observe.
But studies of the social psychology of insults in organizational life also note their unnerving impact on the recipient: fear, anger, and ongoing insecurity. As a study earlier this year  in the Leadership Quarterly reports, workers obsess about negative interactions with their boss, mulling these incidents over with more intensity, in more detail, and more often than they do pleasant ones. When a boss says something derisive or worrying, its emotional ripples go on far longer than a compliment.
The full text of this essay is available to subsribers to TimesSelect from The New York Times.
In writing about the biological effects of insults in an OpEd for TimesSelect, the online subscription version of the New York Times, I drew on Chapter 16, “Social Stress,” in my book Social Intelligence.
Below are the key references on which I based the article:
- M. Kivimaki et al., 2005, “Justice at work and reduced risk of coronary heart disease among employees: The Whitehall II Study,” Archives of Internal Medicine, 165, 2245-2251.
- R.G. Wilkinson, Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality. London: Routledge
- Y. Gabriel, “An introduction to the social psychology of insults in organizations,” Human Relations, 51, 11, 1998, pp. 1329-1354.
- M. T. Dasborough, “Cognitive Asymmetry in Employee Emotional Reactions to Leadership Behaviors,” Leadership Quearterly,I 17, 2006, 163-178.
- Nadia Wager, George Feldman and Trevor Hussey, “Impact of Supervisor interactional style on employees blood pressure,” Consciousness and Experiential Psychology,6, 2001.
- Sally Dickerson and Margaret Kemeny, 2004, “Acute stressors and cortisol responses: A theoretical integration and synthesis of laboratory research,” Psychological Bulletin,130, 355-391.
- Tara Gruenewald et al. 2004, “Acute threat to the social self: Shame, social self-esteem, and cortisol activity,” Psychosomatic Medicine, 66, 915-924.