Researchers at the University of Washington released the results of their latest study on Tuesday in a paper titled “The effects of extreme verbal abuse on childhood psychological development.”
The thirteen-million-dollar, six-year study closely followed five hundred children aged three weeks through nine years, who were brought in on a weekly basis for two-hour sessions during which they were subjected to a non-stop barrage of profanity-laden insults, red-faced screaming, and mean-spirited putdowns.
A common test session would begin with the researchers offering candy or stuffed toys to the children, in an attempt to gain their trust. When the child would reach out to accept the apparent gift, the offering would be violently snatched back and the child would be ferociously rebuked with phrases such as “get your own candy, you little scum-sucking nose-picker” or “this toy is only for people who aren’t worthless.”
As researchers tracked the children’s psychological development throughout the test period, they found that extremely low self esteem and emotional outbursts were unexpectedly common among the test group. “This really is a surprising result,” the report concluded.
A control group of children used in the study were also brought in weekly, but instead of exposing them to shrieking profanities, researchers engaged them in conversations about politics, weather, and the latest fad diets. Children in the control group developed complex emotional problems at a far lower rate than those in the test group.
“You never know what you’re going to learn when you start a new study,” said UW psychologist Meredith Baxter. “At the beginning of the study, most of the children could withstand the entire two-hour session of verbal abuse without breaking down. We were really surprised when, just a few years into the study, most of the children would break down in tears just a few minutes into the vicious invective.”
A few years into the study, most children began breaking down at just the sight of the UW Research Center. This led researchers to take the unusual step of moving the research outside of the lab to areas the children considered safe, such as their homes or neighborhood playgrounds. By the end of the study, the researchers had developed advanced tactics including disguising themselves as child’s favorite cartoon character and delivered a screaming tirade from within the happy-faced suit.
Verbal abuse was dealt out to the children in the study by a number of different individuals, but the end results were statistically identical. “It didn’t matter whether the insults were delivered by our researchers, peers, strangers, or even Republicans, the rate at which psychological problems developed was the same,” said Baxter.
Another surprising find for researchers was the discovery that even tiny babies were able to differentiate a malicious verbal battering from other loud noises, as evidenced by how long they cried, especially if their mother did the shouting. Mothers screaming at their infants was the one instance in which the deliverer of the outburst made a measurable difference.
The team hopes to follow up this successful research with a study of the effects of the sucker-punch on smart-mouthing teenagers.