So you’re out there trying to change the world in your own way. There are individuals and groups who agree with your goals, and individuals and groups who don’t. Occasionally you hear some pretty terrible things about some of those people, and you really want to stand up and let the world know just how badly they’re behaving.
Don’t. Or at least think about it first. It won’t help your cause as much as you think it should.
Several studies have shown the existence of an effect called “spontaneous trait transference”. Basically, this means that when we criticize someone else for a specific fault (or praise them for a virtue), our readers or listeners attribute a little of that fault (or virtue) to us.
A lot of this research has been done by a team led by John Skowronski, Lynda Mae and Donal Carlston. In a typical experiment, study participants watched a two-minute video of an actor asked to “describe something” about an acquaintance. Whether the actor’s description was positive or negative, the viewers later judged the speaker to share the trait he or she described.
This effect isn’t enormous, but it’s been observed over and over. It’s not because the viewers mistakenly think the speaker is talking about him- or herself — the researchers checked for that. It doesn’t require that the viewers remember what the speaker said. It applies even when we know the speaker, and even when the trait doesn’t match what we know of the speaker’s character.
It’s not a general distaste for people who say nasty things about other people, either: not only does the effect work for both positive and negative descriptions, but it’s specific to the trait being described. If we hear John talking about what a slob Jane is, we won’t necessarily see him as spiteful or disloyal or rude, but at some level we will perceive him to be a bit messier than we would have without hearing about Jane.
It doesn’t make intuitive sense, but (as my regular readers can attest) so many quirks of our brains don’t. The effect occurs so far below the surface of our conscious thoughts that it’s been shown to apply to inanimate objects!
This phenomenon obviously makes a strong argument against spreading malicious gossip, but it applies everywhere. Among other things, it means that communications from you or your group will reflect more positively on you if they focus on positive traits in others. Obviously, it’s still important to get the message out when somebody does something reprehensible, but if you take spontaneous trait transference into effect, perhaps you can minimize the damage to your own cause.
And hey, I’ve recently gained several new readers (hi, folks!) and I should really acknowledge them here. Terrific people, every one of them. Let me tell you all about how wonderful they are…