Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Don’t give them something to talk about

December 2nd, 2010

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.

Gossip on PalokkajärviSeveral 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…

4 comments on 'Don’t give them something to talk about'

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  1. Allan McKeown

    2 Dec 10 at 11:23 am

    Fascinating info and worth remembering next time I am tempted to be “negative” about someone!
    The value of positive reinforcement (constructive criticism) is a skill that is taught in Toastmasters to encourage a speaker to improve. It also reminds me of the principle common to all religions (or most of them), i.e. treat others as you would want to be treated.
    That doesn’t mean that we ignore other people’s bad habits or actions but it does challenge us to respond to them in a helpful, rather than a hurtful way.


  2. Carol

    2 Dec 10 at 1:10 pm

    Yes, I always find it interesting when something that is morally good and functionally useful also turns out to be psychologically smart. It’s as though the universe got all its ducks in order!


  3. Jacquie

    24 May 11 at 9:52 am

    This is thought-provoking. I complained a while ago about a work colleague who was lazy. Some weeks later I mentioned I’d been putting off a piece of work and the person I’d been moaning at said “and you said **** was bad!”. This made me feel very defensive, largely because it was somewhat accurate.

    It’s interesting to think that, if I hadn’t been mouthing off in the first place, not only would she not have made the comparison but perhaps she wouldn’t have thought of me that way at all…


    Carol Thomas Reply:

    Interesting observation… you could very well be right.


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