Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Nice guys help everyone finish first

August 29th, 2011

Rude & RuderI’m a fan of politeness. It makes people feel good about themselves and improves moods all around. I’m not talking about gallantry or chivalry (don’t get me started on those) – just regular, day-to-day courtesy toward our fellow humans.

And now I have research on my side!

I recently ran across a few studies  by Christine Porath and Amir Erez, who have been studying the effects of rudeness. It turns out that discourtesy doesn’t just make us cranky – it affects our creativity, memory and problem-solving abilities.

Porath and Erez told their study participants to go to a certain office for the experiment. When each participant arrived, he or she saw a room with a half-open door and a person behind a desk. There was a sign on the door noting that the room location for this study had changed – but it was a small, easy-to-miss sign, and all the participants did miss it.

When they asked the person at the desk about the experiment, half of them were told that the room had changed and given directions to the new room. The other half were berated for asking: “Can’t you read? There is a sign on the door that tells you that the experiment will be in room [number]. But you didn’t even bother to look at the door, did you? Instead, you preferred to disturb me and ask for directions when you can clearly see that I’m busy. I’m not a secretary here, I’m a busy professor.”

Once the participants reached the right room, they were asked to do certain tasks, like solving anagrams and coming up with creative uses for a brick. The experimenter also “accidentally” dropped a stack of books while explaining the experiment, to see whether the participant would help pick them up.

rude britanniaThe participants who had been treated rudely in another room solved fewer anagrams than the other participants, and came up with fewer and less creative uses for the brick. In addition, although it wasn’t the experimenter who had been rude to them, they were much less likely to help him pick up books.

(Another experiment showed that even imagining themselves experiencing rudeness like the above had the same effects – and also reduced memory recall.)

So, when people are rude to us, we become less helpful, less creative and worse at solving problems. What if people are rude to someone else?

Porath and Erez did another study to investigate this. They found that participants who watched someone be rude to another participant also solved fewer anagrams, came up with fewer and less creative (and more aggressive!) uses for a brick, and were less likely to be helpful – all because they watched a single incident of rudeness.

It doesn’t do your organization any favours if customers observe rudeness among your staff, either. Another study led by Porath found that customers who saw one employee being rude to another made negative generalizations about the entire company.

I said shut it!So, think of it this way. Every time you suppress a rude response, you’re improving the brains, creativity and helpfulness of the people around you – which is bound to help you deal with whatever annoyed you so much, if only a little. It’s a favour to yourself.

It’s also a favour to me. Because rudeness really steams me and I’d like rude people to quit it right this second… Er. Please.

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