If I told you I was writing this post from jail, would you trust me more? Like me less? Find me more persuasive?
It would depend upon a lot of things, obviously, including how you feel about prisoners blogging, your mood at the time and your other perceptions of me. What’s interesting is that it would also depend on when I told you.
(I’m not actually in jail. I don’t even expect to be in jail soon. It was an example. Relax.)
Edward Jones and Eric Gordon reported some of the earliest work on this in a paper published in 1972. They asked their study participants to listen to an audiotaped interview that had supposedly taken place between a university student and his advisor. During the interview, the student mentioned that he had not completed a high school semester a couple of years previously and either volunteered the reason immediately (half the participants heard this version) or did not mention the reason until asked later (half heard this one). Jones and Gordon also varied the reason the student gave for having missed school. After watching the interview, the study participants were asked how much they liked the student.
The results surprised me. If the student had missed school because of a positive experience (like the opportunity to go to Europe, either through winning a scholarship or inheriting money), his audience usually liked him better if he delayed mentioning it.
If he had missed school due to a negative experience that wasn’t his fault (his parents got divorced), they also liked him more if he didn’t bring it up himself.
However, if the missed semester was the student’s own fault (he was expelled for cheating), the audience liked him better if he said so immediately. A later study confirmed that choosing to volunteer the information, rather than waiting until asked, made the difference.
So, if you want to be liked (and therefore more persuasive about the things that matter to you), keep your good fortune to yourself for a while, whether you earned it or not. Don’t parade your bad luck, either. But if you’ve done something blameworthy and it’s going to come out sometime, haul it out early, before you’re asked.
Oddly enough, this also applies to acknowledgements of physical disability. A recent study found that a person in a wheelchair was perceived more favourably if he or she volunteered the cause of the disability early in a job interview, rather than near the end or not at all. Another study found that the same was true when mentioning an invisible disability.
So, back to being in jail. If I were responsible for my imprisonment, I should tell you up front. If I were unjustly imprisoned, I should modestly keep it to myself. Got it.
And no, I said I’m not actually in jail, so quit sending me cakes with files in them. Anyway, the wardens are getting suspicious.