Criticism is perceived as more intellectual than praise

Wired published an interesting piece recently. The piece put forward the theory that negative feedback is deemed to be smarter than positive feedback.

Here’s an excerpt.

When I post an acerbic or cranky tweet, it gets recirculated far more widely than do my cheerier notes. People like it fine when I’m genial, but when I make a caustic joke or cutting comment? Social media gold. This is pure anecdata, of course. Still, it made me wonder if there was any psychological machinery at work here. Is there a reason that purse-lipped opinions would outcompete generous ones?

Indeed, there is. It’s called hypercriticism. When we hear negative statements, we think they’re inherently more intelligent than positive ones. Teresa Amabile, director of research for Harvard Business School, began exploring this back in the 1980s. She took a group of 55 students, roughly half men, half women, and showed them excerpts from two book reviews printed in an issue of The New York Times. The same reviewer wrote both, but Amabile anonymized them and tweaked the language to produce two versions of each—one positive, one negative. Then she asked the students to evaluate the reviewer’s intelligence.

The verdict was clear: The students thought the negative author was smarter than the positive one—“by a lot,” Amabile tells me. Most said the nastier critic was “more competent.” Granted, being negative wasn’t all upside—they also rated the harsh reviewer as “less warm and more cruel, not as nice,” she says. “But definitely smarter.” Like my mordant tweets, presumably.

This so-called negativity bias works both ways, it seems. Other studies show that when we seek to impress someone with our massive gray matter, we spout sour and negative opinions. In a follow-up experiment, Bryan Gibson, a psychologist at Central Michigan University, took a group of 117 students (about two-thirds female) and had them watch a short movie and write a review that they would then show to a partner. Gibson’s team told some of the reviewers to try to make their partner feel warmly toward them; others were told to try to appear smart. You guessed it: Those who were trying to seem brainy went significantly more negative than those trying to be endearing.

Hey. I’m Alex Murrell. I'm a Planner at Epoch Design in Bristol where I help deliver highly creative, innovative and effective pack, instore and online communications for some of the world’s biggest FMCG brands. Want to know more? You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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