Negative Descriptions Can Make You Look Better

One of the great conundrums of daily life is whether to be upfront about your weaknesses, and while it may be unwise to begin revealing all the times in your life that you’ve soiled yourself, a new study finds that when it comes to groups, descriptions that include positive and negative terms reduce prejudice more effectively than descriptions that include only positive terms.

In a series of five experiments, we demonstrate that exposure to information related to an out-group’s heterogeneity reduces prejudice more effectively than exposure to only positive characteristics of the out-group. We exposed participants to a poster that associated both positive and negative traits with an out-group (mixed condition), to a poster that associated only positive traits with the out-group (positive condition), or to no poster (control condition). Results revealed that participants in the mixed condition expressed less explicit prejudice (Experiments 1-2) and less implicit bias (Experiment 3-4) than participants in the other two conditions. The last experiment demonstrated that the mixed poster was more acceptable and created less reactance than the positive poster

The posters subjects were shown contained photos of Arab or African-American men and women. Half the subjects were shown posters that characterized the people positively (warm, sociable, optimistic, joyful, generous, honest, serious, and intelligent), and half the subjects were shown posters that characterized the people with a mix of positive and negative traits (warm, cold, optimistic, pessimistic, generous, stingy, joyful, and sad).

The researchers believe the counterintuitive results stem from the fact that people are skeptical when they hear things that are 100% positive, but that when positive descriptions appear next to negative ones, it makes the descriptions appear more genuine, and the authenticity of that “goodness” makes it more difficult to be prejudiced. An additional explanation might be that because a person’s familiarity with their own group always allows them to see how heterogeneous it is, when a person sees that an out-group is also heterogeneous the perceived differences between them shrink, and that results in less prejudice.

What’s important about the study is that it shows how regardless of whether you’re protesting Wall Street, government spending, Bashar al-Assad, or the re-design of your favorite social networking site, it is critical that your group be viewed as a heterogeneous movement made up off different people. Differences make your group genuine, believable, and more resistant to stereotypes.

One potentially relevant situation that comes to mind is the Democratic infighting surrounding health care reform. Although the disagreements were terrible PR, turned many people against the bill, and helped lead to large mid-term losses, it’s interesting that over the last three years Democrats have continued to receive higher favorability ratings than Republicans. Perhaps the perceptions of heterogeneity that arose from the infighting is helping.

If the results can be generalized to the individual level, the idea that it’s beneficial to include negative traits with positive ones is also pertinent to political campaigns. I think most strategists would disagree with this notion — never show weakness, never admit a mistake, never reveal a downside, etc. — but perhaps Herman Cain’s poll numbers were rising because he admitted he knew nothing about foreign policy rather than in spite of it.
Brauer, M., Er-rafiy, A., Kawakami, K., & Phills, C. (2011). Describing a group in positive terms reduces prejudice less effectively than describing it in positive and negative terms Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.11.002

One Response to Negative Descriptions Can Make You Look Better

  1. Pingback: research on reducing group prejudice « Feminist Philosophers

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