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Thursday, January 24, 2008

WHEN NEGATIVE STATEMENTS END UP EVEN MORE NEGATIVE

By Noah Goldstein, Ph. D.

We all have traits, abilities, and knowledge that we think others should take into consideration when we are trying to persuade them toward our own viewpoints. But as we discussed in a previous column, it can be difficult to convey these characteristics to others without being viewed as an arrogant braggart, which could make it more difficult to persuade others. To deal with this dilemma, many people naturally turn to disclaimers. For example, instead of making a statement like, “I’m probably more knowledgeable about this issue than almost anyone else,” someone might say, “I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I’m probably more knowledgeable about this issue than almost anyone else.” But is this common strategy effective or not? I don’t mean to sound more knowledgeable than you, but I’m pretty sure the answer will surprise you.

According to recently published research conducted by social psychologist Amani El-Alayli and her colleagues (2008), using such disclaimers is at best completely ineffective and at worst can actually be counter-effective. For instance, the researchers found in one study that mentioning this type of qualifier before making a statement with a lot of hubris actually increased the audience’s perception of the speaker as arrogant compared to when the same statement was made without the qualifier. When the actual statement was not particularly arrogant, using the disclaimer didn’t have any effect on the audience’s perception of the speaker as arrogant. Either way, using the disclaimer did lead the audience to like the speaker less than if the speaker had made no disclaimer at all.

Alayli and her colleagues found a similar pattern of results with disclaimers and statements that implicated other negative traits, such as laziness and selfishness. For example, they found that when someone preceded a selfish statement with either “I don’t mean to sound selfish, but I think…” or “I know this may sound selfish, but I think…” the speaker was viewed as more selfish than when the selfish statement wasn’t preceded by any qualifiers.

The researchers suggest that this maybe the case because people tend to have a confirmation bias when making inferences about others. In other words, people pay particular attention to information that confirms rather than disconfirms what they already believe about someone. Therefore, when people hear from a speaker that what he or she is about to say may sound arrogant, they are predisposed to viewing the statement (and the person) as particularly arrogant.

This research clearly demonstrates the dangers of using a qualifier to try to protect yourself from the negative implications of the statements you make to others. Rather than telling someone with whom you’re negotiating that you don’t mean to sound selfish when making a grab for a bigger slice of the pie or telling someone with whom you’re working that you don’t mean to sound lazy when asking that person to do a greater share of the work, it would be best not to use such disclaimers. The same goes for when trying to protect oneself from sounding arrogant when attempting to convey one’s skills or expertise to a potential business partner, which makes the alternative option of having someone else present your credentials for you an even more important one.

Source:El-Alayli, A., Myers, C. J., Petersen, T. L., Lystad, A. L. (2008). “I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but…” The effects of using disclaimers on person perception. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 130-143.

http://www.insideinfluence.com/current/article_jan.html

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