All the way back in 1981, Teresa M. Amabile of Brandeis published a paper on the “perceptions of negative evaluators,” examining whether you sound smarter by saying cruel things or kind things.
Using edited excerpts from actual negative and positive book reviews, this research examined the hypothesis that negative evaluators of intellectual products will be perceived as more intelligent than positive evaluators. The results strongly supported the hypothesis. Negative reviewers were perceived as more intelligent, competent, and expert than positive reviewers, even when the content of the positive review was independently judged as being of higher quality and greater forcefulness. At the same time, in accord with previous research, negative reviewers were perceived as significantly less likable than positive reviewers. The results on intelligence ratings are seen as bolstering the self-presentational explanation of the tendency shown by intellectually insecure individuals to be negatively critical. The present methodology is contrasted to that of previous research which obtained apparently contradictory results.
Or, in pithier terms, “Only pessimism sounds profound. Optimism sounds superficial.”
The first anecdote which springs to mind in support of this thesis is the time I read aloud Geoff Pullum’s “The Dan Brown Code,” a masterful and learnèd demolition of Dan Brown’s prose style in The Da Vinci Code (2003). It had certainly impressed me when I first stumbled across it, during my wanderings through the Network, and when I “performed” the piece, Pullum’s jabs had my two listeners convulsing with laughter. They seconded and thirded my impression of Pullum as an expert linguist and incisive man of letters.
I could easily recall more anecdotes and spin them into data, so, yes, vituperation works.
I’m looking around for a person to slander with this. Who is most clearly acting like a jerk to bolster their reputation of intelligence? Let’s see, whose pointless negativity has irritated me most today. . . .
(A salute to Cosma Shalizi.)