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.)
5 thoughts on “Perceptions of Negative Evaluators”
Discussion of Geoffrey Pullam’s examination of Brown would not be complete without at least mentioning the title of a later essay, “Renowned author Dan Brown staggered through his formulaic opening sentence.”
Yes, of course.
Right. There seems to be a huge bias towards, er, trolling on the Interwebs. When I first started following science and politics blogging, I was surprised how much came down to blogger-vs.-blogger disputes you’d never know about if you hadn’t been reading a while (not “crush the theists” but “crush someone I disagree slightly with”). One blog I read has a “nitpicker’s corner” for the silly stuff commenters post.
I’ve found myself tempted to comment about nitpicking disagreements, and more tempted to comment when I had them, even when I agreed overall with a post. I think it’s partly because seeing something you disagree with immediately gets your attention and provides the motivation and “plot” for the comment: here, briefly, is a point you made; here’s my alternative theory; here’s why mine r0x0rs or your sux0rs.
Coming up with interesting comments on something you agree with may take more initiative (you have to think of extra evidence supporting their point, a funny joke, a related topic, or whatever). Much as it takes more initiative (and elbow grease) to create or add to a Wikipedia article than to correct one.
I suspect some of the negativity on the Interwebs comes from a more primitive place than that — somebody was cool enough to write this novel, write about Win32 debugging techniques, make this YouTube video, etc., and dashing off a quick “U SUK!!” or a well-argued rebuttal makes some folks feel a bit better than them. Both when it’s the kind of negativity that tends to make one look clever and competent and when it’s not.
In that spirit:
Would too be complete!!1one :)
With regard to this:
By now, we probably need a Who’s Who of Science Blogging just to keep track of who has had a tiff with whom. Something like 780 science blogs means, let me see, about three hundred thousand possible pairwise interactions, assuming that Alice’s opinion of Bob is the same as Bob’s opinion about Alice, a symmetry assumption which might not be valid.
There is a common prejudice that glasses make a person look smarter. This prejudice has a founding in reality in the sense that shortsightedness is statistically associated with intelligence.
There may be perfectly good, if formally invalid, reasons people assume that negative evaluators are smarter.
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