At a recent social psychology conference, one of the attendees kept an informal tally of how often presenters made negative statements about their own presentations. Out of 18 presenters, 11 made negative statements like
- I’ve prepared a gosh-awful overhead
- This is a gross oversimplification, or
- We thought this study was pretty lame.
The statements weren’t qualified in any way, just offered on their own as a preface to a portion of their presentation. Why would esteemed researchers find it worthwhile to make self-critical statements in front of their own colleagues? We’re not talking here about sandbagging, where a speaker deliberately lowers expectations in order to make his or her accomplishments appear more impressive. We’re also not talking about supplication or begging for pity. Nor were these statements disclaimers, where listeners were asked to disregard or overlook a flaw.
In cases like this, termed “negative acknowledgment,” no overt attempt is made to use the negative statement to sway listeners to a positive view. If that’s the case, then why would a successful individual ever make such a statement, particularly in a setting where they are trying to impress their colleagues?
Andrew Ward and Lyle Brenner asked 57 college students to read a paragraph from William James’ 1907 tome Pragmatism, which began as follows: “Pragmatism, pending the final empirical ascertainment of of just what the balance of union and disunion of things may be, must obviously range herself upon the pluralistic side.” Yikes! Were the research participants allowed to use dictionaries?
Nineteen of the students first read a statement indicating the paragraph was “rather confusing,” nineteen of them read the same negative acknowledgment after reading the paragraph, and nineteen read the paragraph alone, with no acknowledgment. Next they rated the paragraph for clarity on a nine-point scale, where 1 = not clear at all and 9 = very clear. Here are the results:
Simply preceding the paragraph with a negative acknowledgment led to significantly higher (though still quite low) ratings, while following the paragraph with the same acknowledgment was rated no differently from the “no acknowledgment” condition.
In a second study, participants listened to a five-minute lecture given by an Austrian psychologist speaking English with a strong accent. Afterwards the speaker was rated on a seven-point scale for likability, clarity, and how noticeable the accent was. The speech was rated as significantly clearer when it was preceded by the statement “I have a rather strong accent.”
Finally, students at Swarthmore College were asked to imagine they were on the school’s admissions committee and read a short description of a student applicant. The student’s grades were described as “in the B plus range” (lower than the average Swarthmore student), while SAT scores were given as 770 verbal and 750 math (about average for Swarthmore). The descriptions were identical except for a negative acknowledgment. In one case, the applicant was said to have written “I know my grades aren’t the greatest.” In a second case, the applicant’s guidance counselor was quoted saying the student’s “grades weren’t the greatest,” and in a third case, no negative acknowledgment was made.
As you may have predicted from the first two studies, once again, when the applicant made the negative acknowledgment about grades, participants rated his or her grades as higher than in the other two conditions. Interestingly, ratings of SAT scores, overall ratings — and the critical admissions decision itself — were not higher when a negative acknowledgment was made by the applicant.
The three studies suggest that negative acknowledgments are only effective when they are made by the person who’s being evaluated, and their effectiveness only extends to the subject of acknowledgment. In other words, you probably won’t improve someone’s overall impression of your sense of style by pointing out your ugly shoes, but they might like your shoes a little more.
And self-deprecating researchers may be able to manipulate a few aspects of their impression on their audience, but ultimately, the science needs to be right, too.
Ward, A., & Brenner, L. (2006). Accentuate the negative: The positive effects of negative acknowledgment. Psychological Science, 17(11), 959-962.