Cognitive Daily

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.

i-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gifThe 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:

i-3d0ba91a756d194274b27937469db025-ward.gif

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Jim
    February 6, 2007

    Maybe this is cultural; I don’t really know. In my experience, people generally want to feel like they’re better than you and they’ll find some way, in their heads, to make that happen whether or not they’re aware of it. Self-deprecation — isn’t that what this used to be known as? — is a way of disarming or short-circuiting that process by making yourself appear vulnerable or “more human”; i.e., it brings you down to, or below, their self-perceived level.

    It may or may not work all the time but it seems to work a lot more often than being a pompous ass. :-)

    My $0.0002 worth of armchair psychoanalysis.

    -Jim

  2. #2 Steve Maguire
    February 6, 2007

    Please clarify the following paragraph. I’m sure one use of “applicant” should be “guidance counselor”.

    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.

  3. #3 Jim
    February 6, 2007

    Oops! Should have put

    My $0.0002 worth of armchair psychoanalysis.

    as the top line in my first post. To be true to the study findings in the original article. ;-)

    -Jim

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    February 6, 2007

    Steve–

    No, that’s correct. The first point is that negative acknowledgment only works when you do it yourself. If others make a negative statement about you, it doesn’t help you.

    The second point is that negative acknowledgments don’t extend to other topics–even related topics. So saying “my grades weren’t the greatest” doesn’t improve peoples’ impression of your SAT scores, only their impression of your grades.

  5. #5 len
    February 6, 2007

    maybe they were being humble–in their own way.

  6. #6 amy
    February 6, 2007

    i wonder if one gets desensitized by this kind of self-depreciation stuff when EVERYONE is doing it~~

  7. #7 bioephemera
    February 6, 2007

    Was there any mention of gender in these studies?

    Anecdotally, in student research presentations, I find that instructors admonish female students for being self-deprecating, or “putting yourself down.” The audience seems to read a female student making a self-deprecating statement as unnecessarily calling attention to her weaknesses, while a male student making such a statement is likely to be interpreted as showing a sense of humor.

    Obviously it varies depending on the student; it’s just a trend I’ve noticed and I wonder if it’s been addressed quantitatively.

  8. #8 Joseph Knecht
    February 6, 2007

    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?

    This seems quite sensible to me. If the individual believes that what she has produced is less than what she is capable of, or at least is less than her average or standard level of quality, then it may behoove her to very subtly make others aware of this, as long as the act of making making them aware does not negatively impact their assessment.

    As somebody else noted above, if I preface something with “this is an overly simplistic explanation”, it heads off that criticism by others. Perhaps people are more likely to judge negatively in reaction to perceived weaknesses that they discover for themselves than to weaknesses that the creator acknowledges to them beforehand (discovered by others). Perhaps there is an element of ego investment there — e.g., that we subtly inflate the seriousness of the flaws and weaknesses of others that we discover for ourselves? That sounds like the basis for another interesting experiment.

    Additionally, I think honest self-appraisal of one’s weaknesses and the weaker points of ones position or arguments or presentations makes it more rather than less likely that people will give the benefit of the doubt in other places.

  9. #9 Camphor
    February 7, 2007

    I’d like to think that the clarity is due to the fact that you are prepared for a strong accent or whatever is coming with the negative acknowledgment. Plus, in the case of accents – the more you hear that is non-critical before the talk, the more you can adjust to the accent before the time for the talk arrives and you have to concentrate. If you miss the content for the accent in the beginning of a lecture, its a lot tougher to pick up later than if you’ve been paying attention/following since the beginning.

  10. #10 Zane
    February 7, 2007

    I live in Indonesia, and here people have a term for that, which is in Bahasa Indonesia “merendahkan diri, meninggikan mutu” or “try to elevate oneself by deprecating self” so its use is quite widespread.

  11. #11 Mark B.
    February 7, 2007

    I agree with Jim wholeheartedly. It’s almost a type of humor, a sort of running dialogue throughout the presentation that makes the speaker a little easier to relate to.

  12. #12 Dave Munger
    February 7, 2007

    It’s almost a type of humor, a sort of running dialogue throughout the presentation that makes the speaker a little easier to relate to.

    I’m not sure that’s all that’s going on. In the William James excerpt, all the acknowledgment said is “this passage is rather confusing.”

  13. #13 Stuart Buck
    February 8, 2007

    Isn’t it a matter of expectations? I.e., if you set up the audience to expect something worse than you’re really going to deliver, then they experience your delivery as a pleasant surprise.

    Wouldn’t the opposite be true as well? I.e., if someone tells me “this is going to be the smartest and wittiest lecture you’ve ever heard in your life,” that just puts me on guard; it makes me wary that it’s being oversold. So I might end up liking it less than otherwise.

  14. #14 Lars
    February 9, 2007

    I know you probably expected a better answer but:

    1. I’m with you guys (not perfect, but nearly)
    2. I have a little bit sense of humor left.

    Don’t blame me, it’s just my superego that prefers to be liked over just being a cool ruler ;-)

  15. #15 Michael
    February 9, 2007

    I think it has something to do with this.

    The point being that you may actually be right of the vertex (esteemed colleague) but a negative self-acknowledgement may being you closer to ‘average’ in the eyes of your observers. In the case of the student applicant, it seems to me that the negative self acknowledgement would serve to push you right toward the vertex by admitting your failings. Just a thought (though it’s too late to say so).

    Linguistically, I see [+NA] as being equivalent to [+Hedge].

  16. #16 keepsake1026
    February 15, 2007

    The first statement is difficult. The second two “negative” statements are not negative statements at all. The statement, “This is an over simplification” means there is more “profound” and “difficult” information to come or to be examined.
    The statement ” We Thought this study was lame” is an exact opposite of its true meaning. We thought is the past tense, but in this meaning it is we were Wrong about the study. The study is actually very Important. There can be negative statements that are truely positive in nature. These individuals are Educators; people who have studied for years, probably with very little time for anything else. When an Educator speaks before a class of laymen, not to undermine or belittle anyone, his statements may appear one way when they means something totally different. He knows the class knows very little about the subject matter. So, he begins with a calming statement. An Over simplification is telling his students this information is not too difficult. He is speaking to an audience with less knowledge, so he may attempt, if you will, make the study appear Simple or Easy just to relax the audience. We are all friends here.. Then there are Educators who will come right out and say, ” You all may have some difficulty understanding the material, or course work.
    We Thought the study was Lame. Again, to relax or to make his audience comfortable with knowledge or subject areas that are difficult to understand. It is a technique for speakers to gain the confidence of the audience. Rallying for the confidence and comfort of the audinece, his subjects are more susceptible and eager to take in and learn the subject matter.

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