Haters Gonna Hate

How negative feedback and stereotyping are linked

Posted Mar 30, 2016

It doesn't feel good to be criticized, does it? Past research—drawing on the Self-Esteem Maintenance Theory—has uncovered many ways in which people can re-coup their self-esteem following negative feedback that have fairly negative social implications.

One way is to make downward comparisons to other people who you perceive of as worse off than you. So, say you are told off by your boss. You are quite irked, but screaming your lungs out at said boss probably isn't in your best interest. A response could to be to consider someone else at your workplace that is even more dis-liked by your boss, or that otherwise has a job you perceive as worse than yours. 

Another way is to promote another aspect of your self. So say you aren't feeling that great about how good you are at your job. A response to protect self-esteem is to then exaggerate or emphasize how good you are at something else, whether it be parenthood, or Skee ball, or growing fresh tomatoes. (or all three, for those of you with the triple talent of Skee ball, gardening and parenting!)

Past research has also revealed that we can simply denigrate other people as a means of responding to negative feedback. In one study, people who received negative feedback about their appearance later rated people in images as less attractive, less kind and less intelligent compared to when they had received positive feedback. The kicker was that those people in the images were totally unrelated to the feedback in any way; they were just random strangers on a slideshow of images. 

New research by Kenneth Savitsky, a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Williams College, and colleagues tested another means of coping with negative feedback. They reasoned that people might defuse the source of the negative feedback by coming to view all people like him/her as "all the same."

Across 5 studies they found just this. Participants were randomly assigned to receive either negative or positive feedback. They then had to rate how similar people were who belonged to the social group that had delivered the feedback. They rated the critics as more similar to each other than they did the complimenters. Further, this effect occurred only when it was the self that was being criticized. 

Taken as a whole, this suggests that we have a whole plethora of ways that we protect ourselves from negative feedback and criticism that have interpersonal consequences. We sometimes criticize others more, we sometimes compare ourselves to people who are even worse off than we are, and we sometimes exaggerate how great we are on something that we aren't being criticized on. And, we also can come to see the people who are like the person who criticized us as all the same.

When someone is unkind, it spreads, becoming far more damaging than one person who has been criticized. Perhaps, an awareness of this can help, even a little, to stave off this cycle. When someone is being unfairly harsh, perhaps they are just reacting to an earlier mistreatment. And when you are treating someone unfairly, perhaps you are doing it for the same reason.

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