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How Rudeness Changes Our Brains

Our brain developed to recognize threats. It just wasn’t expecting them to come.

Key points

  • Our brains are evolutionarily designed to respond to threats, but sometimes we overreact to social threats, like when someone is rude to us.
  • Rudeness focuses our attention on it and makes it hard for us to process information and see alternatives.
  • Rudeness can also be contagious, so that when we encounter it, we often become a little ruder ourselves.
Liza Summers/Pexels
Rudeness can change the way our brains operate.
Source: Liza Summers/Pexels

Our brains are wired to be highly sensitive to threats in our environment. This part of human nature comes out of our evolutionary history, providing us the ability to quickly detect potential threats and respond to them. Our brains have a sense of vigilance preprogrammed, such that we’re constantly scanning the environment for anything that we think might want to cause us harm. While that may have helped us in the caves, it doesn’t necessarily help at work, the grocery store, or at your child’s parent-teacher conference.

Rudeness as threat

Threats in today’s world often come in the form of “rudeness,” slights, or comments real or imagined that put us down or seem unfair. While these social threats are not nearly as severe as those our ancestors dealt with (e.g., tigers, snakes, an unfriendly tribe), our brains, for the most part, treat them the same. Even minor rude encounters can register as social threats and occupy our cognitive systems, resulting in some surprising ways of thinking.

Being focused on someone else’s rudeness can increase our tendency not to change our minds, even when presented with information suggesting we are wrong. This tendency is referred to as the anchoring bias, and recent research indicates that encounters with rudeness make us more likely to maintain our stubbornness. If we’re in the process of making a decision while focusing on a recent rude encounter, this can restrict our ability to see alternatives or fully process information. This tendency for rudeness to amplify the anchoring bias, keeping us anchored on a potentially wrong way of thinking, can have profound implications in certain circumstances, such as when doctors are giving medical diagnoses or when people are engaged in an important business negotiation.

The contagion of rudeness

Rudeness can be contagious. When we have a rude encounter with someone, our brains can become so focused on the insult or slight that it actually changes the way we see and interpret what’s in front of us; specifically, it can cause us to see more rudeness in other people. This is because social behaviors are almost by definition ambiguous—for example, the simple comment, “Hey, nice shoes,” can be interpreted as a rude insult or a genuine compliment, and our brains have to decide really quickly which one we think it is.

When rudeness is on our minds like this, it tends to color our interpretation of others’ behaviors and not give them the benefit of the doubt. In this state, we tend to see the world through “rude-colored glasses,” interpreting even benign interactions with others as potentially harmful or threatening. So, when we’ve just encountered rudeness, we are much more likely to interpret someone saying, “Hey, nice shoes,” as a rude insult instead of a compliment (even if it was a genuine compliment).

Furthermore, when we think someone is being rude to us (even if they’re not), our natural response is to respond tit-for-tat. This response can happen so quickly and automatically that we often don’t even think about it—in other words, once we feel someone is being rude, the next word out of our mouth is very likely, “Well, your shoes are ugly too!”

Hacking our brain

There are ways to counterbalance our instincts, however. Because these are automatic processes—our brains automatically focus on threatening stimuli without our intention or awareness—they can, in many cases, be overridden by focusing on our emotions and controlling them. The next time you can’t stop thinking about that car that cut you off in traffic, or your colleague’s sarcastic comment about your shoes, ask yourself: “Am I overreacting? Is this simply a case of my ancient brain responding too dramatically to a minor threat?” In many cases, you’ll find that the answer is yes, and this realization can stop the vigilance process and help you get back to normal.

In the case of the anchoring phenomenon, there are some additional steps you can take to help reduce your tendency to anchor when you encounter rudeness. One is to simply ask questions. If you’re trying to make a decision and you’re worried that rudeness may be ramping up your stubbornness, asking questions can help you see the issue from a different angle and broaden your perspective.

Another strategy is to take the perspective of the other person. Try to see the situation from their point of view and understand where they are coming from. Maybe they’re cutting you off in traffic because they have a wife going into labor next to them, and they need to get to the hospital. Maybe the cashier at the grocery store just had a fight with her husband, and that’s why she’s being so short with you. Probably not. But these acts of empathy are what can take you out of your rudeness-affected mind and allow you to enjoy life a bit more and not spread the rudeness to your own family or other drivers or people in line at the grocery store.

References

Cooper, B., Giordano, C. R., Erez, A., Foulk, T. A., Reed, H., & Berg, K. B. (2021). Trapped by a first hypothesis: How rudeness leads to anchoring. Journal of Applied Psychology.

Foulk, T., Woolum, A., & Erez, A. (2016). Catching rudeness is like catching a cold: The contagion effects of low-intensity negative behaviors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(1), 50.

Woolum, A., Foulk, T., Lanaj, K., & Erez, A. (2017). Rude color glasses: The contaminating effects of witnessed morning rudeness on perceptions and behaviors throughout the workday. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(12), 1658.

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