How rudeness spreads like a contagion

Posted on July 28, 2015

University of Florida researchers have finally put a long-standing hypothesis about rudeness to the test. The history to this is a study published in 1999 [pdf] that showed rudeness can create a vicious circle between individuals - if you’re rude to someone, they're more likely to be rude back at you. What the authors of that paper also speculated though, and the new research investigates, is that an initial act of rudeness creates a "secondary spiral" where offended parties end up dumping on the innocent - meaning, effectively, that rudeness can spread like a contagion.

For the new research, Trevor Foulk and his team began by studying the interactions of 90 graduate students during negotiation training, which was conducted in pairs. After each negotiation, students rated the rudeness and likability of their negotiation partner and then played a series of nine trials that each involved splitting a cash sum with that same partner, either fairly, selfishly, or spitefully accepting a poor prize in order to deny the other any cash at all. Each participant then repeated the same procedure – negotiation followed by financial game – with ten more partners.

To walk through the main finding, let’s take a rude student called Alan. The data showed that if Bella interacted with rude Alan, she would find him less likeable and be likelier to spite him financially. But furthermore, in Bella’s next negotiation session with Carl, he would more likely find her rude, unlikeable and in need of spiting. In other words, one person’s rudeness could spread through many negotiation pairs.


Source material from British Psychological Society


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