Do you work in an office with a Water Cooler Hero? The gossip that cannot wait to share the scandalous and salacious details of the day? Although you don´t want to admit it, you might even find yourself living vicariously through the latest rumors or workplace drama. If so, you are in good company.
For many people working tedious, often monotonous nine to five jobs, dishing in the lunchroom is tempting. “What do you think of Julia, the president´s new assistant?” “Arrogant,” remarks one of your co-workers. “Overconfident,” states another. You definitely have your own opinion; and it is not flattering. Do you jump into the conversation and offer it up? Or do you abide by the timeless wisdom that a closed mouth gathers no foot?
Hopefully you choose the latter. Because research reveals that the traits you attribute to others are attributed to you.
For Better or For Worse, the Way You Describe Others Is the Way People See You
Part of socializing includes talking about other people. Whether conversing in a personal or professional context, discussing friends, family, and peers is unavoidable. Most of the time, we are gracious, kind, and complementary. But not all of the time.
Research reveals that we should be. Because badmouthing others may have consequences over and above the obvious risks of having your unflattering remarks revealed, or coming across as bitter, jealous, or vindictive. It turns out that the traits you publicly assign to others, are likely to be attributed to you.
Trait Transference: You Are What You Say
Research by Skowronski et al. (1998) describes a phenomenon known as spontaneous trait transference, as a process by which the very traits we describe in others are attributed to us. Their research further demonstrated this association persists over time.
But wait a minute, you think, you clearly do not possess the negative characteristics you describe in others. Bad news: Skowronski et al. found that spontaneous trait transference does not represent a logical attribution, but a mindless association.
Their research also discovered that trait transference was not as simple as transferring a positive impression of someone who compliments other people, or a negative impression of someone who is disparaging. The transference was trait specific. Ouch.
Trait Inference: You Aced a Test So Must Be Smart
But there is more. Traits are not only transferred, they are inferred. When we hear about something another person did, we associate action with aptitude.
Research by Wells et al. (2011) discussed both spontaneous trait transference and spontaneous trait inference, defined as inferring traits about others as a result of hearing a description of their behavior. One example they give is how hearing that someone “aced (his) Quantum Mechanics exam” would leave a listener to infer the test taker is intelligent.
They also discovered that both trait transference and trait inference require thinking, as both are dependent on working memory capacity.
Given how quickly we apparently jump to conclusions, are there times we are more likely to give people the benefit of the doubt? Yes indeed. Research shows that when we are motivated to bond, we are more likely to view others in a positive light.
Making Friends Is Easier Wearing Rose Colored Glasses
In a study aptly named “Seeing others through rose-colored glasses,” Rim et al. (2013) examined the human affiliation goal, recognizing that we are social creatures, born to bond — and to belong. We can instinctively recognize the practical impact of this research every time we go to a networking event hoping to make business contacts, or social function hoping to make new friends.
They found in one experiment that people with an affiliation goal demonstrated a positivity bias by forming more positive spontaneous trait inferences than negative ones. In a second experiment, they found this effect only takes place when the affiliation goal remains unfulfilled.
Expressing Kindness and Criticism
The takeaway? Authentic compliments allow you to express admiration of others, with the positive traits you cite also being attributed to you. The opposite, of course, is true as well. Perhaps your parents told you growing up that if you had nothing good to say, don´t say anything. Research indicates the propriety of that wisdom.
During conversation, personal or professional, sometimes expressing criticism is warranted. But if in doubt, leave it out.
A version of this article was first published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick is a career prosecutor, named the Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year, and recognized by her peers as one of the Top Ten criminal attorneys in San Diego by the San Diego Daily Transcript. She has completed over 150 trials ranging from human trafficking, to domestic violence, to first-degree murder. She is President of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals San Diego Chapter and an ATAP Certified Threat Manager. Dr. Patrick is a frequent media commentator with over 2,500 appearances including CNN, Fox News Channel, Newsmax, and many others. She is author of "Red Flags" (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller "Reading People" (Random House). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, is a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony, and plays the electric violin with a rock band. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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