In the News: The Benefits (and Costs) of Wearing Many Hats

How do you handle criticism? If you’re like most people, probably not well. Fortunately, in a recent article in The Atlantic, Olga Khazan writes about a psychological trait which can help take away the sting of criticism:

One especially important factor is self-complexity, a psychological measure of the number of different “roles” that make up a person. Are you a spouse, mother, sister, and employee? Or just an employee? People who are lower in self-complexity have have fewer self-perceived roles, and their defining qualities in those roles are pretty similar—they might be a serious wife, for example, and a serious boss. These individuals tend to take criticism more to heart. They see negative feedback in any one sphere as a reflection on their whole self, as opposed to a just a small part of themselves.

Therefore, if you can see yourself as having more roles, you’ll be less sensitive to criticism (and perhaps less nervous about your performance). As lovely as this sounds, however, this approach can also have some drawbacks. As Khazan explains,

In a 2010 study, Allen McConnell, of Miami University, and Christina Brown, of Saint Louis University, asked college students to write about how much they valued study skills, then to describe all the times they slacked off. When the hypocrisy was pointed out, the students who were lower in self-complexity were more likely to change their attitudes to match their behavior: They acknowledged studying was not very important, after all. “Because they view themselves in a more limited way, the sting of hypocrisy is more painful and therefore they’re more motivated to get rid of it by being consistent,” Brown said. Meanwhile, those with a lot of self-complexity doubled down on their attitudes about the importance of studying, even when the evidence of their own studying failures was laid bare.

So what are we to take away from all this? First, if you find yourself overly concerned about criticism, it may behoove you to reconceptualize yourself as having more roles—even if you’re a bad speaker, you’re still a good a writer. But at the same time, you don’t want to let having multiples roles make you totally impervious to criticism: where reasonable, you still want to let it in and act on it. In other words, if you’ve just given a terrible presentation, begin by reminding yourself that you still wrote a wonderful report, but don’t let that stop you from working to give a better presentation the next time.

In the News: Worse Than Lying

In today’s New York Times “Sunday Review,” Jillian Jordan, Roseanna Sommers, and David Rand review their recent research on why we hate hypocrites so much.

Imagine an environmental activist who hounds people to turn off the lights whenever they leave a room but fails to do so himself. He is a hypocrite. And we hate him. But why, the authors ask, do we hate him so much?

Their answer is that we take moral statements (“it is wrong to waste energy”) as an indication of how the speaker himself acts, even more so than factual statements (“I don’t waste energy”). This means that hypocritical statements are even worse than lying. And this is exactly what their research has found: people view hypocrites as less honest, less trustworthy, less likable, and less morally upright than people who openly lie (i.e., people who say “I don’t waste energy” when they actually do).

Interestingly, however, they also found that if you make a moral statement but explicitly clarify that you don’t always act in accordance with it (i.e., you say “I think it’s morally wrong to waste energy, but I sometimes do it anyway”), you can avoid these negative judgments of hypocrisy. In this case, you will simply be judged on the basis of your actions—the same as someone who wastes energy, but make no moral claims about it.

In The Science of Speaking, I explain that it can be beneficial to admit a weakness in your argument before your audience discovers it themselves. This research shows that this advice is particularly relevant in the case of moral arguments. When you’re making a moral claim (i.e., a Halo appeal), if there’s a chance that you might be discovered as a hypocrite, it’s good to defuse the situation upfront by admitting that you don’t always live up to the ideals you’re proposing, but that the audience should at least join you in trying.