Friends with Negativesby Radhika Takru, MA | September 28, 2011
When you meet someone for the first time, it’s only natural to assume that you’d like to put your best foot forward and leave a positive first impression. You might choose to do this by touching upon topics like your favorite music and movies. You might, if this goes well, move on to more profound territory and discuss your favorite philosophers. If this seems promising and you’re looking to initiate a friendship or relationship with this other person, you might even use this early conversation to drop such hints as your favorite places to eat or your local watering hole where you might like to invite them to further discuss what Kantian critiques might mean for quantum physics.
It is no surprise that sharing common interests and beliefs is beneficial when it comes to establishing new relationships, and theories on interpersonal attraction have supported this for quite some time. It is also no surprise that people tend to rely on the sharing of positive viewpoints early on in a relationship in order to broadcast a favorable impression of themselves. However, perhaps it is worth considering whether expressing negative opinions might be more effective when it comes to forming relationships and earning trust, than just telling people what you like.
Weaver and Bosson are among those researchers who have been considering that there might be stronger implications associated with the sharing of negative attitudes than are linked to the sharing of positive ones. Early social psychologists assumed that it did not matter whether the attitudes held by two people were positive or negative, as long as they were shared, and both parties were aware of this. Indeed, even Weaver and Bosson’s research has validated this showing that if two people ardently hold the same opinion — positive or negative — both will increase feelings of familiarity to the same degree.
However, the unique implications of Weaver and Bosson’s research become evident when one looks at the results of their examination of more weakly held opinions. According to their paper published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin earlier this year, two people with a similar negative attitude towards a third party are likely to experience greater feelings of familiarity than people whose attitude towards a third party is positive.
More precisely, milder negative affect towards someone else, when shared, are likely to be more effective at promoting feelings of familiarity than a mild positive affect. The researchers cite Dunbar as having already demonstrated how gossip is an effective mechanism when it comes to cementing interpersonal relationships, and their in-depth research on both direction and magnitude of affect only validates this viewpoint. In the early stages of interaction and relationship-building, revealing one’s negative opinion of another person establishes the listener as a valued and trusted companion in the eyes of the speaker. This itself is because social norms dictate that an individual reveal only the most desirable qualities about him or herself when first meeting a new person. Thus when the listener hears the speaker refer negatively to a third party, their levels of “subjective familiarity” towards the speaker are enhanced, as such revelations are the sort to be made when an interpersonal relationship is more established and secure.
Expressing mildly negative attitudes to relative strangers comes with its own share of risk. While it is this risk that is responsible for making it such an effective bonding strategy when the viewpoint is reciprocated, it is worth bearing in mind that, in the event that is not shared, it can be a serious inhibitor to the formation of social relationships. This is not just because unshared attitudes are often interpreted as unattractive, but also because the very act of revealing a negative viewpoint is socially undesirable. Weigh the consequences before you reveal your dislike for a third party the next time you’re in a social setting — if all goes well, it may very well result in you making a new friend. But if you play your cards incorrectly, you might scar your social reputation.
Weaver JR, & Bosson JK (2011). I feel like I know you: sharing negative attitudes of others promotes feelings of familiarity. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 37 (4), 481-91 PMID: 21296970
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