Study shows the social benefits of political incorrectness

New Berkeley Haas research sheds light on the psychology of politically incorrect speech—and why it’s so effective

A microphone at a political rally

When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez refers to immigrant detention centers as “concentration camps,” or President Trump calls immigrants “illegals,” they may take some heat for being politically incorrect. But using politically incorrect speech brings some benefits: It’s a powerful way to appear authentic.

Researchers at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business found that adding even a single politically incorrect word or phrase in place of a politically correct one—”illegal” versus “undocumented” immigrants, for example—makes people view a speaker as more authentic and less likely to be swayed by others.

“The cost of political incorrectness is that the speaker seems less warm, but they also appear less strategic and more ‘real,’” says Asst. Prof. Juliana Schroeder, co-author of the paper, which includes nine experiments with almost 5,000 people and is forthcoming in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “The result may be that people may feel less hesitant in following politically incorrect leaders because they appear more committed to their beliefs.”

Cuts across party lines

Although politically correct speech is more often defended by liberals and derided by conservatives, the researchers also found there’s nothing inherently partisan about the concept. In fact, conservatives are just as likely to be offended by politically incorrect speech when it’s used to describe groups they care about, such as evangelicals or poor whites.

“Political incorrectness is frequently applied toward groups that liberals tend to feel more sympathy towards, such as immigrants or LGBTQ individuals, so liberals tend to view it negatively and conservatives tend to think it’s authentic,” says Berkeley Haas PhD candidate Michael Rosenblum, the lead author of the paper (the third co-author is Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School). “But we found that the opposite can be true when such language is applied to groups that conservatives feel sympathy for—like using words such as ‘bible thumper’ or ‘redneck’.”

The researchers asked participants of all ideological backgrounds how they would define political correctness. The definition that emerged was “using language or behavior to seem sensitive to others’ feelings, especially those others who seem disadvantaged.” In order to study the phenomenon across the political spectrum, they focused on politically incorrect labels, such as “illegal immigrants,” rather than political opinions, such as “illegal immigrants are destroying America.”

That allowed them to gauge people’s reactions when just a single word or phrase was changed in otherwise identical statements. They found that most people, whether they identified as moderate liberals or conservatives, viewed politically incorrect statements as more authentic. They also thought they could better predict politically incorrect speakers’ other opinions, believing in their conviction.

The illusion of being easily influenced

In one field experiment, the researchers found that using politically correct language gives the illusion that the speaker can be more easily influenced. They asked 500 pre-screened pairs of people to have an online debate on a topic they disagreed on: funding for historically black churches. (The topic was selected because it had a roughly 50/50 split for and against in a pilot survey; no significant difference in support and opposition across political ideology; and involved both a racial minority and religious beliefs.) Before the conversation, one partner was instructed to either use politically correct or incorrect language in making their points.

Afterwards, people believed they had better persuaded the politically correct partners than the politically incorrect partners. Their partners, however, reported being equally persuaded, whether they were using PC or politically incorrect language. “There was a perception that PC speakers were more persuadable, though in reality they weren’t,” Rosenblum said.

Although President Trump’s wildly politically incorrect statements seem to make him more popular in certain circles, copycat politicians should take heed. The researchers found that politically incorrect statements make a person appear significantly colder, and because they appear more convinced of their beliefs, they may also appear less willing to engage in crucial political dialogue.

View the full study:

Tell it like it is: When politically incorrect language promotes authenticity

(forthcoming in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology)

 

 

Winning coaches’ locker room secret

In an analysis of hundreds of basketball half-time speeches, Berkeley Haas Professor Emeritus Barry Staw and colleagues found that anger goes farther than inspiration.

High school coach instructing basketball players in locker room

It’s a staple of every sports movie: The team is down at the half, and the coach gives an inspirational locker room speech—think Gene Hackman in Hoosiers, Billy Bob Thornton in Friday Night Lights—leading the team to come roaring back to victory. But do pep talks really work?

In a new paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Berkeley Haas Prof. Emeritus Barry Staw and two colleagues, Katherine DeCelles and Peter de Goey, test that question where it counts: the basketball court. Their analysis of hundreds of half-time speeches and final scores from high school and college games found that coaches do better when they shelve the happy talk and bring down the hammer.

In fact, the researchers found a significant relationship between how negative a coach was at half-time and how well the team played in the second half: The more negativity, the more the team outscored the opposition. “That was even true if the team was already ahead at halftime,” Staw says. “Rather than saying, ‘You’re doing great, keep it up,’ it’s better to say, ‘I don’t care if you’re up by 10 points, you can play better than this.’”

This is not the first time Staw has studied basketball. In previous research, he found that NBA coaches were more apt to use expensive draft picks in games—regardless of how well they played—just because they’d paid more for them. Sports, he says, can provide a clear and objective playing field on which to examine behaviors that might not be evident elsewhere.

“In business, there are so many external events and economic factors that it is hard to figure out what is causing organizational performance,” Staw says. “For example, one cannot easily study certain things like the effect of CEO emotions, unless you could convince CEOs to let researchers tape their boardroom talks and office interactions—and even then it would be difficult to figure out whether there are effects on organizational performance.”  In basketball, on the other hand, the outcomes are easier to interpret and more definite: the score of your team vs. the opposition.

Analyzing coaches’ emotional expression

The researchers gathered the information for their study by contacting more than 50 coaches for high-school and college basketball teams in Northern California, asking if they could record their half-time locker room talks. Sometimes getting agreement took some doing. “Coaches regard the locker room as their inner sanctum—so it was kind of an achievement just to get the tapes,” he says. One coach dropped out halfway through the study, out of superstition: “The coach complained that every time we taped the game, they lost,” Staw said.

In the end, Staw and his colleagues were left with speeches for 304 games played by 23 teams. They trained coders to rate each halftime talk on the extent that coaches expressed various emotions, ranging from positive (pleased, excited, relaxed, inspired) to negative (disgusted, angry, frustrated, afraid).

Negative speeches can be motivating—up to a point

The results showed two basic effects of coaches’ emotional expression at halftime. First, there was a strong and clear relationship between negative half-time speeches and higher scores in the second half. That is, expressing negative emotion at halftime helped teams perform better in the second half. However, at the most intense end of negative expression, the researchers found somewhat of a reversal of the effect.  “We’re talking Bobby Knight–level, when you’re throwing chairs,” Staw says, a reference to the notoriously volatile former Indiana University coach. That is, extremely negative expressions of emotion can impede performance.

The researchers also conducted a controlled laboratory experiment, in which they played selected pep talks for participants, and asked them how motivated or unmotivated they felt after hearing them. Again, Staw, DeCelles, and de Goey found that negative speeches could have a motivating effect, but that the effects of such negativity turned downward rather quickly. In other words, the results showed a more traditional bell curve, where motivation dropped off when the coaches became too angry or too negative.

Not a “license to be a jerk”

Staw notes that in the psychology of leadership, the trend has been to emphasize the idea of “positive affect” driving people to greater performance. A smaller strand of research, however, has surmised that at least in the short term, negative emotion might actually push people to greater effort.

Staw and his colleagues conclude that negative emotion can be underrated as a motivational tool. By expressing anger or dissatisfaction, a leader signals to followers that their performance is not at the level where it should be, potentially driving them to greater effort. “We sometimes strip content from emotion, treating it as simply positive or negative expression, but emotion often has a message carried along with it that causes people to listen and pay attention, as leaders try to correct or redirect behavior,” Staw says.

In a business context, Staw, DeCelles, and de Goey caution against applying the findings too liberally—prolonged negative feedback can lead to demoralized employees. However, in some short-term instances, getting a boost in performance is critical, and the situation may parallel the do-or-die moment at half-time in a basketball game, where expressing anger and disappointment can lead a team to renewed effort and improved results.

“Our results do not give leaders a license to be a jerk,” Staw says, “but when you have a very important project or a merger that needs to get done over the weekend, negative emotions can be a very useful arrow to have in your quiver to drive greater performance.”

The more the merrier: new research shows donors prefer to spread their dollars around

New Berkeley Haas research finds people like to spread donations around

It’s that time of year when inboxes and mailboxes are flooded with pleas from a parade of worthy causes—from fighting hunger overseas to aiding victims of the latest natural disaster to funding your local library. Faced with so many needs, do you spread your donation dollars around, or focus on one cause to maximize your impact?

If you’re like most people faced multiple requests for help, you’re likely to divide your donations among requesters because it feels more fair, according to a new Berkeley Haas study. The upshot? You may end up giving less to each requester, but more overall, the study found.

Berkley Haas Asst. Prof. Juliana Schroeder
Juliana Schroeder

The paper, co-authored by Berkeley Haas Asst. Prof. Juliana Schroeder and PhD student Daron Sharps and forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, offers new insights into how people give help. The results could help groups seeking the best strategy to maximize donations.

“People seem to be primarily driven by fairness concerns when allocating help, and when people see more individual requesters, they give more,” said Schroeder, a psychologist in the Haas Management of Organizations Group who studies social interactions and previously looked at how donors give different kinds of help to people they view as less competent. “That was surprising to both of us, since it seems to contrast with the ‘identifiable victim effect.’”

Identifiable victims

That effect is the tendency people have to offer more help to a single, identifiable person with a compelling need than to a large, vaguely defined group such as “earthquake victims”—a phenomenon leveraged by every charity sharing heart-tugging stories and photos. It’s also been found that people don’t tend to give more to larger groups, even though the need is greater: one study by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman found that people will give the same amount to a group of 2,000 as to 200,000.

Daron Sharps_Berkeley Haas PhD student
Daron Sharps

Yet prior studies did not look at whether people were considering each request separately—a psychological phenomenon known as “unpacking”.

“We know that you might get more donations for ‘Tommy’ who was affected by the earthquake than for a million people who were affected by the earthquake, but what about ‘Tommy’ compared with ‘Tommy, Ana, and John’?,” said Sharps, who served as lead author on the study. “We found the important part is the identifiable nature of the recipient, not that it’s one versus many requesters.”

A clear pattern

The researchers studied giving behavior across nine experiments involving 3,100 people, most of whom were recruited through an online platform. They found a clear pattern: When given a choice of how to allocate donations, almost 80 percent of people chose to distribute funds across multiple recipients, with the majority giving some to every requester—and half of those distributing funds equally (researchers only looked at up to ten requesters). Only about 20 percent of givers funneled all of their donation to one recipient.

In an initial experiment, participants were shown five real profiles of women seeking money to buy seeds for the upcoming farming season via Kiva.org—an online platform that allows people to lend money to low-income entrepreneurs in 80 countries. The participants were asked how they’d distribute $100. People not only preferred to spread the money among all the women, but rated that strategy as the fairest.

“People would rather give $10 each to 10 people than choose four people to give them $25 each,” said Sharps.

Deciding what’s fair

Even when people were presented with requesters with different levels of neediness, they tended to give more to those with greater needs but still thought it was most fair to distribute the money rather than concentrate on one needy person. When asked how they’d divide funds between women who were all trying to raise $600 for business equipment—but were starting out with unequal amounts from $100 to $400—just 16 percent of donors chose to give everything to the neediest requester, while 81 percent distributed funds among all the women. What’s more, only 4 percent split up the money so that the women ended up with the same amount of funding.

Having worked in philanthropy earlier in her career, Sharps said she was surprised that so many people chose breadth over depth, and that they paid more attention to distributing their donations equally than to equal outcomes. “Making an impact was a very important part of what we thought about in the world of philanthropy, and concentrating donations would seem to make a greater impact in some cases,” she said. “But people were more focused on allocating their help fairly than on the requesters’ actual outcomes.”

When asked about their motivations in one of the experiments, participants said that dividing funds equally was not only more fair, but was also more impactful and efficient, would be more appreciated, and would leave helpers with less guilt. A further analysis by the researchers found that only participants’ beliefs about fairness—rather than impact or efficiency or other motivations—statistically predicted their choice to distribute donations. This indicates that fairness may be the primary psychological driver of decision to distribute help, the authors concluded.

More requests = more giving

In another set of experiments, the researchers used real profiles from various online platforms that featured people as well as pets in need of medical care or support. The participants were given small amounts of real money to donate—some were told they had to donate it all, but in other cases were told it was optional and they could keep what they didn’t donate.

Whether the donations were optional or mandatory, people spread the money around. For those who were told their donations were optional, the total amount they donated increased with the number of people or animals to which they could donate. People were just as likely to distribute donations to two requesters as to ten requesters—although they gave less per requester as the number increased.

In another scenario, one group of participants was shown profiles of four pets and asked to consider donations to each of them, while another group was asked to donate to the “Pets in Need” charity to support the same four animals. Those who considered the animals separately gave more overall. Researchers found the same outcome when people were asked to donate polio vaccines to five individual children versus a group that would vaccinate five children—they gave more to the five individual children than to the group.

This finding has several implications for organizations, Sharps said. Charities might consider ways to bring in the stories of multiple people into their donation appeals, and ask people to consider each one individually, rather than lumping them together. They might also find ways to amplify fairness concerns—such as a message for donors before they leave the page: “Are you sure you want to leave this person unhelped?”

“People don’t like to feel like they’re leaving some needy requesters unhelped,” Sharps said.

Can racism, sexism, and other biases be quantified?

Berkeley Haas Assoc. Prof. Ming Hsu built a model to quantify stereotypesWhen a Starbucks employee recently called the police on two black men who asked for a bathroom key but hadn’t yet ordered anything, it seemed a clear-cut case of racism leading directly to unfair treatment. Many outraged white customers publicly contrasted it with their years of hassle-free Starbucks pit stops.

But from a scientific perspective, making a direct connection between people’s biases and the degree to which they treat others differently is tricky. There are thousands of ways people stereotype different social groups—whether it’s assuming an Asian student is good at math or thinking an Irish colleague would make a good drinking buddy—and with so many variables, it’s incredibly challenging to trace how someone is treated to any one particular characteristic.

“There is a tendency for people to think of stereotypes, biases, and their effects as inherently subjective. Depending on where one is standing, the responses can range from ‘this is obvious’ to ‘don’t be a snowflake,’” said Berkeley Haas Assoc. Prof. Ming Hsu. “What we found is that these subjective beliefs can be quantified and studied in ways that we take for granted in other scientific disciplines.”

How do stereotypes influence behavior?

Berkeley Haas Assoc Prof Ming Hsu
Ming Hsu

A new paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences cuts to the heart of messy social interactions with a computational model to quantify and predict unequal treatment based on perceptions of warmth and competence. Hsu and post-doctoral researcher Adrianna C. Jenkins—now an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania—drew on social psychology and behavioral economics in a series of lab experiments and analyses of field work. (The paper was co-written by Berkeley researcher Pierre Karashchuk and Lusha Zhu of Peking University.)

“There’s been lots of work showing that people have stereotypes and that they treat members of different social groups differently,” said Jenkins, the paper’s lead author. “But there’s quite a bit we still don’t know about how stereotypes influence people’s behavior.”

It’s more than an academic issue: University admission officers, for example, have long struggled with how to fairly consider an applicant’s race, ethnicity, or other qualities that may have presented obstacles to success. How much weight should be given, for example, to the obstacles faced by African Americans compared with those faced by Central American immigrants or women?

Eye-opening findings

While these are much larger questions, Hsu said the paper’s contribution is to improve how to quantify and compare different types of discrimination across different social groups—a common challenge facing applied researchers.

“What was so eye-opening is that we found that variations in how people are perceived translated quantitatively into differences in how they are treated,” said Hsu, who holds a dual appointment with UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and the Neuroeconomics Lab. “This was as true in laboratory studies where subjects decided how to divide a few dollars as it was in the real-world where employers decided whom to interview for a job.”

The model offers a way to establish a direct connection between widely held stereotypes and entrenched societal inequities. Kellie McElhaney, founding executive director of the Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership (EGAL), said this is the kind of fundamental research that informs the mission of the center, which aims to “develop equity fluent leaders who ignite and accelerate change.”

“This research continues to advance critical knowledge and solutions around the significant and negative impact of biases, and in particular, the consequences in the business world,” she said.

Rather than analyzing whether the stereotypes were justified, the researchers took stereotypes as a starting point and looked at how they translated into behavior with over 1,200 participants across five studies. In the first study involving the classic “Dictator Game,” where a player is given $10 and asked to decide how much of it to give to a counterpart, the researchers found that people gave widely disparate amounts based on just one piece of information about the recipient (i.e., occupation, ethnicity, nationality). For example, people on average gave $5.10 to recipients described as “homeless,” while those described as “lawyer” got a measly $1.70—even less than an “addict,” who got $1.90

To look at how stereotypes about the groups drove people’s choices to pay out differing amounts, the researchers drew on an established social psychology framework that categorizes all stereotypes along two dimensions: those that relate to a person’s warmth (or how nice they are seen to be), and those that relate to a person’s competence (or how intelligent they are seen to be). These ratings, they found, could be used to accurately predict how much money people distributed to different groups. For example, “Irish” people were perceived as warmer but slightly less competent than “British,” and received slightly more money on average.

“We found that people don’t just see certain groups as warmer or nicer, but if you’re warmer by X unit, you get Y dollars more,” Hsu said.

Specifically, the researchers found that disparate treatment results not just from how people perceive others, but how they see others relative to themselves. In allocating money to a partner viewed as very warm, people were reluctant to offer them less than half of the pot. Yet with a partner viewed as more competent, they were less willing to end up with a smaller share of the money than the other person. For example, people were ok with having less than an “elderly” counterpart, but not less than a “lawyer.”

Predicting job callbacks

It’s one thing to predict how people behave in carefully controlled laboratory experiments, but what about in the messy real world? To test whether their findings could be generalized to the field, Hsu and colleagues tested whether their model could predict treatment disparities in the context of two high-profile studies of discrimination. The first was a Canadian labor market study that found a huge variation in job callbacks based on the perceived race, gender, and ethnicity of the names on resumes. Hsu and colleagues found that the perceived warmth and competence of the applicants—the stereotype based solely on their names—could predict the likelihood that an applicant had gotten callbacks.

They tried it again with data from a U.S. study on how professors responded to mentorship requests from students with different ethnic names and found the same results.

“The way the human mind structures social information has specific, systemic, and powerful effects on how people value what happens to others,” the researchers wrote. “Social stereotypes are so powerful that it’s possible to predict treatment disparities based on just these two dimensions (warmth and competence).”

Future applications

Hsu says the model’s predictive power could be useful in a wide range of applications, such as identifying patterns of discrimination across large populations or building an algorithm that can detect and rate racism or sexism across the internet—something these authors are deep at work on now.

“Our hope is that this scientific approach can provide a more rational, factual basis for discussions and policies on some of the most emotionally-fraught topics in today’s society,” Hsu said.

A fair shake: Study finds handshaking promotes better deal-making

Research by Berkeley Haas Asst. Prof. Juliana Schroeder finds the simple act of shaking hands can be a powerful expression of cooperative purpose.

Shaking hands promotes cooperation_research by Asst. Prof. Juliana Schroeder

Like any ritual, a handshake may seem like a bizarre gesture when you really stop to consider it. “Why do we touch hands and move them up and down?” says Juliana Schroeder, an assistant professor in the Berkeley Haas Management of Organizations Group. “If you were an alien coming to earth and looking at what people do, you would think, ‘What is the purpose of this thing?’”

Asst. Prof. Juliana Schroeder_headshotIn new research set to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Schroeder has found a profound effect to the simple ritual: Shaking hands can improve the outcome of negotiations for both sides. “When you shake hands with someone, you make an immediate inference that ‘They are going to cooperate with me; they are not going to do me harm,’” she says. “And so you decide to cooperate with them.”

Why do we shake hands?

As far as Schroeder has been able to determine, handshaking has two origin stories. Some believe that it was a way for people in ancient times to show that they weren’t carrying weapons—even going so far as to pump hands up and down to dislodge any hidden knives up their sleeves. Another theory is that it was to seal a promise or an oath. “Both of these things are related to the idea of trustworthiness and cooperation,” Schroeder says. “The gesture cements an understanding we have between us.”

Schroeder has long examined the effect that rituals play in our psychology, looking for example, on how daily rituals around eating can cut calories, or how rituals performed before public speaking can decrease anxiety. In her study, co-written with Jane Risen of the University of Chicago’s Booth Business School and Franscesca Gino and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, the researchers tested how handshakes changed negotiations in a series of experiments involving classic negotiation games. In one game, for example, two participants negotiated over a car, considering six aspects including price, color, and model. Each participant had different goals in the negotiation, some of which were aligned and some of which weren’t, and they scored points based on how many of their goals they met. Participants were not prompted to shake hands, but researchers noticed that when partners decided of their accord to start their negotiations with a handshake, both ended up scoring more points overall.

Talking more, lying less

That doesn’t necessarily mean that shaking hands produced that outcome. “Maybe handshaking people are just nicer, more conscientious people who tend to be more cooperative,” Schroeder says. In order to test cause and effect, she and her colleagues set up a new negotiation over a job offer, this time encouraging some partners to shake hands before negotiating while sitting others down right away before they had the chance to shake. Once again, those who shook hands reached greater agreement and scored more points. Moreover, the researchers videotaped the exchange, and observers scored how cooperative the two negotiators were. Not only did they score more points, but the pairs that shook hands also lied less, tended to talk more after the negotiation was over, and even leaned closer to each other while talking.

In another experiment, handshaking even seemed to make a difference in zero-sum negotiations in which one side had to lose in order for the other side to win. In that experiment, involving a real estate transaction, the “seller” had the opportunity to withhold crucial information from the buyer that would drive up the price. When the participants shook hands beforehand, however, the seller was more likely to be honest and divulge that information, even if it meant they achieved a lower price overall. “People say they felt less comfortable lying to their partner when they shook hands,” says Schroeder.

Psychological effect

In explaining why handshaking has such an effect on negotiations, Schroeder believes that it goes beyond the physical act of touching and moving together: the ritualistic gesture has a psychological effect, she says. “It changes the way you perceive not just the other person, but the way you frame the whole game,” she says. “You say to yourself, ‘Now we are in a cooperative setting rather than an antagonistic one.’”

Signaling goodwill

In fact, another experiment demonstrated that the power of handshaking is less tied to the specific physical gesture than the meaning we’ve attributed to it.  The researchers instructed some participants to not shake hands, and instead to tell their partner that they were sick and didn’t want to infect them. Others were instructed to shake and later tell their partner about their germy hands. In that case, the results were completely reversed, with those who didn’t shake hands achieving a more cooperative settlement. “The same physical behavior takes on a totally different meaning,” Schroeder says. “It’s not so much the physical act, it’s more about thinking this person is behaving in a cooperative way.”

For those entering negotiations in a business context, a handshake can be a surprisingly easy way to demonstrate that spirit of cooperation, perhaps leading to a better, fairer deal for both sides. That makes it all the more surprising that in the researchers’ first experiment—in which participants decided on their own, without prompting, whether to shake hands or not—only 30 percent of them did so. “It’s a seemingly small gesture that influences negotiations,” Schroeder says. “Engaging in the everyday ritual of handshaking can improve cooperative outcomes.”

More by Juliana Schroeder:

 

Replication revolution: Haas researchers lead social psychology shake-up

In a famous psychological study performed 20 years ago, researchers gave two groups of participants a trivia test. Beforehand, they asked members of the first group to imagine what their daily lives would be like if they were a “professor”; they asked a second group to imagine their lives as a “soccer hooligan.” Amazingly, the first group scored 13 percent higher on the test.

“That’s a huge effect,” says Haas doctoral candidate Michael O’Donnell, who says the study also had a huge effect on the field of psychology. Cited more than 800 times to date, the study helped establish the concept of behavioral priming, the theory that people’s behavior can be influenced by subtle suggestions. “For psychologists, it’s seductive to think that we can address these weighty issues through simple manipulations,” says O’Donnell, PhD 2019.

Berkeley Haas researchers have shown there's no "professor effect"
Turns out, you can’t make yourself smarter by imagining you’re a professor. 

Seductive maybe, but in this particular case, it turns out not to be true. Working with Haas Prof. Leif Nelson, O’Donnell recently ran an exhaustive experiment to try and replicate the “professor priming” study. Their effort—one of the first to answer a call from the Association for Psychological Science for systematic replication studies—involved 23 labs and more than 4,400 participants around the world.

Depending on the lab, the “professor” group scored anywhere from 4.99 percent higher to 4.24 lower on the test. On average, they scored just 0.14 percent better—essentially, a statistically insignificant result. “It was 1/100th the size of the original effect,” O’Donnell says. “That’s pretty strong evidence there was no effect.”

Crisis of conscience

Over the past eight years, the field of social psychology has been undergoing something of a crisis of conscience, sparked by the work of Nelson and other skeptics who began calling into question research results that seemed too good to be true. It’s grown into a full-blown movement—which Nelson and co-authors Joseph Simmons and Uri Simonsohn of Wharton refer to as “Psychology’s Renaissance” in a new paper in Annual Review of Psychology. Researchers are systematically re-visiting bedrock findings, examining new research under new standards, and establishing new methodologies for how research is conducted and validated.

Nelson says he started to suspect something was amiss in social psychology about a decade ago, during weekly meetings he organized with colleagues to discuss scientific journals. “I had noticed that more and more of the comments seemed to boil down to something like, ‘this just does not sound possible…’ A challenge of plausibility is a challenge of truth, and I started to feel as though there wasn’t enough truth in what we were reading.”

P-hacking

Berkeley Haas Prof. Leif Nelson
Leif Nelson

In 2011, Nelson joined with Simmons and Simonsohn to publish “False-Positive Psychology,” which identified and pinned the blame on certain practices they dubbed “P-hacking.” The term refers to the P-value, a calculation which researchers use to determine a study’s validity. A P-value of less than 5 percent is the gold standard—meaning the probability that the results were due to pure chance rather than experimental conditions is less than 5 percent. In analyzing papers, Nelson noticed that many of them had P-values just a hair under that limit, implying that researchers were slicing and dicing their data and squeaking in under the wire with publishers. For example, a wildly outlying data point might be seen as a glitch and tossed—a practice accepted as “researchers degree of freedom”.

“Basically, P-hacking references a set of often well-intentioned behaviors that lead to the selective reporting of results,” Nelson says. “If scientists report selectively, then they will tend to select only those results that will look most positive.”

These were practices that everybody knew about but rarely confessed. Haas Prof. Don Moore compares the 2011 paper to the child in the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”  “Nelson’s paper changed the world of social science research,” he says. “After he had the courage to speak the truth, people couldn’t ignore it any more. Everyone knew that everyone else knew, and the emperor had been exposed as naked.”

The replication challenge

Taking up the challenge, other researchers attempted to reproduce the findings of a number of suspect studies, and in many cases, were unable to do so. Most famously, Simmons and Simonsohn called into question a small 2010 study co-authored by Dana Carney and Andy Yap, then of Columbia University, and Amy Cuddy, then of Harvard, which found that holding “power poses” could increase risk taking, increase testosterone levels, and lower cortisol levels. The study had involved a sample size of just 42 people, but power posing had become a pop-culture phenomenon after Cuddy created a TED talk that garnered 64 million views.

Lead author Carney—now an associate professor at Haas—joined the skeptics, serving as a reviewer on failed replication attempts, and as evidence mounted, publicly disavowing the findings. In 2016, she posted a statement detailing the problems in the original work, including several points where P-hacking had occurred.

Not surprisingly, the battle over validity in this and other cases got heated. The effort by the Association for Psychological Science aims to cool down the vitriol through comprehensive Registered Replication Reports (RRRs). For each RRR, the original author participates in approving the protocol for the study, which is registered beforehand, and then performed by dozens of labs, all of whom have their results peer-reviewed.

“An operational definition of scientific truth is that if you follow an identical procedure you expect to observe the same result,” says Nelson. “Running replications helps the field keep track of that goal.”

More transparency

The replication movement now extends far beyond psychology across a wide range of disciplines—for example, in a recent Nature article, “How to Make Replication the Norm,” Haas Prof. Paul Gertler made recommendations on how to lower barriers for replication studies in economics research.

For the “professor priming” study, O’Donnell worked with the original author, Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis, who accepted the results. “Science is supposed to be constantly updating our views and testing things, but in practice it doesn’t always work like that,” says O’Donnell. “I hope something like this will contribute to the process of updating, and encourage the kind of skepticism we are supposed to have.”

Nelson and his co-authors strike a hopeful note in “Psychology’s Renaissance,” concluding that the new scientific practices have dramatically improved their field. They argue for even more transparency, including that researchers pre-register their hypotheses and subject their methods to peer-review before they run their experiments—something that Moore has also been outspoken about. That way, once the data come in, psychologists can be confident about their validity.

How the “I approve” tagline boosts nasty political ads

I Approve This MessageWith primary season just around the corner, voters will soon start hearing a familiar refrain: “I’m Candidate X, and I approve this message.” Since 2002, federal law has required the tagline on all ads paid for by candidates for federal office.

The aim was to discourage negative campaigning. But newly published Berkeley Haas research shows that it’s actually made attack ads more powerful.

“People tend to be suspicious of political rhetoric—especially negative political rhetoric,” says Assoc. Prof. Clayton Critcher of the Haas Marketing Group. “But we found that the mandatory tagline has an unintended effect: It makes ads attacking an opponent’s policy positions seem more credible.”

Ironic effect

Assoc. Prof. Clayton Critcher

In a series of experiments, Critcher and co-researcher Minah Jung of New York University’s Stern School of Business found that adding the tagline to policy-based attack ads not only makes them more believable, but gives people a more positive view of the candidate who gives the tagline endorsement. Their paper, “How Encouraging Niceness Can Incentivize Nastiness: An Unintended Consequence of Advertising Reform,” was published this month in the Journal of Marketing Research.

“Although we think political consultants are not currently aware of this ironic effect, we clearly know regulators did not mean to help to legitimize negative and often misleading ads,” Critcher said.

As a psychologist who studies judgment and decision making, Critcher had long been curious about whether the ubiquitous taglines had any effect on voters. The “I approve this message” tagline originated with the “Stand by Your Ad” (SBYA) provision of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, better known as McCain-Feingold.

“John McCain had this great speech from the Senate floor in which he said that candidates wouldn’t approve the trash their campaigns were putting out if they had to put their face on screen and stand behind it,” Critcher said. “We now know that despite the law, there has been no slowdown, and in fact an escalation, in negative political advertising.”

The percentage of negative ads swelled from 29 percent in 2000 to 64 percent in 2012, according to research cited in the paper. A CNN analysis found that in the week before the 2016 presidential election, a full 92 percent of ads were negative. While the rise of SuperPACs explains a lot of the growth in negativity, the candidates own messaging has grown more negative as well.

How do voters respond to “I approve”?

But rather than look at whether the mandatory tagline has encouraged politicians to change their messages, Critcher and Jung wanted to know whether it changes how voters respond to those messages—and if so, why.

Past research has found that negative ads can be more effective than positive ones, but campaigners who go negative face the added hurdle of overcoming voter skepticism. This hurdle is higher with character-based hit pieces, which voters may not see as relevant. Does someone’s affair or tax evasion penalty mean they will be a poor leader? In contrast, attacks on an opponent’s policy positions are clearly relevant to the job, but what undermines them are suspicions of their truthfulness. The researchers suspected the tagline might influence that.

The researchers experimented with real and fictional ads in video, audio, and print formats, conducting four experiments on about 2,000 people recruited from universities and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. They used ads from Congressional races from 2006 to 2010, as well as fictional ads they created by editing together snippets from real advertisements.

They began by asking about 400 people to watch eight TV ads aired by Democratic and Republican candidates in recent Congressional races. In this set were positive and negative ads from each party focused on candidates’ character and policy record. Crucially, the researchers edited out the tagline on half of the ads each viewer saw.

What they found is that although the tagline did not consistently change people’s reaction to positive ads or ad hominem attacks, the tagline did give a clear boost to the policy-based attack ads. In addition, people had a more favorable view of candidates running negative ads when the tagline was included. The researchers found the same pattern in a second experiment using ads they wrote themselves, which allowed them to more precisely control for the ads’ content.

The effect was substantial: Across all their experiments, the researchers found that the tagline had an even stronger effect than did partisanship. “It may seem intuitive that Democrats and Republicans believe that Democrats and Republicans, respectively, run truer ads. It is remarkable that mandatory
endorsements can have effects that are at least as large,” they wrote in their paper.

Critcher cautioned, however, that the effect may sound exaggerated, because participants were not generally familiar with the candidates in the ads, and most ads, designed for broad appeal, don’t state candidates’ party affiliation. Still, given the closeness by which many races are decided, campaigns invest heavily in turnout operations that have much smaller effects, he noted.

Why the boost?

The researchers were also surprised when they began parsing out why the tagline works. Do voters not realize the tagline is simply required of all ads? Does it confuse them into thinking regulators have vetted the ads’ content?

They ran two more experiments with large sample sizes (639 people and 565 people) and found that even when participants were told the tagline was required by law, and that no regulators had vetted the content’s veracity, they still said the ads that included a tagline were more believable. Participants also were largely unaware of the tagline’s effect: Even those who said that it didn’t influence their evaluation of the ad were indeed influenced by it.

The researchers were able to invent brand new taglines (which they had voice actors deliver), attach them to ads, and tell participants that the law required candidates to deliver the tagline. They observed the same boost to ad credibility.

“We initially thought the boost came from what sounded like an implicit promise of the ads’ truthfulness—with the candidate putting themselves and their credibility on the line by affirming that they ‘approved’ the message,” Critcher said. “That was a factor, but the bigger effect was the fact that the ad had been touched by regulation. That gave a legitimating halo to the message as a whole.”

Critcher and Jung close their paper by considering whether the tagline should be ditched altogether. Although they didn’t find a perfect solution, they did find that a more neutral tagline—one that can’t be confused for an implicit promise of message truth value (e.g., “My name is X, and I am running for Y”) significantly decreased the unintended consequences.

“We hope that by bringing this to light, policymakers might realize this provision is not serving the public good and find a better way,” he said.

 

More research by Clayton Critcher:

Judging moral character: A matter of principle, not good deeds

 

 

 

Truth or consequences? The negative results of concealing who you really are on the job.