Remember the old biblical injunction, "Judge not, that ye be not judged" (Mt. 7:1)? It made good sense before, but now apparently it makes even more. According to a study by psychologist John J. Skowronski and colleagues, published in the April 1998 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, judging other people--more specifically, gossiping about them--has a boomerang effect. The traits you describe in other people will be applied to you as well by the person(s) you're describing them to. Tell someone that so-and-so is a deadbeat, for example, and the person you're telling will think you're kind of shiftless yourself. The researchers have given this "common, but apparently mindless, psychological phenomenon" the name of spontaneous trait transference.
The researchers describe this transference as "irrational and largely outside of conscious awareness." Be that as it may, the gist of the study is that "when you gossip," says one of the researchers (quoted in Science News), "you become associated with the characteristics you describe, ultimately leading those characteristics to be 'transferred' to you."
This transference should be borne in mind the next time you're describing a person to some third party. You must describe that person with care. For example, tell people that "if John was any dumber he would have to be watered twice a week," and they might think that you could use a hose turned on you. Say something like "Jane loves nature in spite of what it did to her," and they might think that you got a raw deal yourself. Or refer to someone with a disparaging remark like "the wheel is spinning, but the hamster is dead," and folks might associate you too with a rodent.
I suppose we are fortunate if this trait transference is mainly limited, as the study suggests, to gossipy descriptions of people as opposed to all forms of discourse. I believe, however, that the phenomenon is also commonly found in partisan politics, as in negative political campaigning, which is high in boomerang risk. For example, when George H.W. Bush, campaigning for reelection as U.S. president in 1992, referred to his challenger Bill Clinton and Clinton's running mate Al Gore as "those Bozos," a lot of voters may have irrationally assumed that Bush was a Bozo himself. Thus trait transference may help lead to power transference.
If any politician deserved to fall victim to spontaneous trait transference, it was Virginia's John Randolph (1773-1833), who described an opponent as "utterly corrupt. He shines and stinks like rotten mackerel by moonlight." My favorite, though, is the politician I remember reading about (his name lost to my memory) who said of his opponent, "He has all the attributes of a dog except loyalty."
In any case, the advice seems wiser than ever that if you can't say something good about someone, don't say anything. That's a hard saying, of course, because for most people the temptation to gossip seems to be overwhelming. Gossiping or talking behind one's back (if not actually stabbing one in it) is apparently a part of human nature. But it is well to remember that spontaneous trait transference can also work in your favor. Say something nice about someone, and you'll be perceived as all right. This can be overdone, of course: Saying nice things indiscriminately can lead others to conclude that you're as phony as a three-dollar bill.
Anyway, if you can't think of anything nice (and preferably sincere), think twice before saying this or that about so-and-so or calling him or her a name: There is now published scientific evidence that it takes one to know one.
Copyright 1998-1999 by Ronald L. Ecker
For other articles, see Ecker's Little Archive.
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