Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jun 13, 2019

Hostile Reactions to Criticism from Members of Opposing Groups

by Lukas Thürmer
Two groups of stick figures shouting at each other

A few years ago, my wife, older son, and I went off on an adventure. I acquired a grant to spend a year at the University of Pittsburgh, so we packed up and moved from our home in Germany to the United States. We were reasonably excited about moving, and on top of that, my wife was pregnant with our second son. Our excitement only grew when we felt the overwhelming support of the people once we arrived in Pittsburgh. My mentor at Pitt went out of his way to help us settle into our new home, a friend’s parents living in Pennsylvania served as “surrogate grandparents,” and we found friends in the neighborhood within a few weeks.

By the fall, some of our new friends invited us to spend Thanksgiving with them. Being a European and New Zealand family, it was a unique experience for us to share the turkey and pumpkin pie. But during this warm experience of hospitality and kindness, we learned of the sad reason for our invitation: With the 2016 presidential election coming up, the host’s family was strongly divided into Trump and Clinton supporters, and heated family debates had led to the decision to cancel family Thanksgiving.

This experience made me wonder: how can we extend such kindness towards strangers while we argue with family to a degree that we can no longer share a family meal? Sean McCrea—a friend and collaborator from the University of Wyoming—and I decided to explore this question. It is well established that group members are usually tolerant of criticism by a fellow group member but react defensively when a member of a different group voices exactly the same criticism. Though we could find many studies supporting this conclusion, these studies merely asked participants about their thoughts and feelings.

Obviously, answering questions in a psychological study is not nearly as consequential as people fighting with family and cancelling their plans. We wondered whether people would act defensively when doing so had actual consequences. So, in a series of studies, we tested whether people would invest their time and money to defend their group against criticism from other groups.

In the first set of studies, research participants took a difficult quiz and then read a comment that criticized the participant’s national group for not being good at answering these questions. For instance, we asked American participants about European art and culture or European participants about the latest trends and pop culture, and then we showed them a comment describing Americans as uncultured or Europeans as antiquated. Participants were told that the critical comment was from either a member of their own group (ingroup; American for Americans, and European for Europeans) or another group (outgroup: European for Americans, and American for Europeans).

We then asked participants about their reactions to the critical comments but also gave them the chance to retaliate against the commenter in a way that had personal consequences. In one study, participants could decide whether the commenter deserved some extra money as a bonus, with the provision that the participants would lose some of their own money if they withheld the bonus from the critical commenter. As in earlier research, participants were more upset when the criticism came from an outgroup commenter than an ingroup commenter. But, in addition, they also paid more of their own money to withhold a bonus from the outgroup commenter. In essence, they were willing to pay to hurt the outgroup member who made critical comments about their group.

In a second set of studies, we (together with our student Baylee McIntyre) tested whether people would invest their time in lashing out at the commenter rather than getting on with their own plans. To this end, we had university students read a critical comment about their group (a comment saying that students at their university are provincial) that was allegedly written either by a fellow student or a student from a rival school. We then gave them the opportunity to respond to the comment in writing.

But there was a catch: participants had an additional work task to perform and they had only a limited amount of time to do both. Taking time to respond to the commenter thus meant having less time for their own work. Results showed that participants spent more time responding to comments by a student from a rival school and consequently performed worse on their work task, than they spent responding to the same comment from a student from the same university. Looking at what participants actually wrote to the commenter, we found that they were more likely to insult outgroup than ingroup commenters.

This research provides one piece of the puzzle concerning why political debates become so heated: Whenever someone from one “side” of the debate criticizes the “other side,” the target becomes defensive, even if the criticism is true. Defensiveness provokes angry behaviors such as insults and punishment of the other person. Fortunately, our studies also show how to reduce defensive responses to outgroup criticism: asking people about unrelated, positive aspects of their group. So if you are having trouble getting through Thanksgiving dinner with your family, ask them about positive aspects of their (political) group first. And if that doesn’t work, consider inviting strangers over instead—they will greatly appreciate it!

For Further Reading:

Hornsey, M. J., & Esposo, S. (2009). Resistance to group criticism and recommendations for change: Lessons from the intergroup sensitivity effect. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3, 275-291. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2009.00178.x

Thürmer, J. L., & McCrea, S. M. (2018). Beyond motivated reasoning: Hostile reactions to critical comments from the outgroup. Motivation Science, 4, 333-346. doi: 10.1037/mot0000097

Thürmer, J. L., McCrea, S. M., & McIntyre, B. M. (2019). Motivated collective defensiveness: Group members prioritize counterarguing out-group criticism over getting their work done. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10, 382-392. doi: 10.1177/1948550618762298

About the Author

The question that makes J. Lukas Thürmer get up in the morning and keeps him awake at night is how groups and teams reach their goals. A position as tenured independent researcher at the University of Salzburg, Austria, allows him find new answers to this question.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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