Saying nice things about others when talking to an acquaintance reflects positively on your own personality, research finds.
If you describe another person as genuine and kind, your acquaintance will assume that you are genuine and kind.
The nice things you say about others are transferred to yourself.
So, to make the person you are speaking to like you more, say nice things about others.
On the other hand, bitching makes people think you have these negative traits.
It reflects the old saying that if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.
Spontaneous trait transference
Psychologists call this slightly weird phenomenon ‘spontaneous trait transference’.
The effect is so strong that it even works when people know that the traits do not describe you.
For example, let’s say I am a nice person and my friend knows it.
Then I start describing another person who is a cheat and a liar.
Just this will be enough to start the person I am talking to thinking that I am a cheat and a liar — even though they know I am not!
Of course, this makes no sense.
But, the reason it happens is not logical, it is down to a purely mindless associative process.
The study’s authors write:
“…trait transference is not simply a tendency to attribute negative characteristics to those who disparage others, or to ascribe positive characteristics to those who compliment others.
Rather, communicators are ascribed the very traits implied by their descriptions of others.”
The conclusions come from a set of four studies involving hundreds of people.
Participants watched a video in which another person talked about themselves or an acquaintance.
The results showed that participants reliably transferred the traits people described in others onto the person who was speaking.
The authors conclude that:
“It suggests that gossip and other forms of social discourse may have rather surprising, and often unintended, implications for a communicator.
Thus, it supports the cliche that if one cannot say something nice about someone, one ought not to say anything at all.
It also indicates that self presenters may achieve desired trait attributions merely by talking about others who have the desired traits.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Attitudes and Social Cognition (Skowronski et al., 1998).