When we hear negative statements, we think they’re inherently more intelligent than positive ones. Teresa Amabile, director of research for Harvard Business School, began exploring this back in the 1980s. She took a group of 55 students, roughly half men, half women, and showed them excerpts from two book reviews printed in an issue of The New York Times. The same reviewer wrote both, but Amabile anonymized them and tweaked the language to produce two versions of each—one positive, one negative. Then she asked the students to evaluate the reviewer’s intelligence.
The verdict was clear: The students thought the negative author was smarter than the positive one—“by a lot,” Amabile tells me. Most said the nastier critic was “more competent.” Granted, being negative wasn’t all upside—they also rated the harsh reviewer as “less warm and more cruel, not as nice,” she says. “But definitely smarter.” Like my mordant tweets, presumably.
This so-called negativity bias works both ways, it seems. Other studies show that when we seek to impress someone with our massive gray matter, we spout sour and negative opinions.