How rudeness spreads like a contagion

University of Florida researchers have finally put a long-standing hypothesis about rudeness to the test. The history to this is a study published in 1999 [pdf] that showed rudeness can create a vicious circle between individuals – if you’re rude to someone, they’re more likely to be rude back at you. What the authors of that paper also speculated though, and the new research investigates, is that an initial act of rudeness creates a “secondary spiral” where offended parties end up dumping on the innocent – meaning, effectively, that rudeness can spread like a contagion.

For the new research, Trevor Foulk and his team began by studying the interactions of 90 graduate students during negotiation training, which was conducted in pairs. After each negotiation, students rated the rudeness and likability of their negotiation partner and then played a series of nine trials that each involved splitting a cash sum with that same partner, either fairly, selfishly, or spitefully accepting a poor prize in order to deny the other any cash at all. Each participant then repeated the same procedure – negotiation followed by financial game – with ten more partners.

To walk through the main finding, let’s take a rude student called Alan. The data showed that if Bella interacted with rude Alan, she would find him less likeable and be likelier to spite him financially. But furthermore, in Bella’s next negotiation session with Carl, he would more likely find her rude, unlikeable and in need of spiting. In other words, one person’s rudeness could spread through many negotiation pairs.

A second study suggested why rudeness has this effect. Here, during a “word-or-nonword” recognition task, the student participants were especially fast at recognising rude-related words, such as boorish or pushy, but only when the start of the experiment had been marred by the experimenter rudely humiliating a latecomer (actually another experimenter undercover). This shows how experiencing rudeness brings it to the front of our minds, which may colour how we interpret other people’s behaviours, thus influencing our own behaviour.

A final study demonstrates this principle, and highlights how these biased interpretations thrive in ambiguous situations. Again, one set of participants witnessed a rude event: a video of an altercation between co-workers in the fictional bookshop within which the tasks were set. Participants then completed a version of the cash allocation task used in the first study: this time sharing proceeds with a customer who’d emailed the bookshop with a query about an undelivered book.

When the query was written in a neutral tone, participants were fair with the cash, but other participants who received an overtly hostile query chose to spite the customer in roughly one in four trials. Whether they’d experienced prior rudeness didn’t sway these choices. A third query version was rude but ambiguously hostile: “I REALLY need those books. I hope this isn’t asking too much!??????” When dealing with this ambiguous customer, participants who hadn’t experienced rudeness gave them the benefit of the doubt, treating them comparably to the neutral customer. But participants who had viewed the earlier rude encounter opted for spite, as if they were dealing with a hostile customer.

Serious workplace problems such as workplace bullying have been shown to act like contagion, systemically infecting organisations if unchecked. This study shows us that smaller behaviours can also make the rounds, and much like the common cold, require only one moment of exposure to kick things off. The difference is that we can’t fully control whether we pass on a cold, but we always have a choice with rudeness: when Bella opts for civility, the secondary spiral spins its last.


Foulk, T., Woolum, A., & Erez, A. (2015). Catching Rudeness Is Like Catching a Cold: The Contagion Effects of Low-Intensity Negative Behaviors. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/apl0000037

–further reading–
The harm caused by witnessing rudeness
“Just try to ignore it”: How neurotic people respond to extreme rudeness at work
Guilt is catching
Self-esteem is catching

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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