Lots of us seem to think that other people are getting ruder, at least judged on countless US and British news columns and opinion polls. Are we really in the midst of a unusual plague of incivility? It seems unlikely given that most eras make the same complaint. Instead, we’re probably falling prey to a self-serving psychological illusion.
For a new study in the European Journal of Psychology, an international team of researchers asked more than two hundred participants to imagine being involved in various instances of rudeness, such as a bus passenger talking too loudly on their phone or someone in a lift sneezing without covering their face.
Some of the participants were asked to imagine that they were the perpetrator of the incivility toward a stranger, others that they were the victim of a stranger’s incivility. In each case they had to say how serious the infringement was, how much hurt would be caused, whether it was due to temporary situational factors or due to the person, whether the perpetrator would likely apologise and whether the victim would forgive.
The participants viewed the same infringements very differently depending on their perspective. In the role of perpetrator, they saw the incivility as less serious, more due to the situation, less likely to cause hurt, and thought it more likely that they would apologise, but that it would be less likely their apology would be accepted. Conversely when they were the victim, they saw the same rude act as more serious, more deliberate and more likely to cause them hurt, and less likely to come with an apology, and yet they said it would be more likely that they would brush off the situation and accept an apology.
In other words, our instinct is to assume our own rudeness is milder and less deliberate than other people’s, but also that we are much more tolerate and forgiving of other people’s rudeness, even though theirs is more serious and deliberate!
When the procedure was repeated but with participants imagining being rude to a friend or a friend being rude to them, the results suggested that we mostly adopt a favourable bias towards our friends’ behaviour, just as we do with our own – so it is specifically all the strangers out there who we assume to be especially rude and unforgiving.
“The strong difference between what is expected from self and friends and what is expected from strangers, especially with regard to restitution behaviors is striking and may account for much of the popular moral outrage at rude behaviour,” the researchers said. “Specifically, in our modern era more and more of the people we interact with and whom we may perceive as uncivil are in fact strangers and our bias to see strangers as both more uncivil and less likely to apologize may then lead us to see the world as more and more rude”.
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