Vector illustration of a businessman or politician speaking to a large crowd of people

By Emma Young

“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.”

So said then-candidate Donald J Trump during a US presidential debate in 2015. Trump may have strong feelings on the matter, but he’s not alone. “Dozens of articles are written about political correctness every month in [US-based] media outlets spanning the political spectrum,” note the authors of a new paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. However, surprisingly little psychological research has looked at the consequences of using politically incorrect versus correct language — does it make a real difference to a listener or reader’s perceptions of that person, and if so, in what way?

Michael Rosenblum at the University of California, Berkeley and colleagues set out to plug this gap. They defined political correctness as “the use of language or behaviour to seem sensitive to others’ feelings, especially those others who seem socially disadvantaged.” Then in a series of experiments involving a total of almost 5,000 people, the team explored  how participants perceived those who made PC and un-PC statements — and how those perceptions changed depending on the participant’s political persuasion.

In initial studies, participants read statements supposedly made by US senators. Some read a version in which PC terms were used for certain groups — “undocumented immigrants” and “people with learning disabilities”, for example — while for others the labels were switched to be un-PC (“illegals” or “mentally challenged”).

Overall, the team found that the authors of statements which used un-PC language were seen as being more “authentic” (and less susceptible to outside influence, in particular) but also more “cold”. Both authenticity and personal warmth are an important part of people’s assessments of politicians, the researchers note, so in the real world, perhaps this could have an impact on a senator’s popularity.

However, whether or not a participant sympathised with the target of this language affected their ratings. When non-PC language supported more conservative attitudes — when undocumented immigrants were described as “illegals” for example — conservative participants rated the communicator as being particularly authentic, while liberal participants saw them as especially cold. But when the target group was the subject of conservatives’ sympathy — when poor white people were described as “white trash”, for instance — they rated the communicator as being particularly cold, whereas liberals gave stronger ratings for authenticity. “This pattern of results suggests that the interpretation of political language depends on the group to which it is being applied, and whether perceivers care about that group or not,” the team writes.

In a subsequent experiment, the team tried a more naturalistic context for the research. They identified a topic that had roughly equal levels of support among liberals and conservatives: the use of federal funding for historically Black churches. Pairs of participants with different views on this topic debated it in live, online, text-based conversations. In each case, one person was instructed to use politically correct or incorrect language (e.g. referring to religious individuals as either “People with sincerely held religious beliefs” or “Bible Thumpers”), while the other wrote whatever they wanted. Afterwards, the participants completed a survey that measured their impressions of each other and the conversation. The researchers found that debaters who used politically incorrect language came across as being less persuadable (an important aspect of authenticity) and also colder than those who were told to be PC.

How authentic — or not — we perceive someone to be is critical in all kinds of decisions, such as whether to trust them, as well as how much we like them, the researchers note. In theory, the potential role of politically incorrect language in affecting these perceptions could be important for all sorts of social interactions.

Further research is certainly needed to explore various questions, such as how accurate people’s judgements about persuadability and coldness based on PC vs non-PC language are. Still, these experiments do suggest that un-PC language can promote perceptions of authenticity, especially among conservatives with the same attitudes — something that is surely already at least implicitly recognised by President Trump.

Tell It Like It Is: When Politically Incorrect Language Promotes Authenticity

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest