Reactions to political correctness vary widely. U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson recently said, “This whole concept of political correctness … is going to destroy our nation.” In contrast, left-wing comedian Michael Ian Black recently defended political correctness, saying it is “fantastic for comedians,” as it makes them think harder and helps to prevent harm being done to groups and individuals.
Even casual observers of modern political discourse find it familiar to hear a conservative political commentator bemoaning what they describe as “PC culture,” while a liberal commentator stands by it.
However, our new research shows that this common pattern can be reversed, such that politically correct (vs. politically incorrect) communicators appear inauthentic to liberals but warm to conservatives.
We have studied interpersonal reactions to political correctness over the past five years. Our results, recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggest that reactions to political correctness are not inherently partisan, but instead depend on the group toward which the language is applied. Because political correctness is typically applied to groups that our research found liberals tend to feel more sympathy towards (e.g., immigrants, LGBTQ individuals), liberals tend to view politically correct communicators as warm whereas conservatives tend to believe they are inauthentic. But when political correctness is applied toward a group that conservatives tend to care about (e.g., religious Christians), then conservatives like it and liberals believe it is less authentic.
Reactions to political correctness are not inherently partisan, but instead depend on the group toward which the language is applied.
In one experiment, participants read a quote from a politician that applied politically incorrect language toward groups that conservatives care about (e.g., calling poor whites “rednecks” and religious Christians “Bible-thumpers”). In this study, after reading the quote, liberals found the politically correct politician to be less authentic than conservatives, and conservatives liked the politically correct politician more than liberals. In this way, we were able to make conservatives bemoan the political incorrectness that they often praise, and liberals praise the political incorrectness that they frequently disdain.
However, these results were driven by the self-reported strong conservatives and liberals in our participant samples. We measured our participants’ political ideology in several ways, but the simplest was by asking them, “How would you describe your overall political views?” with the options of very liberal, moderately liberal, moderately conservative, or very conservative. Only those who reported they were very liberal or conservative had diverging reactions to political correctness.
In contrast, there was high convergence in reactions among people who identified as moderate liberals and conservatives, as well as independents.
Most politically moderate or independent people agree, across contexts, that a politically incorrect communicator is more authentic—meaning that they appear less susceptible to external influence—but also less warm compared to a politically correct communicator. These impressions varied even for subtle changes to a communicator’s statement, such as changing a single word in an otherwise identical statement.
We were able to make conservatives bemoan the political incorrectness that they often praise, and liberals praise the political incorrectness that they frequently disdain.
For example, in a separate experiment, we asked people to evaluate communicators who either said, “I think it’s important for our country to have a national conversation about … illegal immigrants,” or who said, “I think it’s important for our country to have a national conversation about … undocumented immigrants.” We found that both moderate conservatives and liberals alike believed the former communicator was more authentic, but less warm, than the latter communicator.
Our research points to at least two consequences for those who use political language.
For one, because political incorrectness often makes a communicator seem more “real,” people feel more certain that the person truly holds those beliefs. In two experiments, after reading the same statement that contained a single politically incorrect (vs. politically correct) word or phrase (e.g., undocumented immigrants vs. illegals; religious Christians vs. Bible-thumpers), people felt more certain in their predictions about the communicator’s future attitudes and behaviors. Importantly, this suggests that people may show less hesitation to follow (politically incorrect) leaders (conservative or liberal) who appear more committed to their beliefs.
Another consequence is that people may believe that, because politically correct communicators are less authentic, they are easier to persuade. To test this, we randomly paired 972 adults and asked them to have real online conversations debating a novel political topic that they disagreed about. We instructed half of them to be politically correct, and the other half to be politically incorrect, during their debate. The people who were paired with politically correct partners believed afterward that they had persuaded their partners more, even though their partners reported being no more persuaded. However, they also reported being more persuaded by their partner. In other words, being politically correct created an illusion that the communicator was persuadable, but it also made the communicator more persuasive in reality.
Being politically correct created an illusion that the communicator was persuadable, but it also made the communicator more persuasive in reality.
These results have potentially important implications for civil discourse across divides. Politically incorrect communicators may appear more authentic and certain in their views, but our preliminary evidence suggests they are also less effective in persuading, and engaging with, those who may have different beliefs from them.
As political incorrectness is increasingly discussed in America, it is more important than ever to understand how this language affects people’s impressions. Is political incorrectness just “telling it like it is” or is it cruel and uncivil discourse? Your answer to this question depends less on your political party and more on how much you care about the group to whom the political incorrectness is being applied.