When President Donald Trump refers to immigrants as “illegals,” he’s using charged language that is certainly polarizing, but which might also strengthen his voter base. According to a new study, individuals who use politically incorrect language are seen as more authentic and less likely to be influenced by others. On the flipside, politically incorrectness is also associated with coldness and less willingness to engage in crucial political dialogue.
“The cost of political incorrectness is that the speaker seems less warm, but they also appear less strategic and more ‘real,’” says co-author Juliana Schroeder, an assistant professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.
“The result may be that people may feel less hesitant in following politically incorrect leaders because they appear more committed to their beliefs,” she added.
Schroeder and colleagues performed nine experiments involving more than 5,000 people that gauged how politically correct or incorrect language affects their perception of speakers.
The participants came from all ideological backgrounds. Instead of supplying their own definition of political correctness, the researchers decided to ask each participant what they thought each term meant. Across the board, the general definition that emerged was “using language or behavior to seem sensitive to others’ feelings, especially those others who seem disadvantaged.”
During their experiments, the researchers studied the phenomenon by looking at how people’s opinions changed when they replaced certain words with politically incorrect labels, such as calling undocumented immigrants “illegals”.
The results of these studies suggest that both moderate liberals and conservatives judged politically incorrect statements as more authentic. The participants also thought that they could predict a politically incorrect communicators’ other opinions based on their conviction.
At the same time, both groups are just as likely to be offended by politically incorrect speech as long as it involves a group that they care about. For instance, calling undocumented immigrant an “illegal” registered as cold and unsympathetic among liberals. Conservatives, on the other hand, were more inclined to become offended when poor whites were labeled as “white trash.”
“Political incorrectness is frequently applied toward groups that liberals tend to feel more sympathy towards, such as immigrants or LGBTQ individuals, so liberals tend to view it negatively and conservatives tend to think it’s authentic,” says lead author Michael Rosenblum, a PhD candidate. “But we found that the opposite can be true when such language is applied to groups that conservatives feel sympathy for—like using words such as ‘bible thumper’ or ‘redneck.’”
In another experiment, the researchers tested the effect of political language had on perceived persuasion. Around 500 participants were grouped into pairs and asked to debate the funding for historically black churches. The topic was selected because it was previously found to be polarizing, garnering a 50/50 split for and against it. It was also appealing because there was no difference in support and opposition across political ideology.
One of the debate partners was instructed to either use politically correct or incorrect language when arguing their points. At the end of the debate, the participants believed they had managed to persuade the politically correct partners more than the politically incorrect ones. But this turned out to be not true — it was merely an illusion because their partners reported being equally persuaded whether politically correct language was used or not.
Together, all of these studies suggest that there are moments when politically incorrect language can be advantageous to a speaker. It can make the communicator seem more authentic which can help rally people behind them. There are also moments when such an approach can be counter-productive, since the study found that politically incorrect language can also make the speaker seem cold and less strategically mindful.
The findings were reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.