According to a new study, rudeness can amplify negative emotions, limiting workers’ perceptions and introducing biases into judgement. According to the study’s findings, these behaviours can have lethal consequences in certain circumstances. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), the University of Florida (UF), the University of Maryland, Envision Physician Services, and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital conducted the study, which was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
The researchers examined the effect of rudeness on workers’ proclivity for anchoring, or the tendency to rely excessively or fixate on a single piece of information when making a decision.
“While small insults and other forms of rude behaviour may appear harmless in comparison to more serious forms of aggression, our findings indicate that they can have serious consequences,” said Binyamin Cooper, the study’s lead author and a Postdoctoral Fellow at CMU’s Tepper School of Business and a member of the Collaboration and Conflict Research Lab.
“Our research demonstrates how dangerous these seemingly innocuous behaviours can be, whether they are directly experienced or simply observed as incidental rudeness,” Cooper added.
“Suppose a doctor enters a patient’s room for the first time and a family member states, ‘I believe he’s having a heart attack,'” Cooper explained.
Cooper continued, “Our findings suggest that if a doctor witnesses a rude exchange between two other people on the way to see the patient, he or she will be significantly more likely to settle on a diagnosis of heart attack, even if it is incorrect.”
Cooper and colleagues examined the effect of rudeness on anchoring in four studies involving a variety of different contexts, ranging from medical simulations to negotiations and general judgement tasks. In one study, residents in anaesthesia took part in a simulation using life-sized anatomical human models.
The simulation was constructed to imply that a patient might experience an allergic reaction to one of his medications, which served as the anchor. Prior to the simulation beginning, half of the residents witnessed a senior physician enter the room and yell at their instructor for missing a meeting, while the other half observed a neutral interaction.
When the patient’s condition deteriorated later in the simulation, residents exposed to the rude interaction were more likely to diagnose allergic shock when the patient was actually bleeding internally, affecting how they administered care. Additionally, the study demonstrated that rudeness is harmful because it is associated with increased arousal of negative emotions (such as irritability and distress), which predicted the proclivity for anchoring.
The authors note that the study’s findings have numerous practical implications. For instance, physicians who are subjected to rudeness may treat patients incorrectly for ailments they do not have, unaware of their incorrect diagnosis or the reasons for it.
“Making the wrong decision at a critical moment results in people spending an inordinate amount of time down the wrong path,” Cooper explained.
Cooper continued, “If there is insufficient time to correct the error and make amends, this could be fatal.”
By demonstrating that encounters with rudeness result in anchoring, the authors encourage managers and organisations to take steps to reduce employee rudeness, particularly in high-stakes situations where the consequences of anchoring-related judgement errors can be catastrophic. Additionally, the authors identified steps that organisations can take to mitigate rudeness’s effects.
For instance, organisations can train employees in two skills—perspective taking and information elaboration—in order to better prepare them to deal with the pernicious effects of rudeness exposure.
Because exposure to rude behaviour predisposes people to narrow their perspectives on their own personal experiences, the authors assert that having employees imagine themselves viewing the same problem from another’s perspective distances them from the strong emotions they might otherwise experience.
Another option is to have employees practise information elaboration by having them identify the task at hand and then pausing for a few moments to consider what information they require to make a decision.
“While these proactive measures may appear insignificant, our research demonstrates that they can help organisations mitigate the negative consequences of rudeness, which can make a significant difference,” Cooper suggested.
“And they are applicable to fields other than medicine, such as negotiations, legal sentencing, financial forecasting, social exchange relationships, and pricing decisions,” Cooper added.
The authors acknowledge that their study has several limitations. They initially focused on anchoring, one of the most prevalent decision-making biases, but it remains unknown whether rudeness has an effect on other decision-making biases.
Second, with the exception of perspective-taking and information elaboration, their study did not examine empathy, experience, or other dispositional and contextual factors that may affect the relationship between rudeness and negative emotions.
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