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The mind of a chronic critic
Latin Name: Carpium Chronicus
Notable Characteristics: Feels compelled to share an (unfavorable) opinion on just about everything. Has never seen an artistic masterpiece or a preschool graduation that couldn’t use a bit of tweaking. Prone to eye rolling, smirking, and/or slow-motion head shaking, as well as a tone best described as oozing with condescension.
Songs & Calls: “You didn’t really like that movie, did you?” “I suppose it’s okay…if you’re into that kind of thing.” “I honestly don’t understand what all the hype is about.”
We can’t help forming opinions and judgments; it’s how we make sense of the world around us. But chronic critics seem incapable of seeing past flaws and shortcomings.
When most of us encounter something unfamiliar—from a new neighbor to a tray of appetizers—ourbrain instantly rates it in relation to a mental anchor point “that is likely set by a person’s individual temperament, then altered by formative life experiences,” explains Alan Russell King, a psychologist at the University of North Dakota who has researched judgmental tendencies.
Once we’ve amassed more data (say, by actually tasting a crab puff or chatting with a new acquaintance), we generally adjust our opinion accordingly. Not so for chronic critics. “A judgmental person’s anchor point is stuck on the negative side of their internal scale,” says King; they default to a thumbs-down rating and refuse to turn it around, no matter how many positive details come to light.
Your Brain on Hate
Two motivational systems tend to drive brain activity: the reward pursuit system, which IDs things we want and spurs us to go get ’em, and the avoidance system, which alerts us to threats of exclusion or physical danger and tells us to steer clear. For many critics, the latter system kicks into gear with unusual frequency.
Some “haters” are born with a touchy avoidance system, but others learn to default to a defensive stance in life after being burned by the pursuit system—getting attached to relationships or goals and feeling crushed when they don’t pan out. “If you suffered lots of rejection early on, you’ll find a way to protect yourself,” says Art Markman, a psychologist at the University of Texas. “It’s an unconscious way of keeping the world at arm’s length.”
Decrying something means you won’t bother engaging the reward pursuit system and forming an emotional attachment to it. “Once you admit you like something,” Markman adds, “you have to be willing to defend it to others, and experience rejection if they don’t agree. The intensity of that commitment can be extremely uncomfortable for certain people.”
Some critics, though, actively pursue a reward: influence. “Influence is power, and critics are the leaders of taste—they dictate what others should and shouldn’t like,” says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a psychologist at The Goldsmiths’ Company and NYU in London. “They want to be applauded and admired for what they say.”
The motives of outspoken critics may split along gender lines. In one of King’s studies, participants rated their interactions with three strangers using a 14-item scale (good vs. poor listener, intelligent vs. unintelligent, assured vs. self-conscious, etc.). Men at the top of the heap in terms of harshness toward the strangers were more critical than even their most judgmental female counterparts.
“Harsher judgments were found among men who were anxious, socially alienated, self-conscious, or insecure,” King says, “so their behavior may reflect retaliatory instincts in anticipation of personal rejection.”
The judge-y women displayed narcissistic, histrionic, and even sadistic-aggressive qualities. “To them, judging others may provide desired attention and some sort of affirmation of superiority over others they view with contempt,” King explains. Judgment may be their shortcut to smug self-importance.
Hanging out with a critic is draining—in part because, for most of us, negativity doesn’t come naturally. Optimism appears to be a universal phenomenon; in a large worldwide survey, 94 percent of people expected their future to be above average. So when we hear someone expounding on a litany of flaws, we pay attention. “It makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint,” says Simone Hoermann, a psychologist at Columbia University. “A display of negative emotion indicates danger.”
We also “catch” a critic’s sour mood. Humans mimic others’ expressions and behaviors, creating emotional contagion. “All it takes is one critic to lead a conversation into a negative death spiral,” says Markman. Plus, when you’re in the presence of a faultfinder, you can’t help but worry that you’ll be the next target. Hoermann adds: “Channeling energy into protecting your self-esteem is exhausting.”
The Critical Masses
Does modern society abet critics? On the surface, it seems hate-spewing bloggers and TVpundits have made nastiness the norm. Over the last four decades, negativity has become the prevalent tone in the news, research shows. Do copycat critics take a cue from the tone of public debate, where faultfinding is standard?
Not exactly:”In every society, some people are more critical than others,” Chamorro-Premuzic says. And today, contrary comments travel at incredible speeds and distances, adds Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a psychologist at the University of Texas in San Antonio: “Online, you don’t have nonverbal social cues to regulate an interaction. Hostility can quickly escalate.” It’s an environment only the surliest critic could love.
How to halt a hater
- Use humor. Taking on the role of the moralist will only put a critic on the defensive. Instead, defuse negative comments in a light-hearted way. “Try, ‘I like sticking a knife in someone’s back as much as the next person, but…'” suggests Markman. “Humor releases the tension that builds up around a critic while allowing him to save face.”
- Respectfully rebut. This is a bit like interpersonal kung fu, Hoermann says: “Validate a critic’s feelings while preserving your self-respect.” So when he says, “You picked a terrible restaurant. It’s too loud!” you respond, “It is noisy, isn’t it? But I love the food here.” “The underlying message,” says Hoermann, “is, ‘You may have that opinion, but I will still do whatever I think is best.'”
- Put down your own gavel. We all veer into judgmental territory at times. If you catch yourself mid-tirade, ask yourself, “What’s the good in this thing I’m judging?” Markman suggests. Articulate a positive aspect of whatever you’re decrying. That way you can take some of the rancor out of your rant.