Using politically incorrect speech has some benefits: It’s a powerful way to appear authentic, according to a new study.
Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business found that replacing even a single politically correct word or phrase with a politically incorrect one — such as “illegal” versus “undocumented” immigrants — makes people view a speaker as more authentic and less likely to be swayed by others.
“The cost of political incorrectness is that the speaker seems less warm, but they also appear less strategic and more ‘real,'” said Juliana Schroeder, an assistant professor and co-author of the study. “The result may be that people may feel less hesitant in following politically incorrect leaders because they appear more committed to their beliefs.”
Although politically correct speech is more often defended by liberals and derided by conservatives, the researchers also found there’s nothing inherently partisan about the concept. In fact, conservatives are just as likely to be offended by politically incorrect speech when it’s used to describe groups they care about, such as evangelicals or poor whites.
“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,” explained Berkeley Haas PhD candidate Michael Rosenblum, the lead author of the paper. “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.’”
For the study, the researchers asked almost 5,000 people of all ideological backgrounds how they would define political correctness. The definition that emerged was “using language or behavior to seem sensitive to others’ feelings, especially those others who seem disadvantaged.”
The researchers focused on politically incorrect labels, such as “illegal immigrants,” rather than political opinions, such as “illegal immigrants are destroying America.”
That allowed them to gauge people’s reactions when just a single word or phrase was changed in otherwise identical statements, the researchers said.
They found that most people, whether they identified as moderate liberals or conservatives, viewed politically incorrect statements as more authentic. Participants also thought they could better predict politically incorrect speakers’ other opinions.
In one field experiment, the researchers found that using politically correct language gives the illusion that the speaker can be more easily influenced. They asked 500 pre-screened pairs of people to have an online debate on a topic they disagreed on: Funding for historically black churches. According to the researchers, the topic was chosen because it had a roughly 50/50 split for and against in a pilot survey.
Before the debate, one partner was instructed by researchers to either use politically correct or incorrect language in making their points.
Afterwards, people believed they had better persuaded the politically correct partners than the politically incorrect partners. Their partners, however, reported being equally persuaded, whether they were using PC or politically incorrect language.
“There was a perception that PC speakers were more persuadable, though in reality they weren’t,” Rosenblum said.
The researchers caution that there are some downsides to using politically incorrect statements. They make a person appear significantly colder, and because they appear more convinced of their beliefs, they may also appear less willing to engage in crucial political dialogue.
The study was published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.