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Negations may change outgroup attitudes

Interesting intervention leads to new opportunities to convince people




For decades we have learned and practised not to use negations when it comes to persuade someone. The socalled positive argumentation, the dogma said, was always the better idea. We need to leave this standpoint. A recent research of the Leibniz Institute for Knowledge Media concluded that negations can have indeed their effects, sometimes even much better than anything else in rhetoric: if outgroup attitudes are to be changed. It is crucial for the success of this endeavour though, to address – before negating them – the very same attitude explicitly in the words used by the respective interlocutor. A negative outgroup attitude may be transferred into a more positive opinion about an individual or a group.

That means according to this German study: „Mr. Maier is lazy“ can be successfully counteracted with „No, Mr. Maier is not lazy”, by avoiding to speak out the well-intended “No, Mr. Maier is ambitious”. What mechanism lies behind this effect? Who is hearing one´s own words particularly in the beginning of any discussion (and is NOT filled up with counterarguments at once) feels perceived and listened to – even if these own words are negated. At this particular moment people start to be willing to stay in the discussion in a constructive way – the cognitive system has been activated.

Winter/Scholl/Sassenberg, A matter of flexibility: Changing outgroup attitudes through messages with negations, in: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2021, 120(4), 956–976



From the practise:

After having read this paper for the first time I was puzzled. Have I been confronted here with a fundamental change of directions in the field of argumentation? Yes and no.

Yes, because these findings relativize the absolute and everlasting triumph of positive argumentation. But still no, since if you look closer we identify also common knowledge in a new look.

Who is using „You have not done this well“ as a feedback intentionally wants to get criticism more accepted. We are aware of the fact that the negation ahead of the word „well“ is not perceived that strong. “Well“ resonates much longer and prevents immediate defense tactics or counter attacks by the one who has received this feedback. Nothing else gets into effect in the logic I have described and presented above.


To put it in a nutshell : let´s practise negations – but only if we select our words thereafter precisely. In this or in another case.


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