Rudeness can lead to serious mistakes in life-or-death situations

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Rudeness can have a powerful effect on a person’s mental state. Has another driver ever cut you off in traffic? Perhaps a co-worker has interrupted you during an important meeting. These events and others like them not only stick with many people for the rest of their day, a new study finds they can also alter how someone makes decisions long after that rude event.

Researchers from the University of Maryland say rudeness can lead to the recipients of these impolite actions fixating on those events over and over again. Scientists call this “anchoring bias,” which basically means you can’t stop thinking about a certain event or piece of information while making decisions. The study finds, even if the details are irrelevant, someone dealing with anchoring bias will still tend to make choices based on that nagging thought. Rudeness amplifies this bias, as people keep thinking about their unpleasant experiences.

Management professor Trevor Foulk notes a perfect example of this would be asking, “Do you think the Mississippi River is shorter or longer than 500 miles?” The wording of the question can turn “500 miles” into an anchor which influences how someone thinks about their answer. Foulk adds when something is anchoring our thoughts, it’s very hard to stray from the original suggestion. In life-or-death situations, like a hospital emergency room, anchoring bias can possibly lead to serious mistakes because someone’s mind is focusing on the wrong thing at the wrong time.

“If you go into the doctor and say ‘I think I’m having a heart attack,’ that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you’re just having indigestion,” Foulk explains in a university release. “If doctors don’t move off anchors enough, they’ll start treating the wrong thing.”

Rude behavior can affect all kinds of tasks

Foulk and his team have been studying rudeness in the workplace for years. Those investigations have discovered that rude behavior takes up a lot of psychological “real estate” in a person’s mind and narrows how they think.

In this study, they created a medical simulation with the help of anesthesiology residents. Researchers asked the residents to diagnose and treat a patient, but right before the simulation started, the team gave each participant an incorrect suggestion about the patient’s illness. This suggestion served as an anchor however, the simulation also provided feedback telling the residents that the suggestion was wrong and not the real illness.

To see how rudeness impacts anchor thoughts, the team then threw another wrench into these scenarios. In some of the medical simulations, researchers had one doctor act rudely to another doctor right in front of the anesthesiology residents before their experiment started. It turns out this unpleasant experience greatly impacted a participant’s ability to do their job.

“What we find is that when they experienced rudeness prior to the simulation starting, they kept on treating the wrong thing, even in the presence of consistent information that it was actually something else,” Foulk reports. “They kept treating the anchor, even though they had plenty of reason to understand that the anchor diagnosis was not what the patient was suffering from.”

Study authors replicated this exercise using several other types of work tasks, including business negotiations and general problem-solving activities. Every time, rudeness made it harder for someone to get away from the anchor thought.

“Across the four studies, we find that both witnessed and directly experienced rudeness seemed to have a similar effect,” Foulk adds. “Basically, what we’re observing is a narrowing effect. Rudeness narrows your perspective, and that narrowed perspective makes anchoring more likely.”

How can people counter mind-consuming rudeness?

Overall, Foulk says anchoring bias isn’t a serious problem, but there are some important exceptions.

“When you’re in these important, critical decision-making domains – like medical diagnoses or big negotiations – interpersonal interactions really matter a lot. Minor things can stay on top of us in a way that we don’t realize.”

The team examined a couple of ways people can keep rude behavior from monopolizing their thoughts. Perspective-taking helps someone expand their perspective, to see the world from another person’s point of view. Also, information elaboration helps people to see the situation from a wider perspective by thinking about the topic in a broader sense.

Although the study finds both techniques help to keep rudeness from anchoring our thoughts, Foulk says there’s an easier way to counter rudeness — stop being so rude!

“In important domains, where people are making critical decisions, we really need to rethink the way we treat people,” the professor says. “We never really did allow aggressive behavior at work. But we’re fine with rudeness, and now we’re learning more and more that small insults are equally impactful on people’s performance.”

“We tend to underestimate the performance implications of interpersonal treatment. We hear ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.’ It’s almost like being able to tolerate people’s treatment of you is like a badge of honor. But the reality is that this bad treatment is having really deleterious effects on performance in domains that we care about – like medicine. It matters,” Foulk concludes. “In simulations, we’re finding that mortality is increased by rudeness. People could be dying because somebody insulted the surgeon before they started operating.”

The study appears in the Journal of Applied Psychology.