Looking Mean Means Looking Smart

2 minute read


The students thought the negative author was smarter than the positive one—“by a lot,” Amabile tells me. Most said the nastier critic was “more competent.” Granted, being negative wasn’t all upside—they also rated the harsh reviewer as “less warm and more cruel, not as nice,” she says. “But definitely smarter.”

When we hear negative statements, we think they’re inherently more intelligent than positive ones.
— Clive Thompson (2014) A Sad Fact of Life: It’s Actually Smart to Be Mean Online

This is unfortunately a bias that seems natural in social interaction. I’m not sure what causes it and I’m trying to find more research on the subject. This article and the research by Teresa Amabile is a starting point on the subject.

And unfortunately, that’s my experience too.

I have my own hypothesis on why this is true. To me it’s a natural consequence of the implicit assumption that only if you know about something you’re able to criticise it.

My idea is that the above is a nudge, not a hard rule, but enough to create a bias. That’s our baseline, even if that baseline is challenged and abused daily by a lot of people.

Given it’s the baseline assumption, we assume that a person that has nothing to say or just word of praise is more likely to fall in the basket of someone that knows less or the same. On the other side, a person criticising obviously has something to say, so like falls in the bucket of someone that knows more.

Is this true? No, of course. But given it happens, requires an active compensation from our side.

In other word, we need to try to get if someone happens to be in one of these four categories:

  1. Knows less + doesn’t criticize
  2. Knows less + criticize
  3. Knows more + doesn’t criticize
  4. Knows more + criticize

The cases 1 and 4 are our natural predisposition, while the cases 2 and 3 requires our active compensation.

Two more things:

  • On validity — This doesn’t mean that  the criticism is valid, or not valid. A person knowing less that criticise me is still giving me good information about how the thing being discussed can be perceived by a non-expert (which are the majority). But that’s a different evaluative mindset from an expert criticising you.
  • On positive criticism — The above doesn’t also connotate the criticism as negative or positive, constructive or destructive. That’s an important dimension, but transversal. I can know less, criticise, and still be constructive.

In short? Try to detect the kind of expertise behind the criticism you’re getting to frame it properly, and don’t put anyone on a pedestal for an expertise that isn’t substantiated. And well… try to have a group of people that can give you positive criticism, regardless. ;)


Via John Hagel. Thanks to Raffaella Isidori and Ximo Peris.