You say "be quiet!"... Are you a ‘bitter complainer’ or ‘Well-adjusted leader’?

Have you ever asked someone to quieten down? Are you a ‘bitter complainer’ or ‘Well-adjusted leader’?

Imagine someone who complains about the behaviour of others to their face. What is that person like in your imagination? Many people think of the ‘Victor Meldrews’ or ‘Mrs. Mangles’ of this world. Alternatively, you might think of a curtain twitching, introverted member of the neighbourhood watch.

I’ve just shocked myself by how out of date my cultural references are, sorry! For those of you who have no idea who Mr Meldrew and Mrs Mangle are - What I meant to say is - people who speak up about the behaviour of others are often expected to be bitter about their own life, and only able to feel good about themselves by finding fault in others. They’re expected to be more aggressive and have low self-esteem. I was trying to use representations in popular culture of people who call out the behaviour of others to reinforce my point, but if you can think of better and/or more recent examples, please put them in the comments below. I sorely need to update my pop references!

People who complain to others about their behaviour are ‘bitter complainers’. That’s the assumption. To a Psychologist, or to any scientist, an assumption like this needs investigating. You’ll sometimes you get headlines like “scientist confirm sky IS blue” because of this type of assumption testing. This headline might make you think “well that was a waste of money! I could have told them that for free!”. The thing is… what if they had found the sky isn’t blue? Then it’s not a waste of money, is it? Sometimes, investigating things we all “knew” but hadn’t tested, results in a complete change in thinking… results in us all discovering the sky isn’t blue (for example). This is one of those studies.

Despite the preconceptions people have about the kind of person who speaks up in the face of antisocial behaviour, this study (Brauer et al, February 2018) found people who reported they would make a such a stand, fitted the label of ‘bitter complainer’ significantly less well than this label: ‘well-adjusted leader’! These people were found to be (amongst other attributes) altruistic, extraverted, good emotional regulator (not ‘hotheads’ or aggressive), accepting of peers. They were not found to be aggressive or have low self-esteem.

So-is the myth busted? Maybe. This is only one study and it required self-reporting of action in a hypothetical situation. ‘Bystander’ studies, which look at whether people in crowds stop to help people who need help, e.g. someone who has collapsed in the street, have often found that people like to think they’d act when needed but this self-reporting may not reflect what they would do in a real-life situation. Given this study is purely self-reporting, it needs tying into experiments that look at actual action, but on the whole, it does show our societies’ assumptions about people who intervene could be wrong.

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