March 15, 2022 Leave your thoughts

The toxic impact of working with impolite, anti-social colleagues

a commentary on Mahmoodi et al., PLoS Biology 2022

Working with difficult colleagues who ignore our presence can be annoying. Many of us, of course, know that from first-hand experience. A very recent finding from our laboratory uncovers the specific nature of such toxic impact. Our findings show that having to work with someone who ignores our opinion and pretends that we are not there makes us think less of our own competence and efficacy, possibly damaging our sense of self-esteem. 

In this experiment, the participant worked with a partner. Their job was to work together to determine the location of a visual target that appeared on the computer screen for a very short time. Each trial started with a very brief presentation (less than 0.10s) of a visual target on the screen. The participant then moved the cursor to the location where s/he thought the target had been. Then their partner’s opinion was displayed to the participant. On one-half of trials, participants would then get the opportunity to revise their estimate given their own and their partner’s opinion. On the other half, their partner did so and our participant would see to what extent the partner took their opinion into account. 

The participants did not know that we secretly manipulated the degree to which the partner took into account the participant’s opinion. In one condition, (we programmed such that) the partner was cooperative and came up with a compromise. Let’s call this condition the Prosocial partner. In  the other condition, (we made sure that) the partner completely ignored the participant and insisted on their own opinion every time. Let’s call this the Anti-Social partner. 

After about 100 trials of working with each partner, we asked our participant to rate the quality of their own performance as well as the quality of their partner’s  opinion. What we found is depicted in the figure below. 

Figure 1. The experimental results from Mahmoodi et al 2022 

Pink bars show the participant’s estimate of their partner’s ability. People did a good job of being objective in evaluating their partner’s ability fairly. They succeed in that their judgement was not affected by how the partner has treated them. 

The blue bars, on the other hand, show that the participant’s estimate of their own ability was significantly lower (see black arrow) when they worked with the anti-social partner who ignored the participant’s opinion. People thought less of themselves when they worked with an asshole.

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