Alongside the moral and ethical arguments about “tone,” skeptical debate about the effectiveness of various communication strategies goes ’round and ’round perpetually.
But why is the effectiveness question so often treated as a debate between competing intuitions? In a recent comment, Steven Novella suggested to me that skeptics should “be tolerant of each other’s different approaches to the public, since no one has the final answer. As the psychological literature progresses, however, we may have better informed opinions.”
But is the psychological jury still out? Science has been looking at people, our interactions, and the ways in which we learn and communicate for quite a while. (Did you know there’s a substantial body of scientific research on just the topic of smiling?)
Therefore, as a skeptic, I want to know: what has science learned about communication?
Bring On the Science
And so, I throw open this thread for discussion of the data. I invite psychologists, marketers, educators, lay skeptics, and the world at large to share specific citations of specific scientific research bearing on the issue of tone. Let’s leave aside instincts, opinions, ethics, and morality, and just look at the empirical question:
What has science discovered about the roles of likability, empathy, aggression, and ridicule in communication, marketing, and education? Nominate (and describe) relevant research papers in the comments field below.
I’ll open with this paper from 1978 — not because it settles the question, but because it’s funny:
Tidd, Kathi L. and Joan S. Lockard. “Monetary significance of the affiliative smile: A case for reciprocal altruism.” Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society Vol. 11, No. 6, 344-346. 1978.
Finding: In this study, cocktail waitresses received dramatically larger tips (from both male and female customers) when greeting customers with a big toothy smile rather than a “minimal smile (mouth corners noticeably turned up but no teeth showing).”
This does not seem surprising to me. Human interactions involve more than just an exchange of information or services. We tend to be more receptive to people who signal friendliness. Is this finding generalizable to skeptical communication? I suspect it is. (That is why I put so much effort into preparing huge photos of smiling skeptics for use in outreach material.)
(For more on the impact that strategies for increasing likability have upon tipping, see for example Lynn, Michael. “Seven Ways to Increase Servers’ Tips.” Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 3, 24-29. 1996)
And now it’s your turn. Accommodationists and confrontationists, “asshole skeptics” and nice guy skeptics, firebrands and cuddly bunnies: can you support your intuitions with data? Ante up.