Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the firstborn daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, cheated on her husband, the speaker of the House, with a senator from Idaho, an affair that produced her only child. She supported Nixon in 1960 and the Kennedys and LBJ after that and then Nixon again in 1968. And she did it all without losing the approval of polite Washington society, presidents included; so many people paid visits to her house in Dupont Circle that she became known as “the other Washington Monument.” The secret to her long tenure as the capital’s grandest dame was her life’s motto, which she had embroidered on a sofa pillow: “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”
This epigram also sits atop a fascinating new study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that is part of a larger body of work by the University of South Florida’s Jennifer Bosson. What she’s found is that Mrs. L., as she was called, was onto something: Trashing the same person often helps people bond. “There’s something really powerful about the discovery of shared negative attitudes,” Bosson says.
Bosson’s first paper on the phenomenon, which she co-authored in 2006, argued that people readily connect when they have a third entity to jointly demean. This could be someone they both know or a random celebrity; even if the hatred isn’t strong, the kinship could be deep. But the inquiry was empirically squishy—some of Bosson’s experiments relied on friends recounting how they became chummy—so last year, she and a grad student, Jonathan Weaver, developed a more rigorous methodology. They had undergrads partake in a study for class credit, the true goal of which was not divulged. First, the students filled out forms and placed an X next to the name of the professor they liked or disliked the most, then completed a biographical questionnaire. After that, a mediator handed them the questionnaire of another student, casually mentioning that this other student liked or disliked the same faculty member. A pattern emerged: The students with negative impressions of the same professor felt as if they knew each other better.
The power of this initial spark of shared antipathy, it seems, comes from what negativity implies. Everyone, after all, can say kind things. And everyone does. This is how we supposedly make friends: by being nice. But by going negative—thereby breaking a general rule of first impressions—you signal that you instinctively trust this new person, because you suspect he or she might feel the same way.
Bosson, in her own life, offers unvarnished appraisals easily. (Note that she grew up just outside New York.) Her Florida friends find her occasional grumpiness refreshing. Decades ago, in a different setting, that may also have accounted for why Mrs. L.—herself a Manhattan native—got on so well in her new town.