The term “politically correct” has a long history, perhaps longer than some realize. It appeared as early as 1793, in a US Supreme Court judgment, although its usage in this case was not used to communicate the social disapproval of certain actions. The modern usage emerged sometime in the 1970s, featured prominently in discussions of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, and has, despite some fluctuations in its prevalence, remained a flashpoint in America’s culture war ever since. Yet, research on how concerns about political correctness are related to emotional well-being and interpersonal behavior, remains scant.
The research summarized below by Strauts and Blanton (2015), documents the development of their concern for political correctness scale, as well as two studies validating the predictive utility of that scale. Briefly, Strauts and Blanton (2015) reported that their concern for political correctness measure consists of two factors, an emotion factor (which measures the likelihood of experiencing a negative emotional response after hearing politically incorrect language) and an activism factor (which measures a willingness to correct others who use politically incorrect language). The emotion factor was related to lower well-being and positively predicted negative responses to politically incorrect humor. The activism factor was related to getting into arguments and losing friends.
Abstract (emphasis added)
The transformation of common language toward inclusion of all people is the mechanism by which many aim to alter attitudes and beliefs that stand in the way of more meaningful social change. The term for this motivated concern for language is ‘‘political correctness’’ or ‘‘PC.’’ The current project seeks to introduce a new tool for investigations into this phenomenon, the concern for political correctness (CPC) scale. CPC assesses individual differences in concern for politically correct speech. Exploratory and confirmatory structural equation modeling showed consistent factor structure of the two subscales; an emotion subscale measuring negative emotional response to hearing politically incorrect language, and an activism subscale measuring a willingness to correct others who use politically incorrect language. Correlational analyses suggested that concern for political correctness is associated with more liberal beliefs and ideologies and less right-wing authoritarianism. The emotion subscale was also found to be associated with lower emotional well-being and the activism subscale with more frequent arguments. Laboratory-based criterion validation studies indicated that the two subscales predicted negative reactions to politically incorrect humor.
Strauts and Blanton (2015, p. 33) adopt Loury’s (1994, p. 430) definition of political correctness: “An implicit social convention of restraint on public expression, operating within a given community.” They further note that (p. 33):
Critical to the definition of this construct is that proponents of political correctness typically oppose potentially offensive uses of words or phrases, even when a speaker did not intend to express disapproval or promote negative associations through their statements. The act of engaging in politically incorrect language is perceived as an action that can spread harmful views to others, even when it is expressed by an individual who neither endorses such views at a conscious level nor intends these views to be promoted (Choi & Murphy, 1992).
Loury’s (1994) definition of political correctness directly informed the approach adopted by Strauts and Blanton (2015), which differs from previous investigations into how attitudes towards censorship (Suedfeld, Steel, & Schmidt, 1994), and how socially desirable responding (Walker & Jussim, 2002) may be associated with expressions of political correctness. Instead, Strauts and Blanton (2015) focused directly on individual concern with political correctness, and not on the psychological factors that may predict politically correct responding.
They assessed concern for politically correct speech along two different dimensions, emotion and activism. Political correctness emotion (PC-E) measures the negative emotional reaction that is experienced after hearing politically incorrect language. Higher scores reflect a higher level of PC-E (sample item: “I feel angry when a person says something politically incorrect”). Political correctness activism (PC-A) measures the degree to which an individual engages in actions to correct others who use politically incorrect language, by instructing them not to use such language or further educating them on why such language is harmful (sample item: “When a person uses politically incorrect words, I point it out to them to help educate them about the issues).
Prior to study 1, a pilot study was conducted to generate a pool of potential items and to assess their content validity. Studies 1 and 2 validated the concern for political correctness scale. Studies 3 and 4 assessed the ability of the scale, and its two subcomponents PC-E and PC-A, to predict emotional and behavioral outcomes.
Method: Studies 1 and 2
Studies 1 and 2 investigated validity of the concern for political correctness scale. In Study 1, two subsamples were recruited. The second subsample consisted of 811 college students recruited via introductory psychology classes. All respondents completed the concern for political correctness scale.
In Study 2, two subsamples were again collected. In addition to the concern for political correctness scale, respondents were also asked to complete Zakrisson’s (2005) short version of the right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) scale and the social dominance orientation scale (Sidanius & Pratto, 2001), provide their political identification, and report on their levels of political activism, interpersonal conflict, and emotional distress.
Results: Studies 1 and 2
In Study 1, exploratory structural equation modeling (ESEM) was applied to 11 scale items generated during pilot testing. Two factors emerged, and most of the items were distinctly associated with one of the two factors. There were 2 significant cross-loadings. Both items were a part of the PC-E subscale, yet upon closer inspection did not directly ask about emotion (‘‘I do not like talking to people who use language that I believe is politically incorrect’’; ‘‘I could not be friends with someone who uses politically incorrect words I disapprove of.’’). The two items were deleted and a 9-item scale, with two factors (PC-E and PC-A), was retained for the remaining studies.
In Study 2, confirmatory factor analysis was employed. First, responses from the two subsamples were compared and the model assuming that the Mechanical Turk and student samples had the same factor loadings was preferred over a model that allowed for differences between the samples. Based on these results the samples were combined for subsequent analyses.
Further results of the confirmatory factor analysis revealed the following:
- A two-factor solution (PC-E and PC-A) was preferable to a one-factor solution.
- Higher scores on PC-E and PC-A were associated with lower social dominance orientation.
- The associations of PC-E and PC-A with right-wing authoritarianism were mostly not statistically significant (the exception was a small, negative correlation between PC-A and RWA; this effect was not statistically significant in a regression analysis, controlling for all other outcome measures).
- Both PC-E and PC-A were positively correlated with liberal self-identification, but only PC-A significantly predicted liberal self-identification in a regression analysis.
- PC-A was positively correlated with both forms of interpersonal conflict assessed (disagreements had and friends lost); these associations remained statistically significant in a regression analysis, controlling for all other outcome measures.
- PC-A was positively correlated with perceived emotional stress; this association was not statistically significant in a regression analysis.
- PC-E was positively correlated with friends lost and with perceived emotional stress; only the relationship between PC-E and perceived emotional stress remained statistically significant in a regression analysis.
Method: Studies 3 and 4
Study 3 participants were identified from a larger pool of respondents that had completed the concern for political correctness scale over the previous 3 to 6 weeks. A total of 32 college students, who scored in the mid-range of the scale were recruited for participation. Participants were shown a total of 19 segments from Comedy Central’s Tosh.O; these segments had been identified in a previous pilot study as representing varied levels of political correctness. Nine of these segments received the highest ratings for political incorrectness, while 10 of them received the lowest ratings for political incorrectness and were classified as neutral jokes. These 19 segments were used as stimuli in both Study 3 and Study 4.
Studies 3 and 4 assessed the criterion validity of the concern for political correctness scale. Prescreening was employed to select those high in PC-E (n = 34) and those low in PC-E (n = 40). Thus, Study 3 consisted of a total of 74 participants. All participants viewed the 19 Tosh.0 clips and rated how funny they found the commentary on a 7-point scale ranging from “not at all funny” to “extremely funny.” Study 3 purposely avoided asking about whether the Tosh.0 clips were politically incorrect or offensive, in order to control for how activating concerns about political correctness might influence the results.
In Study 4, participants were identified from a larger pool of respondents that had completed the concern for political correctness scale over the previous 6 to 9 weeks. As in Study 3, prescreening was employed to select those high in PC-E (n = 24) and those low in PC-E (n = 37). Thus, Study 4 consisted of a total of 61 participants. In addition to assessing how funny each clip was, offensiveness was assessed by asking participants to rate how disgusting, angering, and offensive each clip was on a 7-point scale ranging from “not at all” to “extremely.” Finally, three items assessed the likelihood that the participant would express disapproval if they saw a “friend,” “acquaintance,” or “stranger” laughing at the clip, on a 7-point scale ranging from “extremely unlikely” to “extremely likely.”
Results: Studies 3 and 4
In Study 3, an Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) was employed to analyze humor ratings by joke content. Specifically, joke content (neutral, politically incorrect) was treated as a within-subjects factor, and PC-E score (low, high) was treated as a between-subjects factor. A main effect of joke content, where politically incorrect jokes were rated as funnier, was qualified by a statistically significant interaction between joke content and PC-E score. Participants high in PC-E found the politically incorrect jokes less funny than participants low in PC-E. The two groups did not differ on their ratings of neutral jokes, although there was a trend for participants high in PC-E to rate neutral jokes as less humorous compared to participants high in PC-E.
As in Study 3, Study 4 employed ANOVA to analyze humor ratings by joke content. Specifically, joke content (neutral, politically incorrect) was treated as a within-subjects factor, and PC-E score (low, high) was treated as a between-subjects factor. The mean humor rating of politically incorrect jokes was lower for participants high in PC-E compared to participants low in PC-E. No difference emerged between groups for the neutral jokes.
In addition to assessing humor ratings, Study 4 also used structural equation modeling to assess emotional reactions to the stimuli and the likelihood that the participant would express disapproval if they saw someone else laughing at the clip. The politically incorrect clips were perceived as highly offensive by participants with high PC-E scores. In turn these greater offensiveness ratings were associated with lower humor ratings of the politically incorrect clips. Interestingly, higher PC-E scores were also associated with reporting greater offensiveness in response to politically neutral clips.
Finally, the structural equation model also revealed that participants higher in PC-A were more willing, than those lower in PC-A, to report they would express disapproval of politically incorrect jokes, an effect completely mediated by the offensiveness scale.
Strauts and Blanton (2015) considered, and identified, multiple ways in which concern for political correctness can manifest. One way, as tapped by the PC-E, is for people to become emotionally upset by the use of language that violates political correctness norms. Another way, as tapped by the PC-A, is for people to engage in actions that attempt to correct individuals who use politically incorrect language.
They also demonstrated that concern for political correctness was a distinct construct from both right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. Higher scores on PC-E and PC-A were associated with greater self-reported liberalism and endorsement of egalitarianism. Both PC-E and PC-A were predictive of lower well-being. Specifically, PC-E was associated with perceived stress. PC-A was associated with greater social conflict and loss of friends.
Studies 3 and 4, which assessed criterion validity, revealed that the PC-E scale predicted seeing little humor in politically incorrect jokes, while PC-A predicted the intention to express disapproval of individuals who find such jokes humorous.
In other words (Stauts & Blanton, 2015, p. 39, emphasis added):
Participants in this research who reported that they get upset at politically incorrect language (high in PC-E) reported higher perceived stress, and those who reported acting to confront politically incorrect language (high in PC-A) reported more interpersonal disagreements and lost friendships. These tendencies suggest diminished life satisfaction for those who embrace these two ways of being concerned with political correctness. Similar inferences can be drawn from the criterion–prediction studies. Put simply, the laboratory results suggested that those who are high in concern for political correctness find less cause to laugh and more to confront.
Strauts and Blanton (2015) briefly discuss these implications, noting that such findings are consistent with research suggesting that political liberalism may place constraints on humor (Eyssel & Bohner, 2007; Ruch & Rath, 1993; Wilson, 1990) and that conservatives are happier with their lives overall, compared to liberals (Napier & Jost, 2008; Schlenker, Chambers, & Le, 2012; HxA note: Those two publications offer competing explanations for why conservatives are happier). They further suggest that liberal concerns are expressed through interpersonal monitoring and confrontation, and that these concerns are linked to a reduction in happiness. Strauts and Blanton (2015) make this suggestion tentatively and call for more research into the possibility. They further noted that it was unclear whether the conflicts of those high in PC-A resulted in a loss of social support or the removal of unsupportive relationships.
Finally, Strauts and Blanton (2015) discuss the implications of their findings for political action. They classify acting to correct political incorrectness as an everyday form of political activism, because “it is motivated by beliefs that particular words and phrases can harm society by helping to promote or perpetuate social injustices and inequities” (p. 39), and more closely resembles a form of personal activism without requiring a larger organizing force (HxA note: This does not mean such mass organizational forces are non-existent). Indeed, the PC-A subscale may help researchers identify a specific type of activist, who is concerned how language is used and whose concerns represent an expression of moral outrage or disapproval.
Why These Findings are Important
The findings of Strauts and Blanton (2015) provide preliminary evidence to suggest that concerns about political correctness can produce negative emotional and interpersonal consequences, in the form of greater perceived stress, more interpersonal disagreement, and loss of friendships. When considering if and how to monitor and constrain the expression of viewpoints on college campuses, the results of Strauts and Blanton suggest that professors and administrators may wish to consider the possibility that doing so could potentially ratchet up stress and negative interpersonal outcomes among students.
Sean Stevens is Heterodox Academy’s Research Director. He has a PhD in social psychology from Rutgers University.
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