Political correctness norms: influence on stereotype communication and the rise of Donald Trump

Society often develops norms to restrict communication. One such set of norms that has taken hold in modern American society has come to be called political correctness (or PC) norms. These pervasive norms are designed with a positive end: to reduce unwarranted negative stereotypes (see Conway et al., 2009,2017; Meadors, 2016). PC norms try to accomplish this clearly good goal by placing pressure on people to avoid language that might cast specific groups in a negative light and thus increasing civility and agreement in society (for discussions, see Conway et al., 2009, 2017; Meadors, 2016).

However, the psychological factors involved in the agreement paradox are independent of the potential positive or negative valence of the pressure itself. PC norms may have a positive end goal, but as a set of norms designed to pressure individuals to constrain their communication, they are likely to produce reactance and informational contamination. Is it possible that PC norms might produce the pattern of short-term agreement, but long-term division characteristic of the agreement paradox?

Laboratory scenarios on negative group communication

Research in two domains suggests that PC norms may indeed backfire in ways consistent with the agreement paradox. A first set of studies involves laboratory scenarios concerning the communication of stereotypes. PC norms are directly designed to reduce the amount of negative communication, and thus it would be surprising to find contexts where making the norms salient actually increased the likelihood of negative communication about groups. And yet, in a series of three studies, Conway and colleagues (2009) demonstrated exactly one such context where pressure to use politically correct language about a group backfired. Specifically, participants in these studies imagined hearing positive communication agreement emerge about a fraternity on campus. In some conditions, participants were given cues that PC norms were in operation (e.g., presence of one of the fraternity members, presence of a professor known for caring about PC norms), while in other conditions, no PC norm cues were given. Participants were later asked to write out what they would say to a friend about the fraternity in a completely different context. Consistent with the agreement paradox framework, the presence of a cue encouraging PC norms in one context led participants to talk more negatively about that same group in a different context (and this effect was attenuated — especially when the cue itself was especially obvious — when participants were asked to communicate in the same context). Further, mediational analyses revealed that, when the backfiring effect occurred, it was driven largely by informational contamination and reactance.

These studies show some of the basic features of the agreement paradox: a norm designed to manufacture positive communication about groups may succeed in the short term. But those norms cannot possibly be ever-present in all situations — people may move to a new context where the norm is not in operation. And when they do, both informational contamination and reactance are still present, which in turn produces a backfiring for the norm.This is how a counterintuitive finding can consistently emerge — how a norm specifically designed to produce positive communication can instead produce negative communication.

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