Time is sometimes short. When you've got something important to say, you want to make it stick.

Now, a new study published in the journal MIS Quarterly suggests a simple adjustment some people make (or maybe that they do automatically), that makes their arguments seem more persuasive.

It's called "the politeness bias," and it's a bit surprising. 

The researchers --  Shun-Yang Lee of the University of Connecticut, Huaxia Rui of the University of Rochester, and Andrew Whinston of the University of Texas at Austin -- studied conversations on Stack Exchange, which is a network of question-and-answer websites and communities.

The key thing they found: The more polite an answer was, the more likely it was to be rated highly and chosen as the "best answer."

It's not ironclad. If the person offering an opinion is perceived as a true expert, that can overcome an impolite response, the researchers said. 

But all other things being equal, impolite answers were less likely to be regarded as correct.

Here's an example of the kinds of answers we're talking about, cited in a summary by Cornell University's Amy Newman, each provided below in reply to someone in a conversation by Amazon Mechanical Turk workers asking how to transfer their earnings into their bank accounts:

  • Polite answer: "Based on the explanation in the worker platform instruction, one will need to specify the amount s/he would like to transfer. This amount should not be greater than what is available for transfer. If this is the first time transferring, then bank information, such as routing and account numbers, is also required.
  • Impolite answer: You need to check the worker platform instruction more carefully before posting the question, as the answer can be found there very easily. Just go to the Earnings page and enter the amount you wish to transfer (make sure this amount is not greater than what is available for transfer.) Just remember that if it's your first time transferring money to a bank account you will also need to enter your bank account information (routing and account numbers) otherwise AMT won't know where to transfer the money to.

In both cases the actual substance of the answers is almost identical, but the first one -- the one that doesn't include the condescending recommendation that the person asking the question check the instructions more carefully before asking -- winds up rated higher.

So, a few takeaways:

  • We're talking about a single website here, and written communications only. That said, it's a situation in which the people asking the questions and the people answering them don't automatically know anything else about each other. So that should eliminate some other biases.
  • All other things being equal, it seems to be a matter of tone more than simply using polite words like please and thank you, although those don't seem to hurt.
  • In the case of a website like Stack Exchange, the "politeness bias" is a problem, as they don't want answers to be perceived as more correct simply because they're more polite. One solution might be to give less consideration to how the people who ask the question feel about the answers, as opposed to other independent readers.

As Peter Coy at Bloomberg reports, Stack Exchange is actually moving in that direction already, as the answer that a questioner selects as the best answer is now called "accepted," instead of "best answer." 

The whole thing reminds me of the classic debate over whether it's a good thing to teach people to be more persuasive, because inevitably some people who are incompetent or have indecent motives will use the persuasiveness techniques to spread wrong or malicious ideas.

But I don't know what to do about that. In the meantime, if you want to spread good ideas, all other things being equal, use polite language and don't insult the people you're trying to convince.

Published on: May 28, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.