Why Some People Hate Everything

06/29/2015 11:40 am ET | Updated Jun 27, 2016

There's only one way to avoid criticism: Say and do nothing. If you aren't coming across critics, you're not headed in the right direction.

Any worthwhile work will elicit criticism; and it should, thoughtful input makes us better. But there is research that suggests that some critics are harsh by nature, not because of what they see in the creation they are criticizing. Put another way, some people really are "haters," or have a natural disposition to focus on flaws. "Brutally honest?" They just prefer to be brutal.

In a study [1] published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers examined predispositions towards topics that subjects knew nothing about.

They found a reliable trend in the responses of certain participants. Despite being asked about a myriad of unconnected topics -- and asked again about new topics at a later date, to confirm they weren't just in a bad mood -- they found two abnormal groups who they classified as "likers" and "haters." The "likers" tended to rate most things positively with zero external information, and the haters... well, you know where this is going. From the study:

So someone's attitude toward architecture may in fact tell us something about their attitude toward health care because both attitudes would be biased by a disposition to like or dislike stimuli.

The "dispositional attitude" of certain participants had the very real effect of influencing an opinion about things they knew nothing about. They ended up hating (or liking) things for absolutely no reason. This paints a clear picture: no matter what you create, a small group of people will hate it, often without reason.

Doubly so if you publish your work online.

Haters On The Web

You know the stereotype: everyone on the internet spouts vitriolic, bitter comments that they wouldn't dare say in person. The question is, why do people seem to act this way?

Psychologist John Suler proposed what is perhaps the best known analysis of the phenomenon in the Online Disinhibition Effect [2]. It lists six primary factors as to why we may treat others differently online than we do in person:

  1. You don't know me. Anonymity protects the critics "real life" reputation and shields them from retaliation and owning their actions.
  2. You can't see me. Face-to-face interactions tend to have more empathy because we can see the person we are engaging with. It's hard to feel ashamed when you don't even know who's affected. You're just a screen to me, not a person.
  3. See you later. I don't have to deal with your instant response, or even wait for it! I can dump my thoughts on you and never return.
  4. It's all in my head. Suler argues that online interactions can distort reality. I can make up whatever attributes about you that I want, justifying my actions.
  5. It's just a game. The overused response of critics who do sometimes get called out: "It's just the Internet, man!"
  6. Your rules don't apply here. This is the Internet, where closing out a live chat isn't rude, despite the fact that leaving in the middle of a conversation would be rude in real life.
Understanding criticism matters if you ever want to be able to create and sleep soundly at night. This is because criticism can take it's toll on people who haven't developed a thick skin, or who don't yet recognize that great work is contingent on willingness to be judged.

Professor Roy F. Baumeister explored this topic on the basis of emotions in is his paper Bad is Stronger Than Good [3]. He found that generally speaking, bad emotions, impressions, and feedback are "quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones." In other words, bitter comments stick with us and are often much harder to forget than praise. The key is to recognize this natural imbalance, and take care to remember the constructive comments.

Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford University and author of The Man Who Lies to His Laptop [4], posits that negative emotions hang around because they are more likely to be dwelled upon:

Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events -- and use stronger words to describe them -- than happy ones.

Negative thoughts lead to the development of impostor syndrome, where even veteran craftsman find themselves thinking, "I'm not really good enough, people are going to find out I'm a total fraud."

You can't chalk up every negative comment to "people hatin' on you," but you also can't let yourself succumb to the fear of getting your ego bruised. It's going to happen. It's your job to understand when to listen to a real critique. It's easy to be a critic. There's no backlash, there's no risk. But creating?

That takes guts.


Gregory Ciotti is the lead content strategist at Help Scout, the HIPAA compliant help desk for web and mobile businesses who insist on delivering outstanding customer support.

Research and links cited: