THE BLOG

The Psychology of Haters

06/18/2015 01:20 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

In 1997, Will Smith introduced a new word into the American lexicon: "hater." In his hit, Gettin' Jiggy wit It, he rapped that he had "no love for the haters," because they were, implicitly, motivated by envy. In 2001, the R&B group 3LW, in their song Playas Gon' Play, provided more context for understanding haters by telling us "playas gon' play [and] haters gon' hate." In his 2010 book, Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People, Michael Strangelove describes haters as people or groups of people who express hatred in public forums -- e.g., YouTube and Facebook. The Oxford Dictionary tells us that a hater is "[a] person who greatly dislikes a specified person or thing," or "[a] negative or critical person." Importantly, the Urban Dictionary adds: "A person that simply cannot be happy for another person's success. So rather than be happy, they make a point of exposing a flaw in that person." It goes on: "Hating, the result of being a hater, is not exactly jealousy. The hater doesn't really want to be the person he or she hates, rather the hater wants to knock someone else down a notch."

While I think the Urban Dictionary's definition is helpful, I also think that it misses an important point. Hating, arguably, may spring forth from many different places. It could be jealousy or it could be group bias. For example, one of the best examples of haters are the Birthers and the Tea Party when it comes to President Obama. Dr. Matthew Hughey and I wrote in our book, The Wrongs of the Right: Language, Race, and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama, and in it describe how these two entities and their members have been relentless in their hostility toward the President. Our work demonstrates that much of that hostility was and is driven by racial animus.

The fascinating thing, however, is not so much the root of why a hater hates but, rather, the psychological processes that more broadly undergird and propel the hating. There are a few cognitive biases that may be helpful in explaining the hater. No matter what they say, haters are not dispassionate and objective people when it comes to their hated object. In essence, they are emotionally motivated to hate. One cognitive bias, Motivated Reasoning, seems apropos here. It is an emotion-biased, decision-making phenomenon where decision-makers hold a preferred outcome with regard to an evaluative task. As such, they are inclined to arrive at a particular conclusion about the hated object by engaging in biased processes with regard to accessing, constructing and evaluating information. It was recognized as far back as the 1600s when Sir Francis Bacon wrote:

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, prejudging the matter to a great and pernicious extent in order that its former conclusions may remain inviolate.

In essence, the hater too easily embraces, or may affirmatively search for, negative information about the hated object even if that information is de minimus. They are susceptible to Confirmation Bias -- the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms their own preconceptions. Not surprisingly, haters exhibit Attentional Bias, the tendency to have their perceptions of the hated object be affected by their recurring (negative) thoughts about that object. Similarly, there is a tendency for haters to engage in Selective Perception, where expectations about the hated object affect the hater's perception of information about said object. Therefore, it is inevitable that haters tend to be susceptible to the Focusing Effect, whereby they tend to place undue weight to certain aspects of events, namely those aspects that cast a negative light on the hated object.

Haters also strenuously resist positive information about the hated object no matter how overwhelming that information is. In part, they may be susceptible to Conservatism Bias in that they are unable to revise their beliefs sufficiently when presented with new evidence. Here, positive information about the hated object fails to alter the hater's evaluative needle of the hated object. This may be because of the Semmelweis Reflex or the tendency to reject new evidence that contradicts a paradigm. In fact, efforts to augment the judgments of the hated object by providing haters with disconfirming evidence may simply strengthen their beliefs, observed in the Backfire Effect.

These processes have nothing to do with how well-educated or intelligent the hater is or is not. Motivated reasoning is self-deceptive, irrational and lies outside of conscious awareness. As psychologist Ziva Kunda noted:

People do not realize that the process is biased by their goals, that they are accessing only a subset of their relevant knowledge, that they would probably access different beliefs and rules in the presence of different directional goals and that they might even be capable of justifying opposite conclusions on different occasions.

In my experience, haters cannot be reasoned with; and, accordingly, that is why, as Taylor Swift notes in her song, Shake It Off, "And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate."