Political correctness can lead to cognitive exhaustion, according to new research

Political correctness can lead to cognitive exhaustion, according to new research

Political correctness in the workplace is a prominent and controversial topic in the United States. But surprisingly little research has examined the consequences of engaging in self-censorship to avoid marginalizing or offending others.

According to new findings published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, people are motivated to be politically correct out of a sense of kindness and consideration for their coworkers, but being politically correct can also lead to mental fatigue. The new research represents one of the first attempts to systematically investigate the topic.

“Our interest in this topic stemmed from the fact that the modern workplace has become quite diverse in both observable and non-observable ways. This is important and something that should be celebrated, as increasing diversity comes with numerous benefits to individuals, organizations, and society,” explained study authors Joel Koopman, the TJ Barlow Professor of Business Administration at Texas A&M, and Klodiana Lanaj, the Martin L. Schaffel Professor of Business Administration at the University of Florida.

“But at the same time, this increasing diversity can create challenges in the ways in which people interact with each other, as it is important to be inclusive and understanding about differences of opinion and viewpoint. And beyond communication challenges that may stem from diversity, there are any number of interactions that employees have during the course of a workday (e.g., delivering critical feedback or performance-related conflict).”

“All of these types of conversations may require what we label as ‘workplace political correctness,’ which reflects a level of sensitivity towards, or tolerance of, others and a willingness to modify or suppress either words or actions accordingly,” the researchers said. “For the reasons above, it would seem that employees should be encouraged to be politically correct. And, indeed, the only paper on the topic of which we were aware of comes to this conclusion as well.”

“Yet our own experiences, combined with much of our prior research on related topics, led us to suspect that the story was likely more complicated than this. Specifically, many of the behaviors involved in being politically correct (e.g., monitoring situations to evaluate whether something might be offensive, aligning oneself with normative expectations, and suppressing certain words or behaviors) may require self-control, which can be depleting. This has some concerning implications, as depletion is likely to impact how well employees interact with their spouses at home in the evening.”

The research team conducted a series of studies to investigate the relationship between political correctness and cognitive resource depletion.

For their first study, the researchers recruited employees of local companies and administrative staff from two universities, along with their partner/spouse. The employees completed a survey at the beginning of their workday, at the end of their workday, and in the evening every day for three weeks. Their spouses completed a single survey each evening. The final sample consisted of 96 employees and their partners.

Employees with greater other orientation at the start of their workday (“I am concerned about the needs and interests of my colleagues”) were more likely to report having been politically correct at the end of their workday (“Today at work, I censored myself while interacting with coworkers”).

Political correctness during the day, in turn, was linked to greater cognitive resource depletion (“I feel drained right now”) in the evening, and higher levels of cognitive resource depletion were linked to partners being more likely to report that employees were angry and withdrawn at home.

In two subsequent studies, the researchers used the online platform Prolific to recruit full-time employees, who were asked to write about a recent conversation they had with a coworker. The participants were randomly assigned to either write about a conversation “in which you censored yourself, felt the need to choose your words carefully, or otherwise tried to avoid offending” that coworker or a control condition.

Results from the two studies, which included 447 participants in total, both found that full-time employees reported more cognitive resource depletion after having a conversation in which they were politically correct compared to the control conditions.

Next, Koopman and his team conducted a similar study with undergraduate students from a large southern university. The participants were asked to write a brief email to a (fictitious) student explaining their personal position regarding a controversial situation on their campus. The students were randomly assigned to one of four groups: instructed to be politically correct, instructed to not be politically correct, instructed to be polite, or receive no additional instructions. After composing the email, the participants completed a Stroop task, an objective measure of cognitive resource depletion that involves naming the color of printed words.

The researchers found that students in the political correctness condition tended to have higher reaction times on the Stroop test, indicating higher levels of cognitive resource depletion.

For their final study, Koopman and his colleagues sought to confirm that other orientation was a predictor of political correctness at work. The researchers recruited 201 full-time employees via Prolific and asked them to read a short essay. Half of the participants read an essay describing how communities banded together in the wake of Hurricane Ida, while the other half read an essay describing the importance of saving for retirement. The participants then wrote an email to a (fictitious) business owner who was considering implementing a vaccine mandate for employees.

In line with their expectations, the researchers found that other orientation was positively related to political correctness. Participants who read about communities banding together were more likely to report being more politically correct in the email they wrote.

“First and foremost, we are most definitely not saying that people should not be politically correct when interacting with their coworkers,” Koopman and Lanaj told PsyPost. “Our findings consistently showed that employees choose to act with political correctness at work because they care about the coworker with whom they are interacting. A key takeaway of our work, therefore, is that political correctness comes from a good place of wanting to be inclusive and kind.”

“But what is important for both employees and managers to take away is that being politically correct is not costless. Instead, being politically correct may be exhausting, and as a result employees might be particularly tired and argumentative at night. And so for employees who are doing this, they need to be aware of how it makes them feel and strive to avoid enacting negative behaviors at home. Managers need to understand these possible costs as well, as there are a number of possible ways to mitigate the depletion that employees may feel from being politically correct.”

But the study, like all research, includes some caveats. For example, it is still unclear what factors moderate the relationship between political correctness and cognitive resource depletion.

“Ours is just a first step towards better understanding both the causes and consequences of being politically correct,” Koopman and Lanaj explained. “There are likely a number of ways in which these negative effects can be mitigated, and so our paper showing these negative effects will, we hope, spur some of these efforts.”

“As it pertains to political correctness specifically, more research is needed to better understand these possible mitigation options. But in terms of self-control more generally, there is research to suggest that mindfulness exercises, as well as perhaps focusing on the positive impacts of one’s behavior on others, could reduce some of these effects. In addition, an argument could be made that actually increasing the amount of political correctness might help here too, as the acts would become more practiced and thus less demanding. All of this, however, would need to be tested.”

“We do hope that researchers will choose to explore the positive effects of political correctness as well. As we briefly mentioned, only one paper of which we are aware has looked at this phenomenon in general, and they did find some positive effects at the team level,” Koopman and Lanaj said.

That study, published in Administrative Science Quarterly, found evidence that political correctness among mixed-sex work groups was positively associated with creative output. Teams exposed to political correctness norms tended to generate a higher number of divergent and novel ideas compared to control groups.

“We would similarly expect to see some benefits for individuals as well (perhaps better relationships among coworkers),” Koopman and Lanaj added. “The broad point is that we must make sure that we discuss political correctness holistically—it has some consequences, as we identified, but it certainly has some benefits as well.”

The study, “Walking on Eggshells: An Investigation of Workplace Political Correctness“, was authored by Joel Koopman, Klodiana Lanaj, Young Eun Lee, Valeria Alterman, Cody Bradley, and Adam C. Stoverink.
Political correctness can lead to cognitive exhaustion, according to new research
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