Feb. 27, 2013 at 9:12 AM ET
Giving someone the silent treatment may not always be such a bad thing. It may actually be a good way to deal with someone who is acting like a jerk, a new study finds.
The research reveals there are benefits to cutting off conversation with a person who is being obnoxious: It's not as draining on your mental resources, you avoid conflict with someone offensive, and it's much simpler than getting into a heated discussion.
That's because the silent treatment can speak volumes, even when someone is not saying a word or limiting their conversation to short or one-syllable responses.
From a psychological standpoint, this brush-off technique is largely viewed in a negative light. It's considered a manipulative way to communicate dissatisfaction and a passive form of rejection.
But this new research has identified at least some situations when silence might be golden: When people are strongly motivated to avoid social interaction with an undesirable person, giving the silent treatment may be as easy -- if not easier -- than a conversation.
The silent treatment is not always motivated by an intent to harm another person or punish their behavior, said study author Kristin Sommer, Ph.D, an associate professor of psychology at Baruch College, City University of New York. "It may be used as a way to offset feelings of fatigue or depletion associated with the expectation of an unpleasant interaction," she explained.
For this new study, published online in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, the researchers ran two different experiments involving 118 college students. In each study, they asked participants to either talk with or ignore another individual, who was in on the experiment and told to act in a highly likeable -- meaning polite, relaxed, and friendly -- or a highly unlikeable manner -- someone rude, prejudicial, and arrogant.
After four minutes with the "nice guy" or "jerk," study participants had to complete a task that involved thought and self-control.
Researchers found that participants who ignored an unlikable person or talked with someone likable did better on the task than those who were forced to converse with a jerk or snub a nice guy. Rebuffing a likable person and exchanging pleasantries with someone obnoxious both took a toll. It left participants feeling depleted and their performance suffered as a result.
"Our findings suggest that the silent treatment may be used as a strategy for conserving mental resources that would otherwise be exhausted by interacting with someone who is inherently aversive to be around," said Sommer.
These findings do not mean that you can now feel justified every time you give a cold shoulder to a spouse, family member, or best friend. The study only looked into its use as a short-term snub in a non-close relationship.
There is a greater potential for risks when using the silent treatment in close relationships.
"The use of the silent treatment may have save energy-saving benefits," Sommer explained, "but these benefits may come at a long-term cost to a relationship."