Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Phenomenology of Being a Jerk

Most jerks, I assume, don't know that they're jerks. This raises, of course, the question of how you can find out if you're a jerk. I'm not especially optimistic on this front. In the past, I've recommended simple measures like the automotive jerk-sucker ratio -- but such simple measures are so obviously flawed and exception-laden that any true jerk will have ample resources for plausible rationalization.

Another angle into this important issue -- yes, I do think it is an important issue! -- is via the phenomenology of being a jerk. I conjecture that there are two main components to the phenomenology:

First: an implicit or explicit sense that you are an "important" person -- in the comparative sense of "important" (of course, there is a non-comparative sense in which everyone is important). What's involved in the explicit sense of feeling important is, to a first approximation, plain enough. The implicit sense is perhaps more crucial to jerkhood, however, and manifests in thoughts like the following: "Why do I have to wait in line at the post office with all the schmoes?" and in often feeling that an injustice has been done when you have been treated the same as others rather than preferentially.

Second: an implicit or explicit sense that you are surrounded by idiots. Look, I know you're smart. But human cognition is in some ways amazingly limited. (If you don't believe this, read up on the Wason selection task.) Thinking of other people as idiots plays into jerkhood in two ways: The devaluing of others' perspectives is partly constitutive of jerkhood. And perhaps less obviously, it provides a handy rationalization of why others aren't participating in your jerkish behavior. Maybe everyone is waiting their turn in line to get off the freeway on a crowded exit ramp and you (the jerk) are the only one to cut in at the last minute, avoiding waiting your turn (and incidentally increasing the risk of an accident and probably slowing down non-exiting traffic). If it occurs to you to wonder why the others aren't doing the same you have a handy explanation in your pocket -- they're idiots! -- which allows you to avoid more uncomfortable potential explanations of the difference between you and them.

Here's a self-diagnostic of jerkhood, then: How often do you think of yourself as important, how often do you expect preferential treatment, how often do you think you are a step ahead of the idiots and schmoes? If this is characteristic of you, I recommend that you try to set aside the rationalizations for a minute and do a frank self-evaluation. I can't say that I myself show up as well by this self-diagnostic as I would have hoped.

How about the phenomenology of being a sweetie -- if we may take that as the opposite of a jerk? Well, here's one important component, I think: Sweeties feel responsible for the well-being of the people around them. These can be strangers who drop a folder full of papers, job applicants who are being interviewed, their own friends and family.

In my effort to move myself a little be more in the right direction along the jerk-sweetie spectrum, I am trying to stir up in myself more of that feeling of responsibility and to remind myself of my fallible smallness.


Paul Gowder said...

hmm... three possible issues.

1. Some people are genuinely important in a comparative sense... Barack Obama, for example, probably wouldn't count as a jerk if he got pissed off at a post office line. He has better things to do. I daresay I wouldn't object if he cut in front of me (though I'd probably give him a piece of my mind about his various presidential failures in the process).

2. How do we distinguish demanding preferential treatment from objecting to BS that everyone suffers? I might get angry in the post office line, but think (accurately?) that anger is not a result of having to stand in line with the human cattle around me, but that all of us -- including me and everyone else in line equally -- is being treated like cattle, having our time wasted, etc., by an inefficient and/or malicious bureaucracy (e.g. the DMV).

Yet do we really have enough introspective self-knowledge to know whether this outrage is on everyone's behalf or just our own? And what about when we complain about it, and our fellow sufferers don't agree? Does it make me a jerk that I complain about a line everyone suffers, and other people in the same line are more willing to wait patiently?

3. What if the world really is full of idiots (also, I take it, in a comparative sense)? Suppose one has gotten the correct result on the Wason selection task, and knows almost nobody else has? Does the truth of the belief insulate it from being a symptom of jerkiness?

(Am I being a jerk right now?)

Paul Gowder said...

Oh, also, what if jerkish behavior is just a response to morally neutral brute luck? Suppose, for example, that another driver and I both want the same parking space. As a matter of pure luck, he is closer to the space. So I hit the gas and cut him off. Am I doing something jerky? After all, he hasn't done anything to earn the parking space... yet it kind of feels jerky, for some reason. It's not clear why, though. One need not gun it and grab the space with the thought "I'm superior to that loser, I want the space." Rather, one might just have the thought "we're equals, but, unfortunately, one of us has to lose. I'd rather it be him." Is that as jerky a thought as the "I'm superior" thought?

Paul Gowder said...

And still one more thought (yikes, this post is fascinating). Maybe the cue as to whether to believe one's importance excuse is whether or not you could offer it as a reason to other people? An ER doctor could say "I've got to get back to the ER and save lives," and (hopefully) most people in line would accept it and let him cut, so the ER doctor might get a free pass from jerkiness when he cuts in line in a circumstance where he can't communicate with others (like the freeway off-ramp of your previous post)?

But then how do we avoid self-deception about whether others would buy our reasons?

Andy McKenzie said...

Hey, interesting post and I agree the issue is important. However, I think (sort of like Paul) that often the most pertinent question is to what extent acting like a jerk in this one case will end up being the probabilistic long-run utilitarian outcome, because of the increased productivity you'll have.

There are examples on the jerk side of the spectrum. Ghandi was often said to be kind of an asshole in person, but that's probably because he had stuff to do.

But more interesting are examples on the sweetie side of the spectrum. Doing nice things for people you know personally, spending a lot of time thinking about how to make their lives slightly better, this is nice, but contra "pay it forward" theories, it doesn't scale. Often being a sweetie is not the best thing for the world for you to do, I think.

But in general acting more towards the jerk side of the spectrum is taking a risk. You'd better be doing actually useful things with your increased productivity.

Matt Zwolinski said...

Interesting post, Eric! One interesting feature of the characterization you've given here is that sweetieness and jerkhood are not incompatible. But to me, that actually sounds right. What you get when you combine them is the kind of person who thinks she's responsible for the welfare of those around him *because* she's so important and *because* they're such idiots. Hmm. Perhaps jerkhood-cum-sweetieness is a characteristic feature of the political personality?

Kapitano said...

The notion that "I am important but downtrodden" and the notion that "Everyone else is an idiot getting preferential treatment" - aren't these really just two sides of the same idea?

I suggest a jerk is simply someone who doesn't think other people are important. One jerk might rationalise this belief by saying they (the jerk) are highly intelligent or so beautiful the rules of others don't apply to them. Or they might come up with the alternate rationalisation that everyone else in the queue must be dumb or maliciously inconveniencing them.

But the point is, the rationalisation doesn't matter. It's just a half-formed justification for a belief which already exists.

A jerk then, is someone who lacks empathy for those they have no specific reason to care about. Which places them halfway between a normal person and a sociopath.

G. Randolph Mayes said...

I agree with Kapitano's reduction. Possibly there is something midway between the jerk and the sociopath- call him (and jerks are always male aren't they?) the 'real jerk' who simply doesn't think about other people at all. So, like Nietzsche's ubermensch, it's not that he thinks he's better than others, because he doesn't even have any inclination to recognize the existence of other people's perspectives in the first place. (He does have the capacity, though, which makes him not an ubermensch and not a sociopath.)

The other thing that I think is worth adding to this discussion, especially in a blog called The Splintered Mind, is the idea that selves are splintered. Every man has a jerk inside him, and presumably because that creature is needed to perform traditionally manly chores for which sympathy for your fellow being would be a distinct impediment. So a jerk on this view is someone whose inner jerk runs the show.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the comments, folks!

@ Paul: On 1: yes. But we need to be cautious about this in our own cases, because we are apt (I think) to have self-serving biases regarding the importance of our own work. On 2: The difference, I think, is whether you feel angry on behalf of others as well as yourself. I agree that our introspective self-knowledge of this is not likely to be especially good (especially if our introspective judgment issues in a self-flattering result) On 3: I tend to be something of an intellectual egalitarian, looking broadly at what counts as intelligence. Although some of us might be better at the abstract logic of the Wason selection task than others, (a.) we are probably stupid in lots of other ways, and (b.) try parsing in real time an abstract, context-less sentence with three negatives or with a conditional, a negation, and a disjunction, and you'll probably feel the pull of how few abstract operations you can reliably string together.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Paul, cont.: For your second two comments, I will go dispositional. It's a question of how much of a tendency there is in that direction, across circumstances.

Emergency room doctors (esp. in third-world countries) are an interesting case. One wants to give them a free pass, but also one wants (I think) to give them a pass for taking a day off even if that means two people will die who otherwise wouldn't. Giving them a pass on the second is, I think, somewhat in tension with giving them a pass on the first.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Andy: I think that you can't be entirely wrong about that -- but I also think that this utilitarian-style reasoning is really ripe for self-serving rationalization. I'm inclined to think that unless the utilitarian justification is extremely obvious and compelling, we're better off disregarding it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Matt: Interesting thought! I think there's a tension, but you're right there are odd cases where they can come together. (So I should probably not think of it as a "spectrum".)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Kapitano: Nicely put. I'm inclined to think that the underlying psychology of it is fairly unified, perhaps along exactly the lines you suggest -- which is why "jerk" is a unitary term. But the phenomenological manifestations of that psychology are variable, e.g., "I'm important" (positive and primarily self-directed, even if implicitly comparative), "those idiots" (negative and primarily other-directed, even if implicitly comparative).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Randy: I am inclined to agree with your second point, though perhaps there are rare exceptional cases. You're entirely right about how that fits with my own general perspective on the mind, as reflected in the blog's title.

Your first point seems somewhat in tension with your second point, though: Just as (almost) everyone has the inner jerk, almost everyone has the inner sweetie which sometimes comes out. Someone who is never a sweetie probably doesn't really have the capacity for sweetieness -- and is probably, then, already a sociopath or near enough.

G. Randolph Mayes said...

Eric, I agree about the tension. I wonder why you think of a sweetie as being the opposite of a jerk. I like the opposition you create in the other post between a jerk and a sucker, though perhaps the best opposition is between a jerk and a doormat. Sweetiness may not be a virtue in the sense of capturing the mean between those two extremes, but it does seem to me to lie somewhere between them on the continuum. The sweetie seems to me to be more the opposite of the cynic, who will share some phenomenological traits with the jerk, but often not exhibit jerkish behavior and ultimately finding egoistic rationales to behave decently.

Also, given your empirical orientation, it surprises me that you expressed doubt about the ability to produce evidence of jerkhood. It seem to me that all you need to do is ask 20 or so people who know him well to rate the subjects jerkhood on a Likert scale and take the average. Maybe want you are dubious of is that this evidence would convince a jerk that he is a jerk.

Anyway, great topic!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Randy! Clearly, I will have to think through the sweetie-doormat-sucker side of the equation a bit better; the positive side of the story has been secondary to my thoughts about jerks, but clearly a full account of jerkhood is going to involve more detail about the one or more opposites.

As for the empirical test you mention, I'm inclined to think that it would be a fairly good first-pass measure, especially if the respondents were people of lower social status than the jerk. However, the jerk will probably just think they are a bunch of idiots! (Or otherwise rationalize away the results.)

Autumnal Harvest said...

These tests are seriously flawed, as they too easily produce false positives. For example, my research is so important that by any reasonable, objective measure, I am actually more important than most people - for me to deny this would be nothing more than false modesty. And since I have a genius-level IQ, it's natural that I would consider most people I meet to be idiots - after all, compared to me, they are. So your tests would actually classify me as a jerk!

However, if you can fix this problem of false positives, your tests could be useful. It turns out that a lot of the people I work with are not only jerks, but actually get angry when I point out that they're jerks. It would definitely be useful if there was a clear test that could actually demonstrate to people with such stunning lack of self-awareness that they are, in fact, jerks.

nonny said...

Not bad. I will be able to use these early intuitions in my own work which finds its inspiration in the logoi of Heraclitus. Reference to you will be buried in remote footnotes. That will curdle the milk of your sweetness, bud.

dotJenna said...

You are describing a narcissist, aren't you? Sounds like it to me. Nice article. :)

Ruth said...

I think condition 1 might be too strong. I think someone can be a jerk simply by failing to take the perspective of other people. In other words, you might treat other people a little bit more like objects than like the people they are. This is not the same as thinking you are especially important, although I agree that that is a particularly offensive form of jerkiness. There are two ways this could go wrong; you could be bad at attending to other people, or you could fail to be motivated by other people when you do attend to them. If you are truly unable to take perspectives or be motivated by them, then I would say you are a non-culpable jerk. If you simply refuse to attend to other people's perspectives, or if you know perfectly well how they feel but don't care at all, you are a culpable jerk. I think there is a big grey area in between, and I hypothesize that it is non-empty.

A good example of this is the author of Look Me In the Eye, who self-diagnoses (with some help from his friend) with Asperger's. If you read the book, you'd see he knows full well the effects of say, digging a deep pit in the front yard and tossing in his brother. He does not have deficits in mind-reading. (Aversion to eye-gaze is very common and is not by itself evidence of Asperger's.) He simply is not motivated by his brother's suffering. He finds it funny, and believes it is wrong, but the suffering doesn't bother him enough to not do it. I would say that this more like sociopathy; his risk-taking behavior is more consistent with that. And sociopaths are, for very small values, jerks. For larger values, they become psychopaths who don't mind even very large amounts of suffering on the part of others if it suits the psychopath's needs.

Most children would be classified as jerks, by the way, to the extent to which you could hold them responsible for attending to others and being motivated by their perspective. They don't have to have a sense of entitlement to be jerks; they simply have to be at the age where they can recognize that other people have a perspective, a set of interests, capacity for suffering, but fail to take it into account, the way that lots of people who are being initiated into a moral code. You know when your kid is being a jerk.

Jerks, like kids, are often impulsive people; I would say this is a sub-type of jerk, a type susceptible to guilt more than Class A Entitled Jerks or Class B Indifferent Jerks. Class C Impulsive jerks experience regret frequently; I think they are also more remediable.

There are a lot of dudes in this conversation. I do not know what this means.


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Ruth said...

I'm sorry that my comment got posted FOUR times! I feel like a jerk.

I would also add that jerky kids are often called brats; a spoiled brat is a jerky kid who has been taught to be a jerk by indulgent parents that do not push back when the child refuses to treat other people as people OR is just a young Class I Entitled Jerk. I think spoiled brats are always self-consciously manipulative; ordinary brats are just habitually manipulative.

Someone mentioned that only men can be jerks; I don't think this is true. Sometimes jerky women get called "bitches", but that connotes meanness, which I do not think is a prerequisite for being a jerk. I do think the term tends to get applied more to men though.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Very interesting comments, Ruth! I'm not sure about liberalizing "jerk" to include all people who fail to take others' perspectives (with the consequence that most children are jerks) -- but this might be a vague matter of where to draw the lines for mushy folk-psychological terms. I'm inclined to think that simply failing to take others' perspectives (or to take into account others' welfare), when it's not *otherwise* culpable is mere thoughtlessness, and although many jerks are often thoughtless, one can be merely thoughtless without consequently being a jerk.

I'm inclined to agree with you, too, that the gender typing of "jerk" is accidental and should be abstracted away from philosophical usage. "Bitch" has a somewhat different flavor. Aaron James at UC Irvine has been doing interesting work on "assholes" and "bitches" -- but I don't know if any of it is in print yet.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Here's perhaps another aspect of the phenomenology: an acute sense of the need to redress perceived injustices to oneself.

Jordan said...

Another way to assess whether you're being a jerk, perhaps?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting set of questions! I think that probably does somewhat capture the phenomenology of being a
"difficult person". Thanks for the link, Jordan.

Snuze said...

I like how you quantify the jerk characteristics; the rest of us would only have qualitative description.

I hope you don't mind that I blog on this post of yours and share it with some of my friends.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Of course, Snuze! Thanks for the kind comment.