Wednesday, September 21, 2016

How to Tell If You're a Jerk

[excerpted from my new essay in Nautilus]

Here’s something you probably didn’t do this morning: Look in the mirror and ask, am I a jerk?

It seems like a reasonable question. There are, presumably, genuine jerks in the world. And many of those jerks, presumably, have a pretty high moral opinion of themselves, or at least a moderate opinion of themselves. They don’t think of themselves as jerks, because jerk self-knowledge is hard to come by.

Psychologist Simine Vazire at the University of California, Davis argues that we tend to have good self-knowledge of our own traits when those traits are both evaluatively neutral (in the sense that it’s not especially good or bad to have those traits), and straightforwardly observable.

For example, people tend to know whether they are talkative. It’s more or less okay to be talkative and more or less okay to be quiet, and in any case your degree of talkativeness is pretty much out there for everyone to see. Self-ratings of talkativeness tend to correlate fairly well with peer ratings and objective measures. Creativity, on the other hand, is a much more evaluatively loaded trait—who doesn’t want to think of themselves as creative?—and much less straightforward to assess. In keeping with Vazire’s model, we find poor correlations among self-ratings, peer ratings, and psychologists’ attempts at objective measures of creativity.

The question “am I really, truly a self-important jerk?” is highly evaluatively loaded, so you will be highly motivated to reach a favored answer: “No, of course not!” Being a jerk is also not straightforwardly observable, so you will have plenty of room to reinterpret evidence to suit: “Sure, maybe I was a little grumpy with that cashier, but she deserved it for forgetting to put my double shot in a tall cup.”

Academically intelligent people, by the way, aren’t immune to motivated reasoning. On the contrary, recent research by Dan M. Kahan of Yale University suggests that reflective and educated people might be especially skilled at rationalizing their preexisting beliefs—for example, interpreting complicated evidence about gun control in a manner that fits their political preferences.

I suspect there is a zero correlation between people’s self-opinion about their degree of jerkitude and their true overall degree of jerkitude. Some recalcitrant jerks might recognize that they are so, but others might think themselves quite dandy. Some genuine sweethearts might fully recognize how sweet they are, while others might have far too low an opinion of their own moral character.

There’s another obstacle to jerk self-knowledge, too: We don’t yet have a good understanding of the essence of jerkitude—not yet, at least. There is no official scientific designation that matches the full range of ordinary application of the term “jerk” to the guy who rudely cuts you off in line, the teacher who casually humiliates the students, and the co-worker who turns every staff meeting into a battle.

The scientifically recognized personality categories closest to “jerk” are the “dark triad” of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathic personality. Narcissists regard themselves as more important than the people around them, which jerks also implicitly or explicitly do. And yet narcissism is not quite jerkitude, since it also involves a desire to be the center of attention, a desire that jerks don’t always have. Machiavellian personalities tend to treat people as tools they can exploit for their own ends, which jerks also do. And yet this too is not quite jerkitude, since Machivellianism involves self-conscious cynicism, while jerks can often be ignorant of their self-serving tendencies. People with psychopathic personalities are selfish and callous, as is the jerk, but they also incline toward impulsive risk-taking, while jerks can be calculating and risk-averse.

Another related concept is the concept of the asshole, as explored recently by the philosopher Aaron James of the University of California, Irvine. On James’s theory, assholes are people who allow themselves to enjoy special advantages over others out of an entrenched sense of entitlement. Although this is closely related to jerkitude, again it’s not quite the same thing. One can be a jerk through arrogant and insulting behavior even if one helps oneself to no special advantages.

Given the many roadblocks standing in the way, what is a potential jerk interested in self-evaluation to do?

Find out what to do by continuing here.


Coming soon: The Jerk Quiz!

Related essay: A Theory of Jerks (Aeon Magazine, Jun 4, 2014).

[image source: Paul Sableman, creative commons]


howard b said...

Why can't people be jerks occasionally, either based on the situation, with whom their dealing or some kind of Freudian regression?
While the dark triad is across the board, it seems that Jerkitude like being an asshole might be situational in some sense.

Callan S. said...

Ignoring the hyperbole of the final questions and just looking at the facts, couldn't those facts actually be true? Maybe not in #3, but even there the person may have given up trying to fend for themselves and instead lives like a child and the observation might factually apply in a rough way (ie, presented as a Venn diagram the circle for the observation has some partial overlap over the circle for a genuine issue)

Of course jerks generally parasitise anyones inclination to give the benefit of the doubt and evaluate the claim, simply using the capacity to make a claim like a maul by making them without being critical of what they are saying - almost a Tourettes like inclination to state negatives evaluations, which potentially bludgeon things that don't benefit them out of their way (an evolutionary benefit). So a kind of 'cry wolf' effect occurs in those hearing them, when there could indeed be a wolf involved.

Callan S. said...

Jerks seem to focus on judging others (to the point of forgetting their own existence), rather than in self evaluating/judging themselves.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Howard B -- I agree with all that. I tried to be clear about that in the full-length piece.

Callan S -- Sometimes things are like that, of course. The problem is in defaulting so quickly into assuming that they are. On your second point -- yes, I think that's part of the syndrome!

Callan S. said...

Dang, first comment was meant to go to the quiz posting - I fails internet!

The problem is in defaulting so quickly into assuming that they are.

Why, if it is the case?

I'm pretty sure you're alluding to simply exhibiting a jerk like attitude oneself in defaulting into treating them as having no interest in self evaluation, Eric. But surely this isn't fair - some assumptions are like a crude knot - tight and takes ages to undo. And some assumptions are like a bow - they have a string and if it is pulled, the bow comes undone. It is possible to assume jerks have no interest in self reflection in a bow like way - there is a string that has some kind of disapproval method for the assumption, and if pulled/the disproval is met, the bow comes undone. There's also a problem in defaulting so quickly into assuming all assumptions are knots, as well!

howie berman said...

The idea for psychopathy comes from clinical observation and narcissism comes from mythology by way of clinical observation- is there any epistemic weaknesses from an idea being derived from pop psychology?
Do you envision being an asshole or jerk entering into DSM?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan -- cool. I like the knot/bow analogy. Yes, bow-like assumptions about people's personalities seem best!

Howie -- Not DSM, of course! I'd say "ordinary usage" rather than "pop psychology". I think a lot of implicit wisdom can be hidden in ordinary usage (as J.L. Austin argued, e.g. in A Plea for Excuses).