The secret behind why so many people are jerks (and how to get rid of them)
April 8, 2015
It seems more and more that people are jerks for no particular reason. People bump into you without saying sorry. They won't move over when you want to sit down on the bus. They cut you off in traffic or drive close behind you. In this article, we talk about why we have this persistent perception, how to get rid of it and consequently, how to have a happier and more enriching life.
Unfiled: this is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.
Have you ever had one of those days in which you reflect on the fact that a dismayingly high proportion of people appear to have no regard for their peers? I know I have. Quite often it seems, people are jerks for no particular reason. Cutting you off when you’re driving. Not letting you cross the road as a pedestrian. Serving your food or checking-out your groceries in such a manner that leaves one feeling as though you interrupted their very important and busy day with your inconvenient need to eat. It’s enough to lose faith in the inherent goodness of humanity. Well perhaps not, but it certainly can seem dispiriting at times. In this article, I want to explore how, through the failings of two naïve psychologists, we stumbled across a little known secret that explains this disheartening perception. Victor Harris and Ed Jones were trying to test Correspondent inference theory. Some big words, but essentially the theory tried to explain how people decided why people do the things they do (e.g. how I might determine whether someone’s buying a beer to brown-nose or because they’re being generous). Unfortunately, Correspondent inference theory was a little optimistic and the experiment went correspondingly awry (see what I did there?).They gave their participants either pro- or anti-Fidel Castro essays. They then told them they the writer either chosen their position (pro or anti), or it had been decided for them via a coin toss (I.e. By chance). Harris and Jones then asked the participants to rate the writer’s actual feelings toward Castro. Obviously, in a perfect world (and according to our boys’ prediction), the participants would rate those who wrote pro-Castro due to the coin toss as being no more pro-Castro than those who were forced to write an anti-Castro essay. And because the world is inconveniently capricious they were super wrong. In fact, the participants rated those forced to write the pro-Castro essay as significantly more pro-Casto as those forced to write the anti-Castro essay. In 1967, Jones and Harris tripped over what is now commonly known as the fundamental attribution bias. These participants placed very little importance on the situational factors (the context) and instead attributed the actions of the writers to their personal characteristics (their fundamental nature). Unfortunately, this is a bias that very many of us suffer from. We are far more likely to assume people do what they do because of who they are and not consider what else could be going on for the person. What that means is that, positive or negative, we are probably making a great number of incorrect judgements about people all the time which has some harrowing implications.