The secret behind why so many people are jerks (and how to get rid of them) cover image

The secret behind why so many people are jerks (and how to get rid of them)

Dorian Minors • April 8, 2015

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.
"Here ma'am, my girlfriend called, so I couldn't be bothered to plate up your schnitzel. I brought you this dead rabbit instead." Photo courtesy of Jennifer MacNeill (Flickr)

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?).

“We place very little importance on the situational factors that cause people to act and instead tend to attribute actions to their personality, so that someone cutting you off becomes about their general selfishness and not about their being late for an important meeting.”
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.

Why do we do this?

Well, we talk about the brain being a shortcut machine quite often here. It’s thought that the brain just plain can’t be bothered to figure out the vagaries of your average person’s context and instead concentrates on the salience (psych-speak for importance) of the person, since the that's easier. It’s also definitely a cultural thing. In individualised cultures like ours, we place far more importance on the person. In more collectivist cultures that one finds in places like Asia, the bias starts to disappear (although a similar phenomenon called the correspondence bias, in which one makes judgements about one’s disposition based on their behaviour remains constant).
Think of all the great relationships and opportunities that are missed every day because we're all out of tune with what our own brain does. Photo courtesy of Hamed Masoumi (Flickr)  Think of all the great relationships and opportunities that are missed every day because we're all out of tune with what our own brain does. Photo courtesy of Hamed Masoumi (Flickr)

How can we fix it?

It is a bit worrying that this occurs so frequently. Think how many people you dismiss based on your own flawed presumptions. Think how much more stressful driving is due to your brain’s habit of jumping to conclusions. How can we fix it? It’s not easy, but we’ve talked about it before. Correspondence inference theory ties into (and is sort of the predecessor of) Attribution theory, which we’ve spoken about before. Using attribution theory as sort of a checklist (and we’ve broken it down for you here), we can step in the middle of these kind of shortcut judgements we make and instead realised that shitty behaviours are probably more to do with the context than the person. It won’t simmer us down immediately, but it’ll certainly help us get a grip on ourselves and take back control of something very important; whether we do or whether we don’t like people. Possibly even more importantly, being aware of the fundamental attribution bias might make you consider that you’re constantly being judged by those around you. You can’t stop it, but maybe having a think about what you’re doing looks like might mean the difference between that first kiss, that networking success or that special moment with your kid. Think about it. Now you've read about this shortcut, maybe you want to read about another brain shortcut that might determine how successful you are, based on your friends? Or maybe the mental shortcuts that have you getting into trouble with your partners, friends and family? Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology. Thumbnail image courtesy of Marina Monaco (Flickr)

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.