We all know a bad-mouther: The person who says something nasty about nearly everyone at the office, the member of your extended family who insults everyone regardless of relatedness, or the guy in your local community who capitalizes on every opportunity to share how stupid, inept, and hypocritical someone else is.
Bad-mouthers are out there and they have teeth.
As members of a species that so strongly values trust, agreeableness, and reciprocal altruism (see Trivers, 1971), it makes you wonder: How do these people get away with it? What is it about the social strategy of bringing others down that works?
The Basic Elements of Bad-Mouthing
The socially strategic foundation of bad-mouthing is to bring others down and create an uneasy environment. If Joe always casts insults on half the people in his workplace, then you'd better be careful around him lest you become his next target. This behavioral vigilance that Joe creates in others empowers him—potentially allowing him to have an outsize influence on how things go. Joe's power may largely stem from fear and intimidation, an approach to social interactions often framed as the Machiavellian side of the Dark Triad (see Jonason et al. 2015), a cluster of anti-social traits that typifies a manipulative and intimidating social strategy.
Why Bad-Mouthing Exists
Bad-mouthing can only endure if it’s effective—leading to beneficial social outcomes for the bad-mouther. And, for better or worse, a great deal of research has shown that Machiavellian behavior such as bad-mouthing often does lead to success in various domains, such as the worlds of mating or the workplace (see Geher & Kaufman, 2013).
Following are three reasons that a bad-mouthing social strategy exists, in spite of its obviously unpleasant nature:
1. Bad-mouthing is a route to social power.
By gaining a reputation as someone who will throw his or her own mother under the bus, a bad-mouther can gain social power via creating a fearful environment. It’s socially risky to mess with bad-mouthers and they capitalize on this fact.
2. Bad-mouthers exude confidence, a basic catalyst to social success.
Confidence leads to success across a variety of life domains (see Geher & Kaufman, 2013), often regardless of whether it is warranted. And a strategy of putting others down often goes hand-in-hand with conspicuous displays of confidence.
3. Bad-mouthers may find themselves in leadership positions.
Putting others down as a strategy toward benefiting oneself may well turn up leadership opportunities—which increase the power of the bad-mouther.
Kinder Routes to Social Success
There are other paths to success: Kind qualities, for example, are consistently found to be as important in social partners, evident in human populations across the globe (see Buss, 2003). Various forms of prosocial behavior are foundational to who we are (see Geher, 2014).
Does it pay to be someone who gains social power by creating a social world of fear and intimidation? Yes, it can. But are there other routes to social success, such as building others up rather than tearing them down? Absolutely.
Next time you talk with the bad-mouther in your life, think twice about empowering him or her. Remember: Other-oriented behavior is ultimately the foundation that human social behavior rests upon.
Buss, D.M. (2003). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating. New York: Basic Books.
Jonason, P.K., Lyons, M., & Blanchard, A. (2015). Birds of a “bad” feather flock together: The Dark Triad traits and mate choice. Personality and Individual Differences, 78, 34-38.
Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35–57.