The Anatomy of Assholes

A deep dive into the personalities we love to hate.

Posted Aug 29, 2020

Da Vinci / Vitruvian Man / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Source: Da Vinci / Vitruvian Man / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

A lot has been written about assholes over the years (for example, see Bob Sutton's terrific book on surviving assholes in the workplace). But what is an asshole, really? What are the traits and characteristics of those whom we typically deem "asshole" in polite society? How do we differentiate between different asshole types? Who are not assholes?

In this post, I'll present a framework for answering these questions that I refer to as the "asshole circumplex." This framework will hopefully clarify these issues and allow you to see in a single framework how all different personality types contrast with each other, and the neurobiological substrates that may underlie the different personality types. 

Let's probe the latest personality science and pinpoint the assholes.

The Duality of Human Existence

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?" —Rabbi Hillel

Throughout the history of psychology, two main ways of being in the world have been discussed and studied. William James, the father of American psychology, used the terms "tough-minded" and "tender-minded." In his 1966 book, The Duality of Human Existence, psychologist David Bakan emphasized the importance of integrating "agency" and "communion."

According to Bakan, agency involves self-protection, self-assertion, separation, and isolation, whereas communion involves participation, contact, openness, unity, and “non-contractual cooperation.” Instead of being at odds with each other, Bakan argued that optimal mental health requires a state in which “there is a coalescence between charity and self-interest, between communion and agency.”

Despite the different terms that have been used, psychologists have over and over again found that one fundamental psychological dimension (agency, competence, tough-minded) revolves around self-enhancement, self-interest, goal pursuit, and achievement, whereas another fundamental dimension (communion, tender-minded) revolves around other-focus, social bonding, and a desire for social acceptance, connection, and community building.

Consistent with Bakan's argument, both agency and communion show distinct, positive implications for social functioning, health, and well-being. Those with a higher agency in life show greater independence, assertiveness, and constructive use of anger, display less emotional distress and anxious attachment, and are embedded in more supportive social networks. Complementarily, those with higher communion are more comfortable with social relationships, are unlikely to experience problems when in relationships, and are more likely to have support available when under distress. It’s clear that both of these dimensions of human existence can be in great harmony with each other, leading to greater growth and wholeness.

However, when either communion or agency becomes too great relative to the other—either we focus too much on others at the expense of the self, or we focus too much on the self at the expense of others—there can be serious negative consequences for the self and for others. Psychologists have begun to chart out the health and well-being consequences of unmitigated communion (overinvolvement in people’s problems). However, equally as important, psychologists over the past 20 years have also started to glean a clear picture of those with extremely high, unmitigated agency (overdominance and control over others). Both unmitigated communion and unmitigated agency have been linked with poor health, anger, and relationship problems

To visually wrap our heads around how these two fundamental dimensions of human existence can interact with each other, we can consult the "interpersonal circumplex," which combines agency (on the vertical axis) and communion (on the horizontal axis) to yield eight personality “types.” I have taken the liberty (grounded in science) to adapt the interpersonal circumplex for our purposes and created "The Asshole Circumplex":

Scott Barry Kaufman / Illustrator: Andy Ogden
Source: Scott Barry Kaufman / Illustrator: Andy Ogden

The Asshole Circumplex

There's a lot to unpack in the graphic above. Let's go.

First, note that if you lack compassion, that doesn't necessarily make you an asshole. It just makes you "cold-hearted." One surprising large meta-analysis found that a lack of empathy is only weakly related to the presence of aggression. This finding was even surprising to the researchers, but that's the point of science.

In recent years, it has become clear that the arrogant/antagonistic location on the interpersonal circumplex is close to the core of the “Dark Triad” of the malevolent personality—narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism—representing a highly unmitigated flavor of agency. While each one of the members of the Dark Triad has their own unique flavor, the “dark core" involves a mix of cold-heartedness, dishonesty/manipulation, and exploitation/aggression.

Again, note that just cold-heartedness is not enough—there are plenty of people who, on average, have very low levels of compassion but don’t have the drive to constantly exploit and dominate others. According to A.J. Figueredo and W. Jake Jacobs, the core of darkness is best characterized by its “antagonistic social strategies”: seeing others as objects to be exploited or rivals to be defeated.

This description reminds me of the "I-It" mode of existence that the philosopher Martin Buber talked about in the 1930s, which involves seeing people as objects to be used or experienced, but not to be related to or connected with in any reciprocal way.

This zero-sum mindset—to gain, others have to lose—can be viewed as a rational response to experiencing extreme harshness and unpredictability, where one must secure scarce resources in the present. Also, it must be emphasized that throughout our daily lives, we all ebb and flow in and out of these characteristics depending on the situation, our mood, and who we are interacting with.

Nevertheless, some of us do tend to inhabit these patterns of thinking and behaving more frequently than others in our daily lives, and those who consistently do so are typically labeled as "assholes." If you’re curious about your average level of dark core traits, I have found in my research that these eight statements almost perfectly correlate with more comprehensive measures of the dark core:

The Dark Core (A Callous and Manipulative Orientation Toward Others)

  • I’m pretty good at manipulating people.
  • It’s fine to take advantage of persons to get ahead.
  • I deserve to receive special treatment.
  • I don’t worry about others’ needs.
  • Others say I brag too much, but everything I say is true.
  • I hate being criticized so much that I can’t control my temper when it happens.
  • When someone does something nice for me, I wonder what they want from me.
  • I will try almost anything to get my “thrills.”

In the asshole circumplex, we can actually make some more finely grained distinctions within the asshole space. If you're in the space between cold-hearted and arrogant/antagonistic, you are more likely to be the sort of "callous asshole" who thinks they are entitled to everything good in the world and just doesn't care about the suffering of others. If you're in the space between arrogant/antagonistic and assertive/confident, you are more likely to be the sort of "dominant asshole" who is obsessed with social status, money, power, achievement, and "crushing the competition at all costs."  

If you are in the space between cold-hearted and aloof/distant, you are more likely to be the sort of "quiet asshole" who feels entitled to everything good, but who is quieter about it. You constantly harbor revenge fantasies in your head. You resent others who are more successful or who have what you lack. You are almost completely self-absorbed in thinking about your own suffering and vulnerability, and you are constantly "highly sensitive" to even the slightest criticisms or perceived sleights.

Who's not an asshole?

While we were able to pinpoint the spaces in the asshole circumplex where you are likely to be perceived as an "asshole" in polite society, it's also interesting to think about the other spaces and how they contrast. If you consult the graphic again, you'll notice that being an asshole of any type is not the same as simply being extraverted or introverted. In modern personality research, extraversion occupies the space between assertive/confident and friendly/enthusiastic. It's entirely possible to have high agency and not be an asshole about it.

In fact, from a neurobiological perspective, mere high agency can be distinguished from assholery. Whereas one's placement on the assertiveness dimension is more tied to the sensitivity to incentive reward and the drive associated with dopamine (see here, here, and here), testosterone is more likely to underlie one's placement on the asshole spaces, particularly the "dominant asshole" space (see here, here, and here). 

Also, it's possible that you are simply more of the quiet, introverted type, but you are not a "quiet asshole" or even a "pushover." In fact, you can be introverted and not even be "nice" (but not be an asshole). I think the asshole circumplex helps clarify all of these fine distinctions. Note that the pushover space in the asshole circumplex lies between unassured/submissive and polite/unassuming (pushovers turn the other cheek when there is any sort of disagreement or confrontation, failing to stand up for themselves even when they're clearly in the right), and the "nice person" lies in the space between polite/unassuming and compassionate.

The "nice" space—which is tied to the notion of "agreeableness" in personality psychology—is interesting from a neurobiological perspective. Research suggests that a "nice" person has a greater ability to suppress aggressive impulses and other socially disruptive emotions, and is more likely to activate brain regions in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex associated with emotion regulation. Therefore, the nice person may act polite and agreeable not just because they are compassionate, but because they are really good at self-control.

Similarly, considering what we know about the neurobiology of the dominant asshole, the pushover—who is on the other end of the dominant asshole axis—may be associated with extremely low levels of testosterone. Further research in the emerging field of "personality neuroscience" will have to be conducted before firmer conclusions along those lines can be made. 

Moving right along the asshole circumplex, we can see that if you are in the space between compassionate and friendly/enthusiastic, you are "affiliative." People who are affiliative are warm and affectionate in their social lives. One's placement on the affiliation dimension predicts variation in opiate functioning in response to affiliative stimuli, which makes sense considering that the opiate system is critical for affiliative bonding. It's likely that oxytocin also plays a role in one's placement on in the affiliative space considering that this neuropeptide is involved in affiliative bonding (see here and here). 

Phew! That was quite the deep dive into assholes. But I hope you found this elucidating and clarifying. There are so many implications of the asshole circumplex for our understanding of gender relations, and for our understanding of the current political conflicts we are seeing in America and around the world. But I'll just leave those topics to later posts because there is already more than enough to process here on the fascinating dynamic of communion and agency, two fundamental and interconnected dimensions of the human experience.