Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Do You Allow Yourself to Be Bullied and Gaslit?

How your conscientious reflex allows people to get away with barking at you.

  • Conscientious people tend to back down when other people bark and snarl at them.
  • Bullies figure out what words get conscientious people to back down and hammer away with them, often without thinking about their meaning.
  • Conscientious people tend to take a bully's words to heart, even when the words are meaningless.
  • To decide when not to listen to someone who is seemingly angry at you, consider that you shouldn't pay more attention to the meaning of someone's words than they do.

It’s good to be conscientious but it does leave us vulnerable to exploitation by total jerks. Conscientious people tend to back down and back off when other people bark and snarl at them. It’s a reflex and jerks will exploit it.

Conscientious people try to curb their tendency to get defensive when people criticize them. They recognize that their confirmation bias – the tendency to deflect challenges – is their responsibility to manage. They want to stay receptive, consider other people’s opinions, and make adjustments to accommodate others. They think everyone deserves to be heard. We should give people the benefit of the doubt, to really try to understand everybody. That’s compassion. That’s empathy. Conscientious people embrace that kind of respect as a universal virtue.

Trouble is, it’s not universal. Some people don’t deserve to be heard, not when they’re just barking and snarling, not caring what they say, not caring what their words mean.

People can fall into a barking, snarling habit. It’s easy. Get outraged about something – anything. Bark and snarl at others and feel holy as a result. The more they bark and snarl, the more holy they feel. The more holy they feel, the more they bark and snarl. It’s a vicious cycle that can turn people into narcissistic, gaslighting jerks who don’t care about the meaning of their words, just braying whatever they can get away with.

Given the conscientious reflex, they can get away with it.

How People Take Advantage of the Conscientious Reflex

Lots of people wonder how they ended up gaslit and bullied for so long in some terrible relationships. The conscientiousness reflex helps explain it. Someone comes at you, commanding voice, drama, assertive insistence, a boss, a partner, and you end up ceding ground without meaning to. It’s just a reflex.

Whole nations have fallen under dictators because conscientious citizens committed to civility get cowed by the barking and snarling even when barking and snarling is all it is.

So long as a dictator gets away with making people cower, they don’t have to pay attention to what they’re saying. So long as conscientious people take a jerk’s words to heart, the jerk doesn’t have to think about the meaning of their words.

They become de-meaning, stripping the meaning off of words, just snarling whatever at the well-meaning. It’s terribly effective – terrible for the conscientious; effective for the total jerks. The jerks smell blood. By trial and error, they figure out which barks and snarls get conscientious people to back down. They hammer away at what works.

In 1977, psychologist Ellen Langer did a study that exposed what I’m calling the conscientious reflex. She tested which of three requests made people in line for a copy machine let people cut in front of them:

Version 1 (request only): “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”

Version 2 (request with a real reason): “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I'm in a rush?”

Version 3 (request with a fake reason): “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”

The result was that 93% of subjects let the researchers cut in line based on the third reason, which was no reason at all.

Meaningless earnestness works to a remarkable degree. What they say about public speaking – that presentation counts far more than words – applies to bullying too. We’ll tend to take a heartless and indeed mindless bully’s words to heart with undue receptivity.

Bravado is enough to get conscientious people to back down. We don’t want trouble and we’ve cultivated in ourselves the patience to think before fighting back which gives the bully long enough to barge through our boundaries before we know it.

The Limits of Conscientiousness

My conscientiousness mantra has long been, “Don’t want to be a jerk? Expect some anxiety.” I don’t subscribe to the notion that you shouldn’t care what other people think. Of course, you should care. I’m not the authority on who I am. Sure, I’m up close and personal with myself, but that cuts both ways on self-knowledge. My intimacy with myself biases me in my own favor. Other people are a necessary second-opinion about who I am. To be conscientious is to care about what other people think.

Still, though I’m not an authority on myself, no one else is either. Having grown up in a culture that encouraged care, compassion, empathy, and listening, I’ve had to learn the limits of conscientiousness, how to keep an open mind without my brains spilling out, how to allocate my finite attention among the near-infinite voices that would attempt to shape my character.

So how do you decide when to let the conscientious reflex do its work and when to stop listening to those who would bark and snarl at you? Here’s one idea:

Never pay more attention to the meaning of people’s words than they pay to them. If you get the sense they’re just using them as weapons stripped of their meaning, ignore their meaning. Hear what they’re saying as barking and snarling, nothing more. And if you can’t tell by their blatant hypocrisy, ask them what their words mean. If they can’t give you a concrete definition, assume they’re just using them as weapons.

A current political example will help illustrate. Listen to these words:

Cancel culture.

In some cases, these terms are intended to be pejorative accusations.

But what do they mean? How could one objectively tell who deserves these negative labels? It’s not enough to give an example: “Socialist is being bad like so-and-so” No, an example is not a definition.

It’s interesting then for as much currency and effect as these terms have, politicians and the media never stop to ask the accusers to define their terms. Instead, they tend to back off, giving the benefit of the doubt. That’s the conscientious reflex. It's civilized, and it’s also the jerk-enabling thing to do.

When someone barks and snarls that you’re selfish, inconsiderate, unprofessional, a narcissist, a bully, a quitter, a whatever, pay attention to their words but not by heeding them. Instead, pay attention to whether they’re paying attention to them or just barking whatever works. Because if they’re not paying attention to them, you shouldn’t either.

I've just launched a 14-session "podclass" on identifying and dealing with total jerks. Come take a listen!

And here's a 3-minute video on how easy it is for people to fall into playing God by liberating themselves from the meaning of the words they say: