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Why Are Some People Such Jerks?

Much poor behavior springs from the same two sources.

Key points

  • Ignorance and trauma are at the root of much of the poor behavior seen in society.
  • Those who behave poorly may lack empathy for others, which can stem from chronic emotional neglect in their past.
  • Chronic emotional neglect can make a person engage in "othering," a form of dehumanization seen in behaviors such as road rage.
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There’s no excuse for adults to blast loud music throughout the neighborhood at 3 a.m., or let their dogs do their business on other people’s lawns.

That “no excuses” dictum goes double for adults who hurt, bully, or Heaven forbid, kill people.

In a healthy society, none of those acts are considered normal or desirable.

Most people who are well-adjusted and reasonably happy behave in prosocial ways. However, antisocial behavior is not uncommon and needs to be addressed societally so that it doesn’t grow.

To that end, it’s helpful to try to understand the roots of poor behavior.

Naming and highlighting possible causes of bad behavior is not the same as excusing or condoning it.

The reason to understand unwanted behavior is so that we can try to intervene upstream and stop it from developing in the first place.

Two major causes of much of the poor behavior we see in our society are ignorance and trauma.

It's Not Bliss for Others

Not knowing (i.e., ignorance) is part of the picture more often than recognized. We tend to underestimate the role that ignorance plays in many unfortunate scenarios.

If I find your banana in the office kitchen and I eat it for lunch, is it because I’m obnoxious? A thief? Or could it be that I mistook your banana for mine?

If you and your friends are talking loudly on your patio late at night, does that make you an inconsiderate jerk? Or could it be that you don't know how far your voices carry, or that my husband is sick and needs to sleep?

Many of us have, at one point or another, inadvertently behaved badly (read: hurt others) out of ignorance. If we knew better, we’d do better.

But what of people who know perfectly well what good and bad behavior look like, and they choose wrong?

The Rude Neighbor

Your neighbor may behave as though she’s the only person in the world. She’s that person at the start of this post who makes noise at all hours and lets her dog use your yard as a bathroom.

Leaving aside ignorance for a moment, let’s talk about her lack of empathy. She’s failing to put herself in other people’s shoes and ask, “How would I feel if my neighbors behaved as I do?”

She might be oblivious enough (ignorance again) that she truly wouldn’t notice. But the lack of empathy is troubling. Why might someone lack empathy?

Without attempting to write a "blog post within a blog post" about the development of empathy, I’ll assert that people with typical brains who are shown empathy and consideration as children are usually capable of empathy as adults.

Those who don’t exhibit empathy may be survivors of chronic emotional neglect.

Unfortunately, the experience of neglect and lack of connection is often passed on to others in the form of alienating, antisocial behaviors.

Road Rage

Take the example of road rage. There are many interpretations of this troubling phenomenon. Here’s just one more.

The anger and aggression that accompany road rage behavior can be understood as responses to trauma.

Chronic emotional neglect and/or abuse early in life can set us up for painful feelings of invisibility and alienation. Some of us cope by engaging in “othering,” which is how we turn fellow human beings into “them” instead of “us"—perpetrators, instead of fellow strivers.

Viewing other drivers as obstacles in one’s path is a way of both othering and dehumanizing them.

This antisocial stance may be most readily adopted by those who have themselves been othered and/or dehumanized.

In other words, some people who are traumatized might be acting out that trauma through road rage.

If they feel violated in some way by another driver, they react by defending perceived boundaries in order to protect themselves.

Racism, Anti-Semitism, Homophobia

Ignorance (not personally knowing anyone who belongs to a different race, religion, or social group) and self-esteem injured by relational trauma combine to create the most pernicious forms of othering.

In people who act out racist and other hateful behavior, research has uncovered low self-esteem and feelings of alienation.

Those don’t easily take root in people who feel safe and whole. They are the fruits of emotional trauma.

Again, understanding the roots of poor behavior doesn’t excuse the behavior. It merely provides a possible path to healing. It's a way to head off bad decisions before they're made, rather than punishing them afterwards.

If we can address ignorance with emotional and social literacy…

If we can address trauma with public education about how it occurs and how it can start to heal…

We’ll go far in keeping antisocial behavior to a minimum in our society.

References

Armstrong, G. J., and S. D. M. Kelley. “Early Trauma and Subsequent Antisocial Behavior in Adults.” Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, vol. 8, no. 4, 20 Oct. 2008, pp. 294–303, 10.1093/brief-treatment/mhn016. Accessed 12 Mar. 2020.

Donnellan MB, Trzesniewski KH, Robins RW, Moffitt TE, Caspi A. Low self-esteem is related to aggression, antisocial behavior, and delinquency. Psychol Sci. 2005 Apr;16(4):328-35. doi: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.01535.x. PMID: 15828981.

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