Jerks and Psychopaths

Regarding jerks, here’s Eric Schwitzgebel, writing in “How to Tell if You’re a Jerk” (Nautilus, November 16, 2017):

Jerks are people who culpably fail to appreciate the perspectives of the people around them, treating others as tools to be manipulated or fools to be dealt with, rather than as moral and epistemic peers….

Jerks see the world through goggles that dim others’ humanity. The server at the restaurant is not a potentially interesting person with a distinctive personality, life story, and set of goals to which you might possibly relate. Instead, he is merely a tool by which to secure a meal or a fool on which you can vent your anger.

Why is it jerky to view a server waiter as a “tool” (loaded word) by which to secure a meal? That’s his job, just as it’s the job of a clerk to ring up your order, the job of a service advisor to see that your car is serviced, etc. Pleasantness and politeness are called for in dealings with people in service occupations — as in dealings with everyone — though it may be necessary to abandon them in the face of incompetence or rudeness.

What’s not called for is a haughty or dismissive air, as if the waiter, clerk, etc., were a lesser being. I finally drew a line (mentally) through a long-time friendship when the friend — a staunch “liberal” who, by definition, doesn’t view people as mere tools — was haughty and dismissive toward a waiter, and a black one at that. His behavior exemplified jerkiness. Whatever he thought about the waiter as a human being (and I have no way of knowing that), he acted the way he did because he sees himself as a superior being — an attitude to which I can attest by virtue of long acquaintance. (When haughtiness wasn’t called for, condescension was. Here‘s a perfect example of it.)

That’s what makes a jerk a jerk: an overt attitude of superiority. It usually comes out as rudeness, pushiness, or loudness — in short, dominating a situation by assertive behavior rather than on merit. The merit is all in the mind of the jerk.

Does the jerk have an inferiority complex for which he is compensating? Was he a spoiled child? Is he a neurotic who tries to conquer his insecurity by behaving more assertively than necessary? Does he fail to appreciate the perspectives of other people, as Schwitzgebel puts it?

Who knows? And why does it matter? When confronted with a jerk, I deal with the behavior — or avoid it. The cause would matter only if I could do something about it. Jerks (like the relatively poor) are always with us.

So are psychopaths, though they must be dealt with differently.

Schwitzgebel addresses the connection between jerkiness and psychopathy, but gets it wrong:

People with psychopathic personalities are selfish and callous, as is the jerk, but they also incline toward impulsive risk-taking, while jerks can be calculating and risk-averse.

Note the weasel-wording: “can be”. Schwitzgebel is trying too hard to distinguish jerkiness from psychopathy.

The jerk who doesn’t care (or think) about his treatment of other people in mundane settings is just getting away with what he can get away with at the moment; that is, he is being impulsive. Nor is jerky behavior necessarily risk-averse; it often invites a punch in the mouth. By contrast, a criminal psychopath who seeks to avoid detection, and carefully plans his foul deeds, is calculating and risk averse.

Psychopathy is

characterized by persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, egotistical traits.

Which could be thought of as extreme, sustained jerkiness.

If there is a distinction between a jerk and a psychopath, it is in the extremity of the psychopath’s acts. He doesn’t just do irritating or insulting things. He takes people’s lives, liberty, and property.

But, contrary to definition quoted above, a psychopath doesn’t do such things because he is devoid of empathy. A successful criminal psychopath is skilled at “reading” his victims — empathizing with them — in order to entice them into a situation where he gets what he wants from them. Moreover, his “bold, disinhibited, egotistical traits” may surface only when he has sprung his trap and no longer needs to gull his victim.

In evidence, I turn to Paul Bloom’s “The Root of All Cruelty?” (The New Yorker, November 27, 2017):

The thesis that viewing others as objects or animals enables our very worst conduct would seem to explain a great deal. Yet there’s reason to think that it’s almost the opposite of the truth.

At some European soccer games, fans make monkey noises at African players and throw bananas at them. Describing Africans as monkeys is a common racist trope, and might seem like yet another example of dehumanization. But plainly these fans don’t really think the players are monkeys; the whole point of their behavior is to disorient and humiliate. To believe that such taunts are effective is to assume that their targets would be ashamed to be thought of that way—which implies that, at some level, you think of them as people after all.

Consider what happened after Hitler annexed Austria, in 1938. Timothy Snyder offers a haunting description in Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning:

The next morning the “scrubbing parties” began. Members of the Austrian SA, working from lists, from personal knowledge, and from the knowledge of passersby, identified Jews and forced them to kneel and clean the streets with brushes. This was a ritual humiliation. Jews, often doctors and lawyers or other professionals, were suddenly on their knees performing menial labor in front of jeering crowds. Ernest P. remembered the spectacle of the “scrubbing parties” as “amusement for the Austrian population.” A journalist described “the fluffy Viennese blondes, fighting one another to get closer to the elevating spectacle of the ashen-faced Jewish surgeon on hands and knees before a half-dozen young hooligans with Swastika armlets and dog-whips.” Meanwhile, Jewish girls were sexually abused, and older Jewish men were forced to perform public physical exercise.

The Jews who were forced to scrub the streets—not to mention those subjected to far worse degradations—were not thought of as lacking human emotions. Indeed, if the Jews had been thought to be indifferent to their treatment, there would have been nothing to watch here; the crowd had gathered because it wanted to see them suffer. The logic of such brutality is the logic of metaphor: to assert a likeness between two different things holds power only in the light of that difference. The sadism of treating human beings like vermin lies precisely in the recognition that they are not.

As with jerkiness, I don’t care what motivates psychopathy. If jerks are to be avoided, psychopaths are to be punished — good and hard.

Come to think of it, if jerks were punched in the mouth more often, perhaps there would be less jerky behavior. And, for most of us, it is jerks — not psychopaths — who make life less pleasant than it could be.

Related guest post by LP: Getting Real about Empathy — Part 2 of 5: Critical Roles and Contributions of the Less Empathetic

8 thoughts on “Jerks and Psychopaths

  1. Language isn’t very precise here — with respect to “jerkyness” and “psychopathy” we’re probably talking about a spectrum … indeed, several spectrums along more than one dimension of behavior.

    I’ve always associated the word “jerk” with poor self-awareness. The jerk doesn’t realize that his behavior lowers others’ estimation of him, and can ultimately hurt him. The psychopath — or at least one kind of psychopath — IS aware of this, and dissimulates.

    And if someone is very powerful, then they can engage in jerk-like behavior with few consequences. They don’t need to be loved by others, because they are feared. Would we call Stalin a jerk? Your liberal friend was probably intelligent enough to conceal his jerkyness most of the time — otherwise you wouldn’t have befriended him in the first place — but for some reason his control slipped on this occasion.


  2. I agree with your statement about spectrum. In fact, it was in a draft of the post, but I dropped it.

    Good characterizations of jerkiness and psychopathy.

    The ex-friend let the mask slip on more than one occasion. The one I mention in the post was the last straw, for me.


  3. Looks like I missed this one earlier. There is one issue with the conclusion. Psychopathic people, due to their unique brain wiring, process punishment differently – making punishment a highly ineffective way to deal with them. The Wiki article you linked to explained this from several viewpoints but I’ll provide the biochemical explanation here,

    “High levels of testosterone combined with low levels of cortisol and/or serotonin have been theorized as contributing factors. Testosterone is “associated with approach-related behavior, reward sensitivity, and fear reduction”, and injecting testosterone “shift[s] the balance from punishment to reward sensitivity”, decreases fearfulness, and increases “responding to angry faces”. …few studies have found psychopathy to be linked to low cortisol levels and reactivity. Cortisol increases withdrawal behavior and sensitivity to punishment and aversive conditioning, which are abnormally low in individuals with psychopathy and may underlie their impaired aversion learning and disinhibited behavior.”

    This is well known and an uncontested area. However, it’s important to note that this feature is also present in normal, non-psychopathic people – such as some extroverts! This is the reason (appropriate considering New Year’s is approaching) that extroverts have been found to drink more heavily (and keep drinking excessively) even after they’ve gotten into bar brawls or fallen and hit themselves hard on tables when drunk. They forget aversive experiences more easily than introverts are known to. Psychopaths and non-psychopathic extroverts are, however, reward-sensitive due to their increased neural sensitivity to dopamine.

    The more I find I delve into psychology, the more I find freaky differences between different people. By and by, I want to share this article which explains the “X-man” situation after society became less religious:

    My own notes on that article: I think it’s more of a “natural selection” issue rather than atheism *causing* mutations. Perhaps you can weigh in on that at some point. And, unrelated… apologies on this comment’s length and Merry Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the comment. Yours are never too long, and always informative. I will say this in defense of punishment: Incarceration keeps criminal psychopaths out of circulation; execution eliminates them. I also doubt that there’s a causal relationship between atheism and genetic mutation. There may be a correlation, but that’s true of a lot of unconnected phenomena. Believers may be healthier than non-believers, but that’s probably a psychological effect rather than a genetic one. I do believe that natural selection has a weaker influence on human evolution than it did in the past, resulting in a dysgenic trend, which I’ve addressed here:

    Merry Christmas to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes, that’s it exactly Thomas. The only way to eliminate some things is to take it out of the equation entirely – by incarceration or death penalty. My comment only addressed the difference between punishment sensitive and punishment insensitive folks, which parents with multiple children often observe – one child will cringe and abstain from a behavior after a mere threat but another will yell, “That doesn’t hurt!” and keep going after being spanked. That’s also why some psychopaths (unless they’ve intellectualized the risks and dangers and consciously, of their own free will, decide not to engage) can be found engaging in highly dangerous activities, extreme sports, etc. However, plug them into appropriate occupations they can function well in (bomb detection, emergency services, etc.) and they can contribute to society.

    Incarceration accomplishes the same thing that religious societies did by lowering prospects of very different people being socially successful and passing their differences along.


  6. What is wanted for incorrigibly anti-social types is isolation. “Punishment” doesn’t seem to have much of a deterrent effect, although of course it makes us feel good to see evil people suffering.

    And this suggests a political strategy: the “intellectual state apparatus” is increasingly dominated by people on the Left, who are sympathetic to criminals from the underclass. So a “more punishment” strategy for dealing with crime faces an uphill struggle.

    So … why not begin to popularize a new approach: isolation … I think the technical term in “internment” — what happens to civilian citizens of enemy nations who happen to be in the hostile nation when war begins. They’ve committed no crime, but cannot be left at large. So they are isolated … not pleasant, but not the same as punishment.

    This isolation does not have to be in barracks within a small space behind barbed wire. The barbed wire or its equivalent would be necessary, but … in an ideal world, why not have an area of a few dozen square miles, with small cabins, food dropped, access to pornography … but no ability to get at the rest of us? Liberal do-gooders could be allowed access to minister to the no-fault-of-their-own inhabitants, with the understanding that rescue services will not be available … like climbing Mount Everest. Surely some place on the North American continent could be found for such a place. (I would suggest San Francisco.)

    I know this sounds like a crazy idea, but we’ve quite a few insane ideas flourish in Western society over the last few decades. (My favorite is transgenders in Marine rifle platoons, followed closely by sex-neutral bathrooms in elementary schools..) Each such idea would have been laughed out of court when first proposed, but with the passage of time, will no doubt become part of the Republican Party platform.

    A start has to be made. Raise this idea, and then, as Lenin advised in 1917, “patiently explain” why it’s a good one … and wait twenty or thirty years. Don’t present it as “isolation” of course. Rather, sell it to the liberals as “humane, anti-racist, self-determination” … the right set of phrases can be found. (Above all, don’t mention that it’s effectively the same thing as “exile” under the Tsar — an infinitely more humane approach to dealing with your dissidents than the gulag, or a bullet through the head from a Chechen, but unfortunately tainted by the association with the Tsar … assuming your typical liberal knows who that was.)

    Anyway, my modest proposal for the Christmas season.


  7. I have to admit to using “punishment” loosely, to mean imprisonment (as well as execution). Imprisonment isolates criminals from the rest of the population, some of whom are criminals who haven’t been brought to justice — or have been brought to the “liberal” idea of justice. I don’t see an essential difference between internment, as you describe it, and imprisonment as it is now practiced. The hard part — because of “liberal” do-gooders — is getting guilty verdicts, sending criminals to prison, and keeping them there.


  8. “They forget aversive experiences more easily than introverts are known to. Psychopaths and non-psychopathic extroverts are, however, reward-sensitive due to their increased neural sensitivity to dopamine.” -DP

    Excellent statement. I’m an introvert but my nature, but sometimes have an appearance of an extrovert. The statement reminds me of the rooms of AA whereas in the beginning of my recovery I blended in well with all the misfits in order to distract my drinking habit. Meetings everyday, but damn there are some extroverts in the rooms of AA attempting to find external fixes. They can not comprehend that in order to take control of alcoholism, an individual needs to go inside thyself. That’s a lot easier for an individual who enjoys solitude. I highly recommend Greek philosophy to all individuals because it has become a great fail over when the shit hits the fan.


Comments are closed.