How did we become a society of jerks?

If you’ve taken the time to read the comments section of your newsfeed or spent some quality time in rush hour, you know that people can be really nasty to one another. Even just walking down the sidewalk feels more like everyone is in their own world and not interested in common courtesies. Is this just the way it's always been?

Nope. Psychologist and Stanford professor Robert Sutton says that “disrespectful, demeaning, and downright mean-spirited behavior is worse than ever” in a recent interview with New York Magazine. Sutton’s claim to fame is studying meanness, which he originally chronicled in the best-selling book The No Asshole Rule, which managers have touted as a must-read for anyone trying to mediate temperaments in the workplace. While that book was intended to stop rudeness in its tracks, Sutton’s newest book is an admittance that our society has failed to do so. In The Asshole Survival Guide, Sutton instead offers advice for how to deal with the inevitability of jerks everywhere—not just at work.

He says that being nasty spreads easily and cites research that says being exposed to negative behavior, even once, can influence a person’s behavior longterm. It's likely that you have anecdotal experiences from your own life to prove his point. We’ve all been subjected at some point or another to disrespectful or demeaning comments, whether it’s workplace harassment or sweeping statements made by our social media connections. It really does feel like people are angrier and meaner than ever, but what can we do about it?

Identifying the Cause

There are several stressors that likely contribute to the perception that people are generally more agitated. There are many divisive issues in our current social, political, and economic environments that are polarizing, and there is a tendency to see the “opposite side” as evil and misguided—as the enemy. Instead of seeking to understand opposing point of views and to find compromise, people today seem to understand their mission to be to battle against the other side. The goal becomes to prove them wrong. Name-calling, hate speech, and general nastiness are par for the course in this type of divisive environment.

Another reason we’re noticing more meanness is because of social media. Though fairly neutral in itself, social media can provide an easy platform for people to position their opinions without any veil of sensitivity. Scroll through the comments section on your newsfeed, and you’ll probably find some kind of mean-spirited debate going on. Robert Sutton told New York Magazine that, “people are much more likely to be mean if they don’t have to make eye contact,” and social media is the perfect venue for that.

In my work as a psychotherapist, I see how easy it is for harmful behavior to proliferate behind a screen. I’ve worked with several patients who have been victims of it. Maybe their coworkers and classmates post passive aggressive comments about them or send them direct messages in which they make fun of them. I’ve even heard of cases where someone will create a fake account to spam my client’s social media accounts with unkind statements. My clients feel helpless when they read the rumors being spread about them and the unkind comments that are making the rounds on their social media platforms. They feel powerless to stop it.

Why is it so easy to be mean online? Social media often creates distance between the person posting the hateful comments and the receiver of these comments. In the space between them, it’s easy to forget that there’s another human being with feelings reading your unkind words. When the person isn’t standing in front of you, it’s easy to unleash your anger without seeing the immediate effect of your words.

We live in a time in which it’s easier than ever to have and share an opinion. Whether it’s something as mundane as hating the color your neighbors chose to paint their house or as controversial as an opinion on healthcare, Sutton is right in that we’ve lost sight of healthy disagreement. Disparity of thought has become “you vs. me” to the point that compromise can feel hopeless—so why not unleash your vitriol? Well, fortunately we don't all want to live in that kind of world.

How do we stop the world from becoming meaner and angrier? 

While we can’t control other people’s behavior and words, we do have control over our response to them. Not indulging the other person when they try to start an argument, holding them accountable when they say something mean, and taking a nuanced perspective when working with other people (i.e. they’re not all bad or all good) can help you stop the cycle of nastiness. And, if reading the comments section really riles you up, take a break from the comments the next time you’re scrolling through your newsfeed. 

Even platforms are trying to help. Just this week, Instagram, itself, addressed the meanness that proliferates on its platform by introducing new "kindness stickers." The update includes little heart graphics created by various artists that can be added to Instagram stories in order to show an intention of goodwill. It also unveiled heightened controls for users to regulate commenting on their pages to cut down on negativity.

As Sutton pointed out to New York Magazine, “The more assholes you’re around, the more asshole-y you get.” As a therapist I can say that it really does require a concerted effort to, as we often say, “rise above.” Recognizing when you’re exposed to a jerk and choosing to not perpetuate the cycle (even if it’s hard to do!) is a small yet effective way to fill the world with more of what’s good and the positive. Sutton says, despite popular belief to the contrary, “people who treat each other with some civility generally do better.” So be a ray of light in the world, not the person always gunning for the last word.