A theory of jerks

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A theory of jerks

Illustration by Paul Blow

Are you surrounded by fools? Are you the only reasonable person around? Then maybe you’re the one with the jerkitude

Eric Schwitzgebel is professor of philosophy at University of California, Riverside. He blogs at the Splintered Mind and his latest book is Perplexities of Consciousness (2011).

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Picture the world through the eyes of the jerk. The line of people in the post office is a mass of unimportant fools; it’s a felt injustice that you must wait while they bumble with their requests. The flight attendant is not a potentially interesting person with her own cares and struggles but instead the most available face of a corporation that stupidly insists you shut your phone. Custodians and secretaries are lazy complainers who rightly get the scut work. The person who disagrees with you at the staff meeting is an idiot to be shot down. Entering a subway is an exercise in nudging past the dumb schmoes.

We need a theory of jerks. We need such a theory because, first, it can help us achieve a calm, clinical understanding when confronting such a creature in the wild. Imagine the nature-documentary voice-over: ‘Here we see the jerk in his natural environment. Notice how he subtly adjusts his dominance display to the Italian restaurant situation…’ And second – well, I don’t want to say what the second reason is quite yet.

As it happens, I do have such a theory. But before we get into it, I should clarify some terminology. The word ‘jerk’ can refer to two different types of person (I set aside sexual uses of the term, as well as more purely physical senses). The older use of ‘jerk’ designates a kind of chump or an ignorant fool, though not a morally odious one. When Weird Al Yankovic sang, in 2006, ‘I sued Fruit of the Loom ’cause when I wear their tightie-whities on my head I look like a jerk’, or when, on 1 March 1959, Willard Temple wrote in a short story in the Los Angeles Times: ‘He could have married the campus queen… Instead the poor jerk fell for a snub-nosed, skinny little broad’, it’s clear it’s the chump they have in mind.

The jerk-as-fool usage seems to have begun as a derisive reference to the unsophisticated people of a ‘jerkwater town’: that is, a town not rating a full-scale train station, requiring the boiler man to pull on a chain to water his engine. The term expresses the travelling troupe’s disdain. Over time, however, ‘jerk’ shifted from being primarily a class-based insult to its second, now dominant, sense as a term of moral condemnation. Such linguistic drift from class-based contempt to moral deprecation is a common pattern across languages, as observed by Friedrich Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morality (1887). (In English, consider ‘rude’, ‘villain’, ‘ignoble’.) And it is the immoral jerk who concerns me here.

Why, you might be wondering, should a philosopher make it his business to analyse colloquial terms of abuse? Doesn’t Urban Dictionary cover that kind of thing quite adequately? Shouldn’t I confine myself to truth, or beauty, or knowledge, or why there is something rather than nothing (to which the Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser answered: ‘If there was nothing you’d still be complaining’)? I am, in fact, interested in all those topics. And yet I suspect there’s a folk wisdom in the term ‘jerk’ that points toward something morally important. I want to extract that morally important thing, to isolate the core phenomenon towards which I think the word is groping. Precedents for this type of work include the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s essay ‘On Bullshit’ (2005) and, closer to my target, the Irvine philosopher Aaron James’s book Assholes (2012). Our taste in vulgarity reveals our values.

I submit that the unifying core, the essence of jerkitude in the moral sense, is this: the jerk culpably fails to appreciate the perspectives of others around him, treating them as tools to be manipulated or idiots to be dealt with rather than as moral and epistemic peers. This failure has both an intellectual dimension and an emotional dimension, and it has these two dimensions on both sides of the relationship. The jerk himself is both intellectually and emotionally defective, and what he defectively fails to appreciate is both the intellectual and emotional perspectives of the people around him. He can’t appreciate how he might be wrong and others right about some matter of fact; and what other people want or value doesn’t register as of interest to him, except derivatively upon his own interests. The bumpkin ignorance captured in the earlier use of ‘jerk’ has changed into a type of moral ignorance.

Some related traits are already well-known in psychology and philosophy – the ‘dark triad’ of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy, and James’s conception of the asshole, already mentioned. But my conception of the jerk differs from all of these. The asshole, James says, is someone who allows himself to enjoy special advantages out of an entrenched sense of entitlement. That is one important dimension of jerkitude, but not the whole story. The callous psychopath, though cousin to the jerk, has an impulsivity and love of risk-taking that need be no part of the jerk’s character. Neither does the jerk have to be as thoroughly self-involved as the narcissist or as self-consciously cynical as the Machiavellian, though narcissism and Machiavellianism are common enough jerkish attributes. My conception of the ‘jerk’ also has a conceptual unity that is, I think, both theoretically appealing in the abstract and fruitful in helping explain some of the peculiar features of this type of animal, as we will see.

The opposite of the jerk is the sweetheart. The sweetheart sees others around him, even strangers, as individually distinctive people with valuable perspectives, whose desires and opinions, interests and goals are worthy of attention and respect. The sweetheart yields his place in line to the hurried shopper, stops to help the person who dropped her papers, calls an acquaintance with an embarrassed apology after having been unintentionally rude. In a debate, the sweetheart sees how he might be wrong and the other person right.

The moral and emotional failure of the jerk is obvious. The intellectual failure is obvious, too: no one is as right about everything as the jerk thinks he is. He would learn by listening. And one of the things he might learn is the true scope of his jerkitude – a fact about which, as I will explain shortly, the all-out jerk is inevitably ignorant. Which brings me to the other great benefit of a theory of jerks: it might help you figure out if you yourself are one.

Some clarifications and caveats.

First, no one is a perfect jerk or a perfect sweetheart. Human behaviour – of course! – varies hugely with context. Different situations (sales-team meetings, travelling in close quarters) might bring out the jerk in some and the sweetie in others.

Second, the jerk is someone who culpably fails to appreciate the perspectives of others around him. Young children and people with severe mental disabilities aren’t capable of appreciating others’ perspectives, so they can’t be blamed for their failure and aren’t jerks. Also, not all perspectives deserve equal treatment. Failure to appreciate the outlook of a neo-Nazi, for example, is not sign of jerkitude – though the true sweetheart might bend over backwards to try.

Third, I’ve called the jerk ‘he’, for reasons you might guess. But then it seems too gendered to call the sweetheart ‘she’, so I’ve made the sweetheart a ‘he’ too.

I said that my theory might help us to tell whether we, ourselves, are jerks. But, in fact, this turns out to be a peculiarly difficult question. The Washington University psychologist Simine Vazire has argued that we tend to know our own characteristics quite well when the relevant traits are evaluatively neutral and straightforwardly observable, and badly when they are loaded with value judgments and not straightforwardly observable. If you ask someone how talkative she is, or whether she is relatively high-strung or relatively mellow, and then you ask her friends to rate her along the same dimensions, the self-rating and the peer ratings usually correlate quite well – and both sets of ratings also tend to line up with psychologists’ best attempts to measure such traits objectively.

Why? Presumably because it’s more or less fine to be talkative and more or less fine to be quiet; OK to be a bouncing bunny and OK instead to keep it low-key, and such traits are hard to miss in any case. But few of us want to be inflexible, stupid, unfair or low in creativity. And if you don’t want to see yourself that way, it’s easy enough to dismiss the signs. Such characteristics are, after all, connected to outward behaviour in somewhat complicated ways; we can always cling to the idea that we have been misunderstood. Thus we overlook our own faults.

it’s entirely possible for a picture-perfect jerk to acknowledge, in a superficial way, that he is a jerk. ‘So what, yeah, I’m a jerk,’ he might say

With Vazire’s model of self-knowledge in mind, I conjecture a correlation of approximately zero between how one would rate oneself in relative jerkitude and one’s actual true jerkitude. The term is morally loaded, and rationalisation is so tempting and easy! Why did you just treat that cashier so harshly? Well, she deserved it – and anyway, I’ve been having a rough day. Why did you just cut into that line of cars at the last minute, not waiting your turn to exit? Well, that’s just good tactical driving – and anyway, I’m in a hurry! Why did you seem to relish failing that student for submitting her essay an hour late? Well, the rules were clearly stated; it’s only fair to the students who worked hard to submit their essays on time – and that was a grimace not a smile.

Since the most effective way to learn about defects in one’s character is to listen to frank feedback from people whose opinions you respect, the jerk faces special obstacles on the road to self-knowledge, beyond even what Vazire’s model would lead us to expect. By definition, he fails to respect the perspectives of others around him. He’s much more likely to dismiss critics as fools – or as jerks themselves – than to take the criticism to heart.

Still, it’s entirely possible for a picture-perfect jerk to acknowledge, in a superficial way, that he is a jerk. ‘So what, yeah, I’m a jerk,’ he might say. Provided this label carries no real sting of self-disapprobation, the jerk’s moral self-ignorance remains. Part of what it is to fail to appreciate the perspectives of others is to fail to see your jerkishly dismissive attitude toward their ideas and concerns as inappropriate.

Ironically, it is the sweetheart who worries that he has just behaved inappropriately, that he might have acted too jerkishly, and who feels driven to make amends. Such distress is impossible if you don’t take others’ perspectives seriously into account. Indeed, the distress itself constitutes a deviation (in this one respect at least) from pure jerkitude: worrying about whether it might be so helps to make it less so. Then again, if you take comfort in that fact and cease worrying, you have undermined the very basis of your comfort.

All normal jerks distribute their jerkishness mostly down the social hierarchy, and to anonymous strangers. Waitresses, students, clerks, strangers on the road – these are the unfortunates who bear the brunt of it. With a modicum of self-control, the jerk, though he implicitly or explicitly regards himself as more important than most of the people around him, recognises that the perspectives of those above him in the hierarchy also deserve some consideration. Often, indeed, he feels sincere respect for his higher-ups. Perhaps respectful feelings are too deeply written in our natures to disappear entirely. Perhaps the jerk retains a vestigial kind of concern specifically for those whom it would benefit him, directly or indirectly, to win over. He is at least concerned enough about their opinion of him to display tactical respect while in their field of view. However it comes about, the classic jerk kisses up and kicks down. The company CEO rarely knows who the jerks are, though it’s no great mystery among the secretaries.

Because the jerk tends to disregard the perspectives of those below him in the hierarchy, he often has little idea how he appears to them. This leads to hypocrisies. He might rage against the smallest typo in a student’s or secretary’s document, while producing a torrent of errors himself; it just wouldn’t occur to him to apply the same standards to himself. He might insist on promptness, while always running late. He might freely reprimand other people, expecting them to take it with good grace, while any complaints directed against him earn his eternal enmity. Such failures of parity typify the jerk’s moral short-sightedness, flowing naturally from his disregard of others’ perspectives. These hypocrisies are immediately obvious if one genuinely imagines oneself in a subordinate’s shoes for anything other than selfish and self-rationalising ends, but this is exactly what the jerk habitually fails to do.

Thinking yourself important is a pleasantly self-gratifying excuse for disregarding the interests and desires of others

Embarrassment, too, becomes practically impossible for the jerk, at least in front of his underlings. Embarrassment requires us to imagine being viewed negatively by people whose perspectives we care about. As the circle of people whom the jerk is willing to regard as true peers and superiors shrinks, so does his capacity for shame – and with it a crucial entry point for moral self-knowledge.

As one climbs the social hierarchy it is also easier to become a jerk. Here’s a characteristically jerkish thought: ‘I’m important, and I’m surrounded by idiots!’ Both halves of this proposition serve to conceal the jerk’s jerkitude from himself. Thinking yourself important is a pleasantly self-gratifying excuse for disregarding the interests and desires of others. Thinking that the people around you are idiots seems like a good reason to disregard their intellectual perspectives. As you ascend the hierarchy, you will find it easier to discover evidence of your relative importance (your big salary, your first-class seat) and of the relative idiocy of others (who have failed to ascend as high as you). Also, flatterers will tend to squeeze out frank, authentic critics.

This isn’t the only possible explanation for the prevalence of powerful jerks, of course. Maybe jerks are actually more likely to rise in business and academia than non-jerks – the truest sweethearts often suffer from an inability to advance their own projects over the projects of others. But I suspect the causal path runs at least as much in the other direction. Success might or might not favour the existing jerks, but I’m pretty sure it nurtures new ones.

The moralistic jerk is an animal worth special remark. Charles Dickens was a master painter of the type: his teachers, his preachers, his petty bureaucrats and self-satisfied businessmen, Scrooge condemning the poor as lazy, Mr Bumble shocked that Oliver Twist dares to ask for more, each dismissive of the opinions and desires of their social inferiors, each inflated with a proud self-image and ignorant of how they are rightly seen by those around them, and each rationalising this picture with a web of moralising ‘should’s.

Scrooge and Bumble are cartoons, and we can be pretty sure we aren’t as bad as them. Yet I see in myself and all those who are not pure sweethearts a tendency to rationalise my privilege with moralistic sham justifications. Here’s my reason for trying to dishonestly wheedle my daughter into the best school; my reason why the session chair should call on me rather than on the grad student who got her hand up earlier; my reason why it’s fine that I have 400 library books in my office…

Whatever he’s into, the moralising jerk exudes a continuous aura of disdain for everything else

Philosophers seem to have a special talent for this: we can concoct a moral rationalisation for anything, with enough work! (Such skill at rationalisation might explain why ethicist philosophers seem to behave no morally better, on average, than comparison groups of non-ethicists, as my collaborators and I have found in a series of empirical studies looking at a broad range of issues from library-book theft and courteous behaviour at professional conferences to rates of charitable donation and Nazi party membership in the 1930s.) The moralistic jerk’s rationalisations justify his disregard of others, and his disregard of others prevents him from accepting an outside corrective on his rationalisations, in a self-insulating cycle. Here’s why it’s fine for me to proposition my underlings and inflate my expense claims, you idiot critics. Coat the whole thing, if you like, in a patina of academic jargon.

The moralising jerk is apt to go badly wrong in his moral opinions. Partly this is because his morality tends to be self-serving, and partly it’s because his disrespect for others’ perspectives puts him at a general epistemic disadvantage. But there’s more to it than that. In failing to appreciate others’ perspectives, the jerk almost inevitably fails to appreciate the full range of human goods – the value of dancing, say, or of sports, nature, pets, local cultural rituals, and indeed anything that he doesn’t care for himself. Think of the aggressively rumpled scholar who can’t bear the thought that someone would waste her time getting a manicure. Or think of the manicured socialite who can’t see the value of dedicating one’s life to dusty Latin manuscripts. Whatever he’s into, the moralising jerk exudes a continuous aura of disdain for everything else.

Furthermore, mercy is near the heart of practical, lived morality. Virtually everything that everyone does falls short of perfection: one’s turn of phrase is less than perfect, one arrives a bit late, one’s clothes are tacky, one’s gesture irritable, one’s choice somewhat selfish, one’s coffee less than frugal, one’s melody trite. Practical mercy involves letting these imperfections pass forgiven or, better yet, entirely unnoticed. In contrast, the jerk appreciates neither others’ difficulties in attaining all the perfections that he attributes to himself, nor the possibility that some portion of what he regards as flawed is in fact blameless. Hard moralising principle therefore comes naturally to him. (Sympathetic mercy is natural to the sweetheart.) And on the rare occasions when the jerk is merciful, his indulgence is usually ill-tuned: the flaws he forgives are exactly the one he recognises in himself or has ulterior reasons to let slide. Consider another brilliant literary cartoon jerk: Severus Snape, the infuriating potions teacher in J K Rowling’s novels, always eager to drop the hammer on Harry Potter or anyone else who happens to annoy him, constantly bristling with indignation, but wildly off the mark – contrasted with the mercy and broad vision of Dumbledore.

Despite the jerk’s almost inevitable flaws in moral vision, the moralising jerk can sometimes happen to be right about some specific important issue (as Snape proved to be) – especially if he adopts a big social cause. He needn’t care only about money and prestige. Indeed, sometimes an abstract and general concern for moral or political principles serves as a kind of substitute for genuine concern about the people in his immediate field of view, possibly leading to substantial self-sacrifice. And in social battles, the sweetheart will always have some disadvantages: the sweetheart’s talent for seeing things from his opponent’s perspective deprives him of bold self-certainty, and he is less willing to trample others for his ends. Social movements sometimes do well when led by a moralising jerk. I will not mention specific examples, lest I err and offend.

How can you know your own moral character? You can try a label on for size: ‘lazy’, ‘jerk’, ‘unreliable’ – is that really me? As the work of Vazire and other personality psychologists suggests, this might not be a very illuminating approach. More effective, I suspect, is to shift from first-person reflection (what am I like?) to second-person description (tell me, what am I like?). Instead of introspection, try listening. Ideally, you will have a few people in your life who know you intimately, have integrity, and are concerned about your character. They can frankly and lovingly hold your flaws up to the light and insist that you look at them. Give them the space to do this, and prepare to be disappointed in yourself.

Done well enough, this second-person approach could work fairly well for traits such as laziness and unreliability, especially if their scope is restricted: laziness-about-X, unreliability-about-Y. But as I suggested above, jerkitude is not so tractable, since if one is far enough gone, one can’t listen in the right way. Your critics are fools, at least on this particular topic (their critique of you). They can’t appreciate your perspective, you think – though really it’s that you can’t appreciate theirs.

To discover one’s degree of jerkitude, the best approach might be neither (first-person) direct reflection upon yourself nor (second-person) conversation with intimate critics, but rather something more third-person: looking in general at other people. Everywhere you turn, are you surrounded by fools, by boring nonentities, by faceless masses and foes and suckers and, indeed, jerks? Are you the only competent, reasonable person to be found? In other words, how familiar was the vision of the world I described at the beginning of this essay?

If your self-rationalising defences are low enough to feel a little pang of shame at the familiarity of that vision of the world, then you probably aren’t pure diamond-grade jerk. But who is? We’re all somewhere in the middle. That’s what makes the jerk’s vision of the world so instantly recognisable. It’s our own vision. But, thankfully, only sometimes.

Read more essays on ethics, love & friendship and meaning and the good life


  • trapezium

    This has some nice insights, but perhaps doesn't explore necessary complexities.

    For example, it's generally held that you will only learn to love others once you've learned to love yourself. But the line between loving yourself and narcissism is pretty hazy at times. Learning to love yourself involves losing your self-consciousness - yet it can be difficult to tell the difference between losing your self-consciousness and losing your self-awareness.

    Some of the examples of jerkish behaviour seem trivial. Penalising the late essay isn't a nice thing to do, but the correct response is to roll one's eyes and move on.

    And finally, I'm unsure of the wisdom of identifying somebody as a jerk when jerkish actions are what counts. One might argue that repeatedly performing jerkish actions sums to "being" a jerk, but in my experience people are more complex. Even jerks can behave perfectly sweetly sometimes.

    • Jon

      In my experience, the boundary between self-love and narcissism is not only NOT hazy, but they're entirely at opposite ends of a spectrum. Narcissism is the condition one falls into precisely WHEN you do not have self-love, self-respect, or self-knowledge. People with this emotional void in turn tend to crave external validation.

      The jerk is the monster that crawls out from below the bed when it cannot have its fill of the external validation it so craves -- it tries desperately to downplay the intrinsic worth of "the others" as far as possible. As far as I know, this has less to do with action than with attitude...

    • rsanchez1

      Jerks behaving sweetly fits into the author's theory. The complexity in behavior stems from the social hierarchy in which the jerk lives. The jerk will behave perfectly sweetly to his boss, but will behave jerkish to his co-workers. As the author writes, "The company CEO rarely knows who the jerks are, though it’s no great mystery among the secretaries."

    • ApathyNihilism

      " it's generally held that you will only learn to love others once you've learned to love yourself."

      What is the evidence for this? One can love others and despise oneself.

      • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N

        If however, one then expects others to love one back, it implies one has a secretly high value of oneself (and is allowing others to 'lower themselves' by being intimately associated with one). :D

      • Jon

        Consider the Greek model for ethics: Statements about character are guides, not laws. Stop being pedantic about this, I beg you.

      • taylormade

        Agreed...and who really came up with, or coined, this vacuous and meaningless phrase? Typical empty babble-ism...but certainly keeps the coinbox ringing for so-called therapists. How about: "One cannot grab another by the ass until one grabs oneself by the ass and lifts." Just as useful...

    • Hominid

      Is there evidence to support any of this back porch psychoanalysis that you call "nice insights"? If not, it's just pseudointellectual masturbation.

      • Jon

        please, stop this pseudo-intellectual pedantic bullshit. science can't give us ethics. Wisdom is intuitive. In most cases, experience is the evidence you need, not reductive and isolationistic psych studies.

        • Hominid

          Spoken like a true muddle-headed Lib.

          • Jon

            I'll give you a blowjob the day we have a functioning psychological theory entirely derived from quantitative empirical study, whether you'd like that or not. seriously, you need to get the fuck off your high horse.
            peace. no more.

      • hypnosifl

        What kind of "evidence" would you accept as showing that there exist some common intuitions behind folk terms like "jerk" or "asshole"? I suppose one could show a bunch of people videos of characters acting in various antisocial ways and see if there was agreement on which behaviors are more "jerky" and which are more "assholish" or "sociopathic", but given your standoffish mind-already-made-up tone I doubt you would treat this as valid evidence even if there was a decent amount of agreement. Along the same lines, can you give any evidence to support your own claim that this sort of thing is "pseudointellectual masturbation" characteristic of "muddle-headed Libs"? If your own bold psychological opinions are not exclusively evidence-based, then your challenge would seem rather hypocritical.

        • Hominid

          I made no assertions - it's up to the authors to verify their claims.

          My points are (1) everyone is somebody's assho-le and (2) one is not a jerk because he elects not to suffer fools.

          If you see my challenge as hypocritical, it indicates a lack of logical thinking on YOUR part.

          • hypnosifl

            I notice you avoided my question about whether the hypothetical experiment I described could count as "evidence" in your view, and if not what would qualify as valid evidence for a claim about the core intuitions behind some commonly-used but not-clearly-defined folk term like "jerk". And if labeling something as "pseudointellectual masturbation" is not an assertion about the psychological motives behind the piece, what is it? A simple insult expressing nothing but your own emotional distaste, like calling the author a poopy-head? You have also made plenty of assertions in later comments about how the piece and responses of other commenters reflect the characteristic psychology/beliefs of "Libs", and if you deny that these are factual assertions about liberal psychology/beliefs, then you apparently don't understand the meaning of the word "assertion".

          • Hominid

            Apparently YOU don't know the difference between assertion and observation.

          • hypnosifl

            The two terms are not mutually exclusive, any "observation" that makes a positive factual claim is also an assertion--for example, if I observe that the sky is blue, that's an assertion ("a positive statement or declaration"). In any case let's not get hung up on semantics, the real issue is that you are making some kind of factual claim about liberal psychology that you don't see the need to back up with any evidence, but when others make claims you try to shoot them down with "where's your evidence?", which is hypocritical. Instead of asking for evidence because you desire the open-ended scientific pursuit of truth, I suspect you already have a set of rigid beliefs about the way the world works, and just use the phrase "where's your evidence?" in an attempt to shut down discussion of ideas that don't fit those beliefs (especially since you refuse to answer questions about what could qualify as valid evidence), whereas things that do fit your preexisting beliefs are just self-evident to you so there's no need to subject them to any kind of empirical testing. It certainly isn't self-evident to me that liberals typically believe all people are "equivalent" in abilities (even if they think they should be equal in political power, opportunity etc.) or that "everyone's opinions are equally valid" (Do liberals typically think the views of a creationist are just as valid as the views of an evolutionary biologist, for example?)

          • Hominid

            You're just blathering. Bye.

          • hypnosifl

            I did ask two specific questions about your views (what you would count as 'evidence' for the piece, and what evidence you have for your own claims about the psychology/beliefs of "libs"), so even if you find the rest of my comments to be "blather", if you had any interest in intellectual discussion you could at least address those.

            P.S. Another possible form of "evidence" to support the piece would involve looking at whether the various psychological traits he ascribes to "jerks" do in fact show some kind of correlation in the real world. Your posts seem like a good example of both the description "Thinking that the people around you are idiots seems like a good reason to disregard their intellectual perspectives" (by actually engaging with their questions/arguments rather than contemptuously dismissing them, say) and the description "This leads to hypocrisies. He might rage against the smallest typo in a student’s or secretary’s document [or lack of evidence for a claim someone else makes], while producing a torrent of errors himself [or producing a torrent of evidence-free claims himself]; it just wouldn’t occur to him to apply the same standards to himself."

  • http://www.facebook.com/ben.curthoys Ben Curthoys

    "In English, consider ‘rude’, ‘villain’, ‘ignoble’."

    But mostly, 'wanker'.

  • Kim Fierens

    Personally, I tend to be a jerk in theory, and a sweetheart in practice. When watching the news, for example, I often think to myself: OMG, I'm surrounded by a bunch of violent, greedy, ignorant, superficial bastards; the world would certainly be a nicer place if at least some of that human vermin just dropped dead on the spot. Yet when I go to the supermarket, I'm quite happy to yield my place to hurried shoppers, or to help people pick up stuff they dropped. How exactly would such a conflict between thought and action (which I guess isn't all that uncommon) fit into the author's proposed theory of jerkiness?

    • rsanchez1

      I would say the conflict fits into the author's theory of jerkiness by claiming that you perceive everyone at the supermarket as superior to you. The jerk will act like a sweetheart to his superiors or to anyone he thinks it would benefit himself to help. In your case, in the author's words you are "kissing up" to supermarket jerks and "kicking down" to the human vermin you see on TV.

      The next question is why you perceive an inferiority to supermarket jerks.

      • http://ziprage.com Kevin Curry

        Or the opposite, you yield to the people who think 10 extra seconds in the checkout lane is an inconveinience worth fretting about. Similar to how an adult might yield to a child or animal.

        • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N

          You may choose to let someone go in front of you without them making any such sign of distress, simply because you observe that they have 1 item and you have 17, so it would be convenient for them to go ahead of you, while it would only set you back 1 min. This would imply you were aware of your surroundings. Is there anyone who looks around a supermarket and sees opportunities for combat of wills? Come on...

          • http://ziprage.com Kevin Curry

            "Is there anyone who looks around a supermarket and sees opportunities for combat of wills?"

            As a retail pharmacist I can without a doubt say yes.

          • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N

            I guess what I really meant was..."is there anyone who relishes those 'opportunities' for supermarket-based battles of will?" (clearly, some do, I worked in a supermarket a long time ago, and I saw them. But in my mind, that behaviour falls under the umbrella of 'silly'). :)

    • William Winsor Reeves

      I'm thinking that you're not really a jerk, by the terms explored in the article.
      Media, the news, is a specialized realm. So is politics. These do not bring out the best in people, I would hazard. So when you're seeing the world being kicked around by political shenanigans, through the fun-house mirror of the media, it's hard for an empathic person *not* to feel some disdain or even horror.
      But when confronted with real people, your behavior and thoughts are telling. If only 'the world' were more like the people, even strangers, we know in person!

    • Hominid

      That's too complicated for the simpleton who wants to put everyone into a neat little bin. Considering the essay as a a whole, it's nothing but another sneaky Liberal attempt to convince the many dupes that all people are equivalent and that everyone's opinions are equally valid.

      • billmarvel

        Bingo! A jerk!

        • Hominid

          Like all Libs, you fail to see the hypocrisy in your remark.

          • billmarvel

            It would come as a great surprise to my friends that I'm, a "lib."

            I'm, curious, Hominid.What are your criteria for libdom?

      • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N

        [I made a comment to Kim about this.] There's a difference between making an effort to gain a more realistic view of other peoples' lives and thoughts (rather than stopping with a cardboard cutout) and trying to say everyone is equal. If there are certain parts of your environment that you don't care to have a realistic view of, is that intelligent? By the way, how do you know whose opinions are valid? Isn't that just a judgement made by individuals, who have more or less power to enforce those judgements? Or do you believe that you are better than other people in some absolute sense?

        • Hominid

          Better intellect in an absolute sense - tested and proven.

          You see people through the lens of your humanist/egalitarian ideology - emotion-driven; not reality.

          • Guest

            What kind of test determines that in an absolute sense? Your only judges are ultimately yourself and whichever other people choose to judge you (including those who put together various paper tests). Our intellect developed to enable us to clearly see reality (and yes, take advantage of it), didn't it? So a 'practical' test would be whether you can act astutely within the world and achieve your aims, whatever those happen to be, wouldn't it? But I still don't know what you mean by 'absolute' here.

          • Hominid

            Achievement. What determines who wins the 100 meter dash, dummy?

          • MJC

            Thank you, Hominid, for this hilarious demonstration.
            The name-calling is a little obvious, though, don't you think?

          • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N

            But what I mean is, who says the 100-meter dash is a good measure of the value of a person? Especially if they suck at sword combat?? :D (I know it's ridiculous, I couldn't help myself). It depends what you find important- subjective, as always.

          • Hominid

            Got it - you Libs oppose any standards of performance. You oppose discernment. Everybody is equivalent and deserves a trophy.

          • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N

            I did not say that, you're getting confused because you have too many comments on your plate at once.

          • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N

            What kind of test determines that in an absolute sense? Your only judges are ultimately yourself and whichever other people choose to judge you (including those who put together various paper tests). Our intellect developed to enable us to clearly see reality (and yes, take advantage of it), didn't it? So a 'practical' test would be whether you can act astutely within the world and achieve your aims, whatever those happen to be, wouldn't it? But I still don't know what you mean by 'absolute' here.

            Also, I'm not sure what you think my 'ideology' is. Do I need to have one? Or can I have my own perspective? :D You should look at my username if you want to know whose work I can appreciate, however.

          • Hominid

            Got it - you're a garden variety Lib who doesn't like standards and sees discernment as 'judgmental.'

            Your 'theory' regarding 'intellect development' is pedestrian nonsense.

            YOU introduced the term 'absolute' - I just threw it back at you. So, it means whatever YOU want it to mean.

          • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N

            I introduced it here "Or do you believe that you are better than other people in some absolute sense?"
            So, do you?
            You said "Better intellect in an absolute sense - tested and proven."
            I am still waiting for your logic, and to be dazzled by your intellect. Otherwise, it is just a convenient feeling that you are basing your statement on (a feeling that anyone could have, regardless of ability), and nothing more.

            If you tell me that you are excellent at math, or a skillful artist compared to others,etc. then fine. But that still has no bearing on how you'd choose to treat other people. Some like to be polite simply because they find it pleasant, and to them, it makes things flow more elegantly than constantly engaging in an animalistic struggle for supremacy (which is crude, and also implies that one feels close to defeat at all times)

            PS: Regarding my 'theory', do you have a better idea?

          • Hominid

            Are we debating politeness or suffering fools? I was under the impression it was the latter since the former isn't worthy of serious discussion.

            See, when you blather, "things flow more elegantly than constantly engaging in an animalistic struggle for supremacy," you exhibit ideological preconceptions that you favor because of wishful thinking & indoctrination rather than evidence & rational thinking.

          • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N

            I was not indoctrinated (any more than you- and possibly less!), it's what I really think- and I didn't always have the same view. I said up front that only some people feel that way. But if you feel otherwise, it is just as subjective as how I feel. What is the rational basis for being unpleasant in a social setting with strangers? As for any rational justification of your high opinion of yourself (there will never be one, for anyone, it's always subjective), all I hear is 'the sound of silence'...

          • mjamison

            Hominid, are you intentionally being obtuse as a means of demonstrating the characteristics discussed in the article or are you so completely unaware of what you're writing that you don't understand that you've portrayed the perfect jerk?
            And responding with broad generalizations like "you Libs" or offering superficial analysis as if you've garnered anything from a brief comment post really doesn't make erudite or superior.
            O.K. , now it's your turn to call me names and say something ignorant.

          • Hominid


          • PurVirgo

            Obvious troll is obvious.

    • http://sunderedsheres.com Renaissance Nerd

      It might be because the news is a microscope, and concentrates on exceptions. You think any journalist would report "8,398 dads taught their children to ride their bikes today with total gentle encouragement, not a cuss-word in sight." The rule is invisible, because it's the rule. The exception is visible, because it's the exception. So when you watch the news, or read a newspaper or website, you're collecting the exceptions and they seem to crowd you. But when you're in the supermarket, you see reality, rather than what lives in the microscope. You see a mom with four kids looking harassed and tired but somehow keeping an even keel. You see a huge fellow like me trying not to run down other shoppers because he walks so much faster than most people. You see somebody help an old lady get down some cans she can't reach. And you see jerks too, but not in the same concentration as what you see on the news.

      Got to be careful about being a news junkie. It can distort your reality matrix just like porn or too much theatre or twice daily Bible classes. 'Too much of a good thing is wonderful,' said Mae West, but it really isn't. You can get bored with anything if you repeat it too frequently. Figuring out the correct frequency, or at least the best frequency, is the key. 'We never have sex,' says the husband, 'only three times a week!' 'We always have sex,' says the wife, 'like three times a week!'

      • AmiiRowsonbao

        just before I looked at the receipt ov $8130 , I didn't believe that my
        sister woz like actualy bringing in money part-time from there pretty old
        laptop. . there aunts neighbour has been doing this 4 only about 22 months and
        at present repayed the mortgage on their appartment and bought themselves a
        Chrysler . see here M­o­n­e­y­d­u­t­i­e­s­.­C­O­M­

    • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N

      I suspect that your abstract negative feelings are just a reaction due to the fact that the only thing you know about the people in the stories is that they're doing something you find ugly (this may explain the vitriol in forums too :) ). But once you meet any person in real life, you get to know more about them, and there are usually a few interesting or pleasant aspects. So then, I think there isn't really much of a contradiction after all.

    • ApathyNihilism

      Actually, your reactions seem quite consistent. You are reacting differently to different people. The news does tend to focus on abhorrent people and events, from wars to mass murders. The people behind those events are the jerks, not you.

    • Anarcissie

      I defer to everyone because of an assured, calm sense of my unquestionable superiority. Politeness, kindness, consideration -- noblesse oblige.

      In regard to the term 'jerk', I feel that it still retains its old meaning of 'sucker, patsy, fool, uninformed person', so that while an asshole can be very clever, a jerk is not.

    • hypnosifl

      I think this suggests a flaw in the analysis, it's not uncommon to find opinionated people who think the views of most around them are foolish, yet are considerate of other people's needs on a personal level and not inclined to "kicking down" at their supposed social inferiors. Consider someone like Richard Dawkins--I don't know much about him personally, but I see no reason to assume that just because he can be sort of abrasive and high-handed when it comes to debating intellectual issues he feels passionately about, that should mean that he is rude in personal interactions. Or consider this quote from George Carlin: "I love and treasure individuals as I meet them, I loathe and despise the groups they identify with and belong to." A similar one from Jonathan Swift: "I have ever detested all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals; for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love counsellor such-a-one, and judge such-a-one; it is so with physicians, (I will not speak of my own trade,) soldiers, English, Scotch, French, and the rest. But principally I hate and detest that animal called man; although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth."

      The cynic-as-disappointed-idealist seems like a common personality dynamic, and my intuition is that this sort of attitude is most often found in people with an anti-authoritarian streak--so that what people like this tend to hate most about group identities, ideologies, religions and so forth is precisely their tendency to foster "jerky", bullying, thoughtless behavior in people. Whereas a "jerk" as described in the article just wants to be the top dog himself, and is annoyed that others don't just accept his superiority.

    • Laogou

      Why do you delete any critical comments?

  • Jon

    who is this guy? I was surprised something as trite as this appeared on this site, and here I was thinking this sort of gibberish was reserved for sites like thoughcatalog.

    • Gregory Heil

      Hey, I see what you did there. Well played, Jon. Well played.

    • billmarvel

      Yet another!

      Though on third thought it could be that Hominid and razer and Jon are having a little fun at our expense, here. Would that be jerkish behavior?

      • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N

        I don't know, but if this is as bad as trolling gets on Aeon, then Aeon is a beacon of civility.

      • Hominid

        Got it - anyone who doesn't share your Lib world view is a 'jerk.'

        • Young Money

          Nope, anyone who talks shit but can't back it up is a jerk. So far, you qualify. Don't like it, throw an argument on the table and defend it.

  • Joe

    Nice, I like it. Some people actually deliberately try to be aggressive (and emulate Machiavelli's advice to the Prince) in business whilst being quite gentle in life. What do you make of this form of split personality?

    • ApathyNihilism

      They're jerks.

  • Conrad J. Klinkhammer

    I'm probably a jerk for saying this, but when you say "...ethicist philosophers seem to behave no morally better, on average, than comparison groups..." you are begging the question. That is to say, you have a group of people who are working to define morality, and measuring them by a different morality (right or wrong) is incongruent with whether or not they are in fact, moral people. You need to see if they are adhering to their own moral philosophy, or have a real universal framework for morality (which, you know m, may or may not exist, but is certainly not agreed upon enough to make the statement you did).

    But great article!

  • RJS

    The Jerk is a response pattern that relies too much on the limbic system. The Sweetheart is able to see the same things in a different light from the jerk because the brain's resources are being utilized more by the prefrontal cortex. You can actually move from Jerk-->Sweetheart simply by verbalizing what is annoying you. Verbalizing it makes your brain devote its resources back toward the prefontal cortex and can help overcome the "emotional hijackings" that Jerk-ish behavior is indictive of.

    • John Davis

      Many people's sweethearts are jerks controlling from the bottom.

  • http://trueliberty.us icecycle66

    I'd rather be a jerk than an idiot.

    • Tony Prost

      I don't think you need to limit yourself!

  • David

    In the middle of the article it appears the author is unaware of the existing Authoritarian personality designation by 20th century psychology. Not that Authoritarians usually aren't jerks, but that we already have a label (old an unempirical as it is). It might have been better to somehow introduce the article with the submission (in some form) that "Authoritarians are generally viewed as jerks".

  • http://ziprage.com Kevin Curry

    A quick look at any statistic, lets take literacy for example (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literacy_in_the_United_States), and I can understand why intelligent, well educated people get frustrated in this world. If you're well educated you're a minority surrounded by idiots and in a capitalist democracy the minority doesn't win.

    • http://camdenluxford.wordpress.com Camden

      In the capitalist democracy I live in the well-educated, elite minority seems to be not only winning but attempting to declare the game over.

      • http://ziprage.com Kevin Curry

        Money does not equate to intelligence.

        • http://camdenluxford.wordpress.com Camden

          No, it doesn't. But it buys you an excellent education.

          • Hominid

            Only a Lib ditz would utter the an inane assertion that money "buys you an excellent education." The quality of one's intellect and motivation determine the quality of one's education.

          • Young Money

            Good deal. Post your educational credentials -- which degrees, from where, which honours if any. I want to know how seriously to take you.

          • http://ziprage.com Kevin Curry

            Education also does not equate to intelligence.

    • billmarvel

      Okay. Let's rate this commenter. Jerk? Or pseudojerk? Or do we know enough about Kevin's intentions, here? Could it be that distinguishing the jerk from his double is easier in philosophy class than among blog-comments. Or do blogs invite jerkery? Are there people who are jerks only on blogs?
      I think we have begun to hit siome of he limits of academic inq

      • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N

        "Are jerk-mimics really jerks?"

        *clears throat*
        In the context of experimental inquiries on a forum, what we perceive on the forum is the sole information we have in determining the truth, therefore, if the mimicry is complete within the forum, it follows that...
        *shuffles papers*

    • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N

      "in a capitalist democracy the minority doesn't win"
      What? to the extent the capitalism is pure (and irresponsible to all but its shareholders and owners, who are a minority), it has an effect on democracy that takes the 'demos' out of it.

      • Hominid

        Uh-uh! Capitalism is responsible to the consumers of their products.

        We know beyond a doubt from a long history that capitalism provides the most prosperity and freedom for the most people. Socialism causes widespread misery and demands tyranny.

        • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N

          "Capitalism is responsible to the consumers of their products."
          This is true insofar as they have an option of what they consume. What they can afford, and where they live can limit this (I'm thinking of newly-industrial Britain/'The Jungle'; there's not so much of that in the US these days), but the biggest detriment to choice is monopoly. In pure capitalism, nothing would prevent monopoly (and the buying-out and destroying of would-be competitors). Of course, that does not prevent new technologies from changing the old established ones (and sometimes overthrowing them, when not recognized in time).
          I do think the state should put a bit of a 'damper' on the oscillations in the market caused by totally free capitalism, otherwise, the instability leads to a lot of gruesome crashes and waste that sometimes self-perpetuate irrationally for years. Well, that's nature- but we're part of nature too- if we were wolves, maybe we would try to temper the boom-bust caribou population cycle. :D

    • Roy Niles

      Minority: a relatively small group of people, who control the capital.

  • José Rubem

    You are reading too much Alain de Botton, mr. Schwitzgebel.

  • Angling Saxon

    The word you want is twat. Or cunt. Or wanker.

    • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N

      I like your username! :D

  • razer

    I would rather be a jerk than an idiot who has that much time on his hands he writes stupid articles. Don't foolitude yourself.

    • Tony Prost

      Congratulations! Your wish came true!

    • billmarvel

      Ah!! Another one!

    • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N


  • disqus_6HfnTuxPSq

    I think I have the definition, but I'm not sure what the theory is. One question that goes unaddressed is whether the jerk can help being the way he is or not; and if not, why not. Most of the behavior described I would call "narcissistic exceptionalism," and I think therapists would agree that there isn't much help available for this type of jerk. He suffers from a kind of blindness, and can no more see from another's perspective than the physically blind man can see colors. On the other hand, seeing your own point of view first is the human default position. Pretty clearly the author doesn't really believe himself to be a jerk, because he has the ability to switch to other points of view even if his initial reaction is egocentric.

    Some of the behavior described in the article is purely "careerist"; and in some of the situations, it would matter, at least a little, whether the jerk was factually or morally right. So I would say that the author has not succeeded in putting enough daylight between his new taxonomic entry and the Machiavellian and narcissistic personalities he alludes to briefly at the start.

  • John Lubans

    I look forward to reading this in depth. If you have not already done so, take a look at this article:
    Casciaro, Tiziana and Miguel Sousa Lobo, “Competent
    Jerks, Lovable Fools and the Formation of Social Networks,” HBR June 2005

  • Bedrich Dubedat

    I seem to remember that Bill Hicks had some insights into the advantages of being a jerk. I'll say no more...

  • derpina

    You don't have to be a jerk to think the people you work with are idiots. Just because they're slow/incompetent, that doesn't mean they're not real people with their own feelings and concerns. It doesn't mean that you're mean to them or dismissive of them. It just means they're, you know... terrible at their jobs.

    • http://sunderedsheres.com Renaissance Nerd

      Quite the opposite. If you want people you don't supervise to do their jobs, you have to be extremely diplomatic. I hate hate hate (hate hate) trying to get other people to get off their duffs and do their work, but I spend an awful lot of time doing it, and I doubt a one of them knows how much it irks me. However, anyone who does their job conscientiously has my respect, whether burger flipper or CEO.

  • mattmark

    Perhaps it's a warning sign that Mr. Schwitzgebel seems every bit as preoccupied with the notion of hierarchy as the jerks who kiss up and kick down. Being somewhat less egalitarian than a true sweetheart myself, I can't help wondering where a
    similar preoccupation would rank his own concerns in the broad history of
    philosophical analysis. Can even the most empathic, sweetheart sensibility discern in such crude conceptual categories and adolescent speculations, staples of teenage angst everywhere (where, oh where, do I fit in the hierarchy?), something analogous to the substantive concerns of Plato, Aristotle, Kant or Husserl? Does the term 'jerk' itself, as defined, help to logically unify, or indeed add anything at all to our understanding of the range of non-empathic and even sociopathic tendencies surveyed? Are all deficiencies of self-insight, along with the varied factors presumed to play contributory roles as causal agents, reducible; amenable to measurement on a single scale; subordinated to the task of arriving at the 'gotcha' verdict, 'X is a jerk?'

    What oblivious jerks we must be to presume that even hierarchically-certified philosophers fail to meet our exacting intellectual standards. Except for the wee detail that they no longer appear to meet the standards set by previous generations of philosophers.

  • Guest

    Another Californian ‘Eric’
    developed a
    theory of the Jerk, viz Eric Berne, whose account can be found (inter alia) in
    'Games People Play' (1964). Berne’s account is complementary to that of Eric Schwitzgebel.
    Jerks for Berne are existentially judgemental. In Berne’s transactional theory “A
    Jerk is someone who is overly sensitive to Parental influences”. Jerks are
    essentially inauthentic, caught up in a project of looking good to parents (or
    their social successor, the CEO). This concern with their appearance (to those
    whose opinions, in their view, matter) leads them to disregard the opinions and
    feelings of the majority who are of little concern. (Hence the “kissing up”, “kicking
    down” commented on by rsanchez.) Both Berne and Schwitzgebel agree that there
    is a bit of Jerk in all of us. The objective of Berne’s transactional analysis
    was to try and minimise Jerkiness, and to maximise personal authenticity through awareness,
    spontaneity and intimacy, a project which Berne concluded “may be frightening
    and even perilous to the unprepared.”

  • http://wgrey.weebly.com William Grey

    There is another Californian ‘Eric’ who developed a theory of the Jerk, viz Eric Berne, whose account can be found (inter alia) in 'Games People Play' (1964). Berne’s account is complementary to that of Eric Schwitzgebel. Jerks for Berne are existentially judgemental. In Berne’s transactional theory “A Jerk is someone who is overly sensitive to Parental influences”. Jerks are essentially inauthentic, caught up in a project of looking good to parents (or their social successor, the CEO). This concern with their appearance (to those whose opinions, in their view, matter) leads them to disregard the opinions and feelings of the majority who are of no concern. (Hence the “kissing up”, “kicking down” commented on by rsanchez.) Both Berne and Schwitzgebel agree that there is a bit of Jerk in all of us. The objective of Berne’s transactional analysis was to try to minimise Jerkiness, and to maximise personal authenticity through awareness, spontaneity and intimacy, a project which Berne concluded “may be frightening and even perilous to the unprepared.”

  • sasddasd

    It irks me that the author would leave the second benefit of the theory until later in the article, presumably as a sort of surprise shock, only to have it posted in the subheading. I guess it's not really an issue, but it's bending my mind for some reason. A fantastic article, though. I'll definitely be following aeon from now on.

  • vepxistqaosani

    I should like to expand the etiology of jerkiness to include those environments in which being a jerk is essential to survival itself. For instance, the Garden State Parkway.

  • ApathyNihilism

    What am I, if I believe I am surrounded by fools, but think myself just as much a fool, if not more so?

    • mattmark


  • Roy Niles

    A jerk is someone that thinks an egg could have made a chicken.

    • Richard_Janssen

      In Jamaica, chicken is occasionally jerked.

  • time warp

    Two stabs at the nazi's and nothing at old uncle Joe?

  • Djimd

    Fun article but your speculations stopped short of looking at "jerkitude" from the framework of math and science, particularly game theory. In all your descriptions, it is a given that compliance to societal norms of behavior is always "good" and that hypocrisy is always "bad". If that is actually the case how could we have hierarchies in the first place. Who are you to say that a person who complies the the laws, but does not comply with socially accepted norms of "fair play" is somehow morally inferior or to be looked down on?
    Yes, if everybody behaved like a "jerk", then we might have chaos, but then again the existence of "jerk type personalities" might be essential to making your nation strong? Just like "greed" can be good for society. Looked at from a game theory standpoint, it might be a smart strategy for success to ignore the feelings of others. As much as I loathe politicians in general, we have to have an ecosystem that breeds them and gives us ones that are strong. All those "jerk" qualities described can probably be better made entirely into a theory without the moral judgment as was alluded to early in the article. Because selfishness, bending the rules, etc. Are not purely "bad". They are really just one approach to interaction with others.
    If you start the theory with absolutely no value judgment but instead define some of the "negative aspects" of jerkitude purely in terms of how a majority may Rate or PERCEIVE that person, and how that might have a negative affect on their future, and also how that perception is "how others see you", it all becomes more scientific.

  • Idiot Jerk

    Just because you're a jerk though, doesn't mean that everyone still isn't an idiot. Perhaps this is why people become jerks in the first place...

  • Rob Lewis

    All the posited "jerk" behaviors seem exactly like narcissistic personality disorder to me.

  • RMB

    Looking it at from the opposite perspective might also be enlightening. There is a possibly misattributed quote from William Gibson that goes something like this: "Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.”

  • John Mountfort

    A jerk is someone who deliberately fouls things up for other people. Don't you even know what a jerk is!

  • puritangirl1970

    This was a fascinating and well-written article. This is why I love Aeon Magazine. I would add this: Perhaps there are incorrigible, natural-born jerks, but I think we should be cautious about sorting people. We simply can't know the totality of all that has gone into forming another person's perspective. We are constrained by the information available to us and the amount of information we can take in during the few short years we are alive. Also, if everyone had always treated you as a punchline, you might develop an antisocial outlook on life, and with it, a good measure of jerkitude.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    I wonder whether this theory will really sort things correctly, in the world in which we live now.

    So much of our lives are ruled by bureaucratic-managerial types, in such an abusive fashion, that it is hard to see how someone is a "jerk" for resenting and lashing out against it. And because it is the nature of bureaucratic systems to bury and ultimately hide accountability, the only person one ever has access to is a lowly clerk, stewardess, phone-answerer, etc. But this is the fault of the system, not of the customer/citizen, who simply wants to be treated in a civil, decent fashion and to get what he/she has paid for.

  • Reza Mahani

    I looked over your post (confession: did not read it carefully) looking for the place that you push your argument to the limit: Trying to identify people as "jerk" is the first sign of being one!
    I think we need all kinds of people around, jerks and otherwise. The society that I am most afraid of is the one in which everyone is a "good" (law-abiding, honest, respectful, …) citizen. I have an intuition that a society like that will be the growing field for sociopaths, hitlers and the like. I'd like to say, evil comes from trying to be perfectly good. :)

  • Montgomery Draxel

    Jerks get chicks.

  • Mike

    Good article. Just as a point of info, the author seems to be describing an instance of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, in which one's ability to recognize one's errors is compromised because that ability is made up of the very same things it would have taken to perform the skill correctly:


    Also, Eric Berne, author of Games People Play, writes that jerks are common players of psychological games, which are social transactions that take place on both a social and ulterior level with emotional payoffs for the players that result from a switch of ego states. Regardless of how much one buys into transactional analysis, the view Berne presents is pretty consistent with the one in this article:

    There is a bit of Jerk in everyone,
    but the object of game analysis is to keep it at a minimum. A Jerk is someone who is overly sensitive to
    Parental influences. Hence his Adult data processing and his Child's spontaneity
    are likely to be interfered with at critical moments, resulting in
    inappropriate or clumsy behavior. In extreme cases the Jerk merges with the
    Toady, the Show-off, and the Cling.

  • EllaDisenchanted

    I think the theory is solid, but the article dances around it for a while before getting to the meat of the theory.

  • CuriosityCheck

    what if we stopped using this black-white-point of view - jerks-sweatheart-bullshit. why should it be bad the feel that you are the only one who can do this or that task? of course you should have insight in the whole workflow - then let everyone around do wherefore he/she is good at communicate with other experts of other subjects - then you have the freedom to do what is propriate for what you do + deligate the rest

  • Mihail Iliev

    Like Kim Fierens, I am a jerk in theory and a sweetheart in practice. I live in Belgium I have the genuine feeling that this country, or at least Brussels, is swarming with jerks. Often I think that the only way forward is to do exactly as those hoards of jerks do - be extremely rude by default. And yet in practice I almost never am. I give them the benefit of doubt and take advantage most of the time and I think "God what jerks, I should become one too" and I never do.

    The trouble is that in an environment of jerks one needs to be a jerk. Otherwise you have to swallow to much.

    So am I a jerk?

  • taylormade

    So, wow...one major conclusion here is that a person is quite spot-on when self-measuring neutral or positive traits, but tends to 'lie' or miss the target badly when self-measuring bad or "jerk" traits. I am gob-smacked.

  • taylormade

    A light-hearted comment, that I have often used tongue-in-cheek about paranoids: "Everyone is crazy except me and you, and I'm not sure about you."

  • Tomas Pajaros

    "the jerk is someone who culpably fails to appreciate the perspectives of others around him" --- I'm not sure I would have this limiter. I think many jerks "appreciate" the perspectives of others perfectly; but only to make use of them for personal maneuvering.

  • mrbiscuit

    Lucy Kellaway (FT Columnist) has a term for the opposite of a Jerk "sweetheart" being almost too endearing and not reflecting the cost of being nice. "Toilet Face" is the person you go to in a room that looks nice enough to respond to a polite request of "where is the toilet". I am a proud toilet face, however as it does sound negative it does put some of the weight of the role onto the moniker. After all being nice has a cost, time/money/emotional energy/possibly long term career.

  • Limot

    Such a simple black-and-white moralizing world the author lives in, must be nice... Thank goodness he wasn't an authority in the times of Galileo "Galileo, you are being a total jerk by thinking you are surrounded by fools, that only you are right, and everybody else is wrong"... Oh wait, he was!

  • http://www.livinginthehereandnow.co.za/ beachcomber

    Is there such a thing as a loveable jerk? Refer Dr Temperance Brennan in the TV series "Bones". She's brilliant, beautiful and treats everyone else around her like an idiot. She's tediously pedantic and self-assuming, making no bones (pun intended) about it. Yet all her staff love her and would die for her.

    Are there real people like this or is she just an overwritten character?

    And what about Larry David of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" fame? Surely the biggest jerk of all time, yet he is so often right!

    Who is the jerk in traffic? The guy who sticks to the speed limit or the one trying to barge through? It seems jerkishness could be interchangeable.

  • Maria

    I know I'm really late on this discussion, but I just read an excerpt of it in the Week magazine and I found it interesting. Many times this topic is never discussed and so many Americans find pride in their jerkitude and rarely admit that it is a problem or a hindrance to worthwhile relationships in their life. It is actually a quite necessary tool in gaining insanely large amounts of wealth in our society. C.S.Lewis has an entire chapter devoted to this topic in his book Mere Christianity. It is titled "The Great Sin" and instead of "jerkitude" he calls it "pride or self conceit" and the opposite being "humility" instead of the "Sweetheart", but it is the same as what you are talking about. It is uncanny how well it accompanies what you are saying and even brings further clarity to it. He brings in a bit of ancient wisdom to this trait that precedes many of the modern psychological analyses and so it's a bit more down to earth and simple than those, but I like your observations as well! Thank you for writing this.

  • Proust

    Meh, these sound more like typical moronic proles than real, bonafide jerks.

    This article describes low-intelligence & low-savvy retards. Who cares, this is like 80% of America. I was expecting to read about actual intelligent, important, genius narcissistic assholes with things to accomplish.

  • Dom Mill

    Sorry, only a sweetheart would do the soul-searching necessary to see jerkhood, which makes the condition intractable. I will now slink back to my lair seething against such an injustice. Oh, the inhumanity.

  • Kity

    I enjoy so much this article. I lived with a sweetheart jerk for almost
    30 years. What an experience! I am an advocate for the theory that one chooses
    with certain unconsciousness our spouse with resemblance of our parents in my
    case, my father. He, my father, was a man with a brilliant manipulative mind
    which I think sometimes was out of his own control. My ex is so much like my
    father was that I reach a point in which I was just wondering why I was unable
    to become a sweetheart jerk, lol. However for both of them I can tell you that
    their difficulties to cope with the rest of the world made out of them hermits
    unable to recognize their own feelings of love for others, their pride and
    complexity lean their balance beyond that middle point hence making their life’s
    and ours a daily struggle.

  • Becca Kallem

    Maybe because I'm on the sweetheart end, I try to understand where the jerk is coming from. It must be miserable to be a jerk-behaving person. Maybe the behavior stems from a deep-seated feeling that one is the worst, not the best. I also think a lot of jerk behavior comes from a scarcity mentality. Like "winning at life" is some zero-sum game. They missed the preschool song
    that "love is something if you give it away, you end up having more." Maybe they missed that sort of reciprocal love and nurture in younger years. Or, say, generally nonjerky work colleagues who don't have what they need from higher up can a) figure out how to band together out of common interest or b) failing that, be reduced by sheer frustration/desperation to fighting over scraps -- jerky kicking sideways or down if they feel generally unappreciated and powerless.

  • Polybius

    Having just read this, the author I think is conflating two different concepts. There is the condition of morality and the condition of breeding. Though the two are often linked and one can argue that breeding is an expression of morality, they are in essence exclusive to each other. What the author seems to be talking about is the nature of one's breeding; that is to say, how to behave in society as a gentleman or a lady. The foundation for such behaviour is truly the respect one must give another by virtue of being an individual endowed with, as the Founding Fathers put it, Natural Rights. We may justify certainly our lack of breeding in the clothing of morality. Morality, however, is a condition of religion; that is to say, a belief in permanent truths. It is not behaviourally determined. The best example I can think of is the oft-quoted statement, "though the signpost points to Boston, one may choose not to take that road". I suppose being a 'jerk' merely makes one uncouth. In no way can it be said that being judgemental or discerning qualifies one as a 'jerk'. When Charlie Rose asked Harold Bloom if 35 million readers can be wrong about Harry Potter, Mr. Bloom's response was simply, "yes they can". My suspicion is the author is justifying his argument through the lens of the multi-culturalist, which as anyone who has had time to analyse the term properly realises that it is a uni-cultural phenomenon.

  • Don DeHart Bronkema

    In true quantum spirit, let's unite contra those who know Everything & Nothing…quod erat argumentum.

  • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

    Isaac Newton (whose personal style of interaction might fit the bill of being a jerk) used that very word in the construction of his mathematical opus, the Calculus.

    In Newton's Calculus we discover the mathematical relationships between time, distance, velocity, and acceleration. But Newton didn't stop at acceleration (the so-called 2nd derivative). He called the 3rd derivative jerk. Have you ever taken the dog out for a jerk?

    Now consider this analogy, linking the terms in Newton's Calculus to the corresponding terms in any individual's learning journey:

    Analogizing Motion (Time, Distance, Velocity and Acceleration) to the Learning Process (Time, Knowledge, Learning, and Emotions)

    Here is our proposed analogy between ordinary motion and a learning journey...

    • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

      In this view (above), a jerk is someone who is "emotionally incorrect" and whose behavior is emotionally shocking (rather than soothing) to others.

  • Whyso Youcandissme

    The problemo is that most people act exactly like the 'jerk' you're describing.... i.e. as though the world were made for and about them, and everyone else just lives in it. If this were not the case then reasonable people, like moi, would not be so seething with anger every single time we use public transport and have to deal with self-centered little egomaniacs who (a) refuse to move inside carriages to let OTHER PEOPLE use the public trains, (b) decide that the best place to stop and have a conversation is at the bottom of an escalator, or better, in a doorway, (c) treat the airline host/hostess like some personal slave for the duration of the flight despite the fact that he bought an economy ticket, (d) whinge about the likes of Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden or Michael Moore, i.e. individuals who have actually risked or sacrificed something to wake the rest of us the fuck up to what our supposedly democratic governments are doing with the tax money they extort from us, shall I continue. The jerks are not the rare exceptions to the many nice and selfless people, they are the many. I wish it weren't so, but a quick day in the life of any sane, reasonable, compassionate person tells you the opposite to what you have written above -- namely that the masses are not great folk struggling to make the world better, but lazy selfish assholes selling out those who actually lift a finger to raise some friggin ideals.

  • John E Williams

    I agree with your jerk theory and I have my own variant: The Mattermore.

  • Laogou

    found this funny and interesting until I realized he was serious. This theory assumes that egalitarianism is
    rational and virtuous. It’s difficult for
    anyone to hold one set of standards for himself and another for others. As people prune the bushes of their minds
    and moral characters, it becomes difficult for them to accept and tolerate
    those who haven’t. This is the simple
    explanation for “jerkitude.” In most cases, the jerk is more intelligent than
    the sweat-heart. We want to encounter
    sweat-hearts in our daily life, but we quickly tire of them as friends. They are sort of like people who laugh at

  • Laogou

    I found this funny and interesting until I realized he was serious. This theory assumes that egalitarianism is rational and virtuous. It’s difficult for anyone to hold one set of standards for himself and another for others. As people prune the bushes of their minds and moral characters, it becomes difficult for them to accept and tolerate those who haven’t. This is the simple explanation for “jerkitude.” In most cases, the jerk is more intelligent than the sweat-heart. We want to encounter sweat-hearts in our daily life, but we quickly tire of them as friends. They are sort of like people who laugh at everything.

  • Laogou

    I found this funny and interesting until I realized he was serious. This theory assumes that egalitarianism is rational and virtuous. It’s difficult for anyone to hold one set of standards for himself and another for others. As people prune the bushes of their minds and moral characters, it becomes difficult for them to accept and tolerate those who haven’t. This is the simple explanation for “jerkitude.” In most cases, the jerk is more intelligent than the sweat-heart. We want to encounter sweat-hearts in our daily life, but we quickly tire of them as friends. They are sort of like people who laugh at everything.