Bryan Caplan  

Where Are All the Jerks in My Life?

John Taylor: The Fed Done It... The Aristocracy of Pull...
Do you deal with unpleasant, petty, and/or vicious people during your typical day?  I don't.  As far as I can tell, I personally know a strangely small number of jerks.  As an econo-nerd, of course, I can't just be thankful for my good fortune.  I've got to analyze why I happen to live in a virtually jerk-free corner of the world.

Here are the leading hypotheses:

1. I'm oblivious.  There are plenty of jerks all around me; I just live in such a nerdy professorial fog that I don't notice them.

2. Personal selection.  I'm really good at screening out and/or scaring off jerks. 

3. Club selection.  It's not that I'm a jerk repellent; rather, I've been admitted into a club that screens out/scares away jerks.

4. Personal deterrence.  Maybe I do something that convinces jerks to behave themselves around me.  For example, my seemingly implacable demeanor may deprive the typical jerk of the satisfaction of pulling my chain.

5. Club deterrence.  Perhaps I belong to a club that punishes jerkiness to an unusual degree.

6. I've got surprisingly good social skills.  Laugh if you must!  According to this hypothesis, I am less likely than others to provoke jerky behavior.   The most obvious mechanism is that I habitually ignore the minor offenses of others, and apologize for my own minor offenses.  I assume that others' slights against me are unintentional, and happily say "I'm sorry," even when I think I've done nothing wrong.  As a result, my differences with others rarely spiral into a cycle of out-of-sync tit-for-tat.

7. My club has surprisingly good social skills.  Does that even make sense?

8. Beckerian segregation.  I'm not really in a low-jerk club.  I'm in a club of like-minded people, who are, as a result, able to amicably co-exist.

9. I'm a jerk, and/or belong to a jerk club.  Jerkiness is invisible to me not because I'm oblivious, but because I regard it as normal.

Useful data: My life didn't become a low-jerk zone until I entered college.  It didn't become virtually jerk-free until I got hired by GMU.  So unless I've gotten much more oblivious with age, we can reject #1, and probably #7 as well.  #8 is very tempting, but many clubs of like-minded people are hotbeds of petty jealousy and heresy-hunting.

What's your take?  And if you're right, how can we mass produce my experience?

P.S. Question: My impression is that most economists do not enjoy a low-jerk environment.  Any other econo-bloggers care to weigh in?  Of course, if the jerks are watching your every move, you can post under a pseudonym. :-)

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COMMENTS (22 to date)
Matt Simpson writes:

I opt for a combo of #3 and #6. In my experience, intelligence is correlated with willingness to smooth over social situations in the ways you describe in #6. Colleges tend to select for intelligence, which screens out the jerks. The screening process is more strict in academia, especially in rigorous fields such as economics. You probably have these social characteristics since you passed the screening process.

Or I could have a completely idealistic picture of how academics typically interact...

Like Matt, I vote for #3, but I would emphasize different details. There are many clubs where pretty vicious behavior can be a successful strategy for raising one's social status. In "rigorous" fields, however, people are able to compete for status on the quality of their ideas, which can usually be assessed in a objective manner by everyone involved. Other economists are likely to view ad hominem attacks as a sign of intellectual weakness.

Of course, this critically depends on being able to assess the work of others based on objective criteria. I predict that the Art and English departments will suffer more petty viciousness than Economics, Chemistry, or Math.

mgroves writes:

How about this possibility: there aren't that many "jerks" per se, but there are thousands of behaviors that are "jerky". All it takes is one instance of a jerky behavior (someone makes a mistake, someone is unlucky, someone is having a bad day, etc) for someone to labeled a jerk by someone else. The hundreds of non-jerk actions don't get noticed (pessimistic bias), and thus from everyday conversations, we surmise that the world is swimming in jerks.

Unit writes:

Could it be related to the fact that you've acquired a position of authority? While in your youth many more people had, or thought they had, more authority over you?

Dr. T writes:

"My life didn't become a low-jerk zone until I entered college."

If you went to a high population college and didn't notice many jerks, then I vote for #1 or #9. It is impossible to attend a large college without encountering more than a few people (students, faculty, staff, or workers in the businesses that cater to college kids) who behave like jerks (routinely or intermittently).

If you went to a small college, then you may have entered a low-jerk zone. If so, then I envy your experience.

Jacob Oost writes:

You're looking for a cause-and-effect explanation for what could be a random phenomenon.

Consider the example Sowell uses when discussing alleged racism by employers. The assumption goes: in the absence of racism by employers, minority x will be equally proportionally represented in all industries, correcting for geographic demographics (the only demographic some people bother to correct for, I might add). Thus, if you find a firm or industry with a lower-than-average proportion of minority x working there, then racism is the explanation.

Sowell says that you could make this analogous to coin flips to explain the fallacy. Absent interference, if you flip a coin one hundred times, you should get, on average, fifty heads and fifty tails. So he flipped a coin one hundred times, dividing ten flips in a row into "firms."

While, in the end, there was an average of fifty heads and fifty tails (or very nearly there, like 51-49), the "firms" didn't perform so well. One firm had two heads and eight tails, another eight heads and two tails. And there were other variances. Only one or two "firms" exhibited average proportional representation.

Now, obviously, there are jillions of little reasons, none of them trends in and of themselves, that led to this. Changes in air density in the room during flipping, the speed of the thumb, the number of bounces before settling, etc.

IOW, consider the possibility that you are on the non-jerk end of the bell curve for a variety of random reasons that you will never ever know. And be happy you are, dangit. Some of us have to wonder why we have so many jerks in our lives.

That said, your page is the only page on the net that won't remember I've been here, even with cookies turned on. I have to keep re-entering my info every time I make a comment. Are you trying to send a message? Am I a jerk?

Gary Rogers writes:

I would suggest that the more results oriented your environment is, the less jerk behavior will be used or noticed. When people are recognized for their own contributions, jerks are relegated to the sidelines and eventually find a home elsewhere.

Bryan Caplan writes:

In response to the "results-oriented field" hypothesis, let me say that the non-GMU economists that I know are often full of bitterness towards their jerky colleagues. It might be even worse over in Lit Crit, but most economists don't feel anything like I do.

Captain Awesome writes:

Isn't Tullock famously a jerk? I can say on good authority that Bryan's always nice, but at least some non-idiot students definitely see some of the professors at GMU as jerks, at least to them.

El Presidente writes:

I'll go with #6 . . . except for the uninformed apology part. That seems less like a social skill and more like #1 if you haven't done anything to apologize for. Sorta suggest that the people around you demand insincere apologies with an implicit threat of unpleasantness. That would be kinda jerky on their part and thus you would be willfully ignorant of the nature of their behavior; in denial or something like that.

Gary Rogers makes a good point about objectivity. Similar people tend to be less at odds with one another in professional environments. But that could mean that you are all equally and similarly jerky (#8). Objectivity separates scrutiny of work from scrutiny of personalities. That helps, but individuals must share an objective for it to function reliably. Even then, passionate disagreements about the best means to the end can devolve into bickering.

I think Jacob Oost is closest to the most defensible explanation (paraphrase: just because that's the way the cookie crumbles), but I'm still partial to #6. Give yourself a little credit.

James A. Donald writes:

Rising status, fewer jerks - or fewer jerks that are visible to you.

John P. writes:

I agree with James Donald -- you've risen to a level where you're pretty much able to insulate yourself from jerks.

Bob Knaus writes:

#1, definitely #1 as developed over time. I call it "growing a thick skin." It's useful for dealing with all sorts of people, not just jerks. It's definitely something I've cultivated over the last decade or so. I'm much happier as a result.

The only downside to growing a thick skin (as I've explained to anyone who asks) is that it makes me impervious to the usual behavior modification strategies of others. So, since I don't want to be a jerk myself, I ask people to be direct with me about any of my behaviors that they find annoying. Since I don't take their criticism personally, I am able to accomodate them in a great majority of cases.

My goal is to be a curmudgeon with a heart of gold.

floccina writes:

"Do you deal with unpleasant, petty, and/or vicious people during your typical day? I don't. As far as I can tell, I personally know a strangely small number of jerks. "

Danger, danger, danger. IMO liveing a jerk free life could lead to a loss of touch with reality and dimishing your ability to be a good economist. SO go an find some real jerk to realte to now and then.

Alex J. writes:

If you merely contrast high school with post-high-school, you should consider that many high school students are basically imprisoned there. Lacking productive activities, they annoy their neighbors. The GMU economics department strikes me as the place where all of you would most like to be.

Might GMU economists benefit from an "us against the world" attitude? More conventional departments wouldn't have this camaraderie. Hearing Russ Roberts and Dan Klein chuckle about Econ Journal Watch makes me wonder if tweaking outsiders together substitutes for tweaking each other.

Zac writes:

I think, unless #1 is most of the story (I think it isn't), #2 would be obvious were it true (I think you would notice that you were screening out a lot of jerks). I discount #1 because my experience with GMU faculty suggests a real lack of jerks, not just obliviousness.

#3 is very tempting to me, but I have issues with it. On one hand it has a lot of explanatory power - your experience with jerks didn't end until you joined GMU faculty. On the other hand it seems unlikely because I doubt GMU hiring weighs "potential jerkiness" much more negatively than other programs.

I think #3 is part of the story, #2 probably somewhat, a touch of #1 (we'll call this optimism about people, not obliviousness), maybe a bit of #6, and don't entirely discount #8 because it goes a long way at reducing friction (I think this is most of the story for your perceived decline in jerks going from high school to college). Also consider "#10", luck - your (relatively small number of) colleagues don't change too often, and you just got lucky with the ones you have. Because I suspect luck is a big part of this story, I think prospects for mass producing the experience are grim. However, I think everyone who wants to reduce the amount of "jerks" in their life would do well to emulate the skills in #6. A jerk is not a jerk if they are never jerky to you.

guthrie writes:

As social creatures we strive to maintain a hierarchy as much as ducks, dolphins, or dingoes do. The struggle to maintain our status relative to others goes on constantly (though it doesn’t feel like a ‘struggle’ per se). Most of the time we do subtle things, physically or verbally, to mitigate conflict, but we are normally unaware of the hundreds of status transactions that take place even among close friends. Unless we feel challenged, we will go on altering and finding a balance with those around us.

BTW, I define a ‘jerk’ or ‘jerky behavior’ as someone who is, or actions/words that are, unusually and at times inexplicably aggressive. Does that sound about right?

I suggest the reasons are #4 with #6. You have become an expert at rising or lowering your status as the situation and interaction demands (most good teachers have this trait). You can’t be attacked if you offer your neck to the aggressors and will stand your ground if you feel even a small challenge to those things over which you have authority (your family, property, profession). You’re not perceived as weak, nor as lording your status over others.

Dan Weber writes:

I work in a field (computer security) that seems to attract jerks. It's nearly impossible to make a name for yourself without doing some big asshole thing, although there are a few rare exceptions.

Yet, I've found my interaction with jerks has dropped over the years. One thing is that I won't put up with it as much. Even though I've got a family to support, I'm much more willing to walk away from the jerks, or call them on it.

I don't like jerks, so I don't hang around with them. There's always something else to do.

Bryan -- I work in a field (investment banking) which is plagued with a surfeit of jerks, both among my industry peers and colleagues and the clients we all serve.

If you would like me to send some of these your way, on secondment, as it were, for the purposes of either research or salutary exposure in order to strengthen your anti-jerk defenses, just let me know. We have plenty to spare, and I am sure most of them would be delighted to exercise their jerkiness in a new and non-jerky setting.

Gary Rogers writes:

In defense of my results-oriented theory, economists at other schools are much more politically oriented than economists at GMU who seem to be more truth oriented. This small difference in attitude can make all the differrence. As a computer programmer, I see the same lack of jerks because we are all trying to just get the job done. Since our goal is solving problems rather than seeking political recognition, there is lots of teamwork and very little "jerk" behavior. Of course this could be because I am the jerk in the group and that makes me oblivious to the behavior.

Jason Malloy writes:
Dave Tufte writes:

I hate to admit it - as a libertarian and sometime conservative - but I think this is the big benefit of the 60's and 70's.

I think all of the feel good and acceptance "movements" started up at that time have lowered everyone's boiling point quite a bit.

My evidence? Kids don't get bullied as much as they used to. Hazing isn't accepted much any more. Many people are just too preoccupied with other stuff - including TV, the internet and video games - to worry about their surface differences with other people.

I know this is a scientifically weak hypothesis, but I encourage you to think about it. The casual discussions that adults have now have changed drastically from 30 years ago. In many areas of life the us vs. them mentality has been really toned down.

Now we just need to get that to happen between pro-market and pro-government types, and between BDS sufferers and the rest of us.

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