Bryan Caplan  

I Was a Teenage Misanthrope

Smuggling in Values... May Day, Bourgeois Virtues, an...
When I was a teenager, I viewed all of the following with antipathy: students not in honors classes, heavy metal fans, people who disliked classical music, stoners, athletes, cheerleaders, all but two of my teachers, car collectors, sports fans, smokers, drinkers, adults who hadn't gone to college, religious believers (especially Christians), liberals, conservatives, moderates, people bored by philosophy, anyone who didn't play Dungeons & Dragons, people who played Dungeons & Dragons without staying in character, Dungeon Masters for Monty Hall campaigns, people who didn't like classic literature, anyone who planned to major in math or science, people with low savings rates, people who were too cheap, gays, guys with girlfriends, punkers, proto-Goths, people who worked with their hands, fans of Cheech and Chong, people with low IQs, and girls who dated anyone on the preceding list. 

I was, in short, a teenage misanthrope.

Why was I such a misanthrope?  If you asked me at the time, I probably would have said, "Because almost everyone is terrible."  If you asked me, "Well, why is it so terrible to be any of these things?," I guess I would have simply added "People who challenge my misanthropy" to my list of antipathy.

Fortunately, virtually all of my misanthropy has melted away with age.  I can honestly say that, on a typical day, absolutely no one upsets me.  This is partly because I've constructed a Beautiful Bubble for myself.  The main reason, though, is that I've learned the wisdom of tolerance.  Yes, most people are very different from me.  Yes, I have little in common with most people.  But why should I expect anything else?  How other people live their lives is their business, not mine. 

If I could go back in time, what would I tell my misanthropic teenage self?  Roughly the following:

1. In many cases, you're just being silly.  Say: "Oh, it's so horrible for someone to play Dungeons & Dragons incorrectly" or "Oh, it's so awful to dislike opera," without laughing.  Can't do it, can you?

2. In many cases, people can't help being the way they are.  People don't choose to have low IQ.  So understanding rather than contempt is in order.

3. What about serious character flaws that people can help?  For the most part, people are the main victims of their own character flaws.  So just leave them alone and perhaps they'll learn. 

4. You have a serious character flaw that you can help: misanthropy.  And per #3, you're the main victim of your own flaw.  Most people are totally unaware of your antipathy, even though your antipathy makes you unhappy every day.  Put down your load of resentment and you'll feel a lot better.

5. Once you fix your misanthropy, you can focus on improving your life.  Be constructive all day, every day.  Focus on how to avoid unpleasant experiences, not who to condemn.  Take all the time you spend ruminating on everything you don't like, and spend it doing something you do like.

6. If you really think that only 1% of people are worth talking to, search for the 1% instead of lamenting their scarcity.  If you're pleasant to everyone, you'll have a much larger pool of potential friends to choose from.  Then you can enjoy life instead of complaining about it.

Would my teenage self have found my current self persuasive?  Yes, actually.  I learn slowly from experience, but quickly from explicit argument.  Given twenty hours of conversation with a wiser version of myself, I would have abandoned misanthropy years ahead of schedule. 

Oh well, better late than never.

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COMMENTS (29 to date)
Hazel Meade writes:

I never played D&D and if I had, I would probably have played it incorrectly. I mean, how can you stay in character while throwing a 20 sided dice without cracking up at how silly it is?

But I heartily sympathize with you, I just had a different cross-section of people to hate when I was a teenager. I probably would have included "sorority chicks" and "wannabe hippies", but would have excluded not liking classical music.

I'm not nearly as misanthropic as I used to be though. Everyone (almost everyone) has talents and qualities that you might like if you get to know them. And actually I came to the conclusion that whether I "clicked" or not with someone had almost nothing to do with any of those categories of things I supposedly rejected. Most of it just has to do with attitude and mannerisms, not shared intellectual likes and dislikes.

Steve writes:

Posts like this go a long way toward explaining your position on immigration. You just don’t have any appreciation for or connection with typical American culture, so it won't bother you if it’s irreversibly changed by a mass influx of foreigners.

Jeff writes:

Better than being a teenage werewolf!

NZ writes:


Indeed, the "bubble" concept comes from Charles Murray's "How thick is your bubble?" test in Coming Apart.

Bryan's interpretation of the "bubble" seems to be of a haven where he can retreat from the "regular" world--something anyone might want to someday have, like a secluded garden or a man cave. In that case, the thicker the bubble the better.

I think that is the wrong interpretation: Murray knows that if you're reading his book you probably already live in "Belmont," but if you got a high score on his bubble test then at least you have a lot of street cred in "Fishtown" and can influence people there. If the Fushtown residents behave better as a result, you don't need to expend as many resources erecting a bubble to shut them out.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

This is because you were an elitist in high school. No mystery here.

I was appalled by how apathetic students in high school were -- except my friends.

But now, looking back 45 years, I am inclined to appreciate their apathy -- it is what society wants: imagine all those political science club members running the government, or the German club running the government, or the Thespians running a company (well, some of them do, actually). Managing all that passion is problematic for modern organizational life.

Perhaps you see my point -- apathetic students are not elitist, they don't cause trouble or question authority. They supported the Vietnam War because their parents could afford college. They don't build bombs to make a point.

MingoV writes:

What some people might call misanthropy, I call discrimination (the older definition: use of good judgment to distinguish among similar things).

For example, I discriminate between stupid smart people and smart smart people. The former misapply their smarts and cause many problems, especially if they are bosses or have great influence (a Nobel prize-holding economist comes to mind). The smart smart people are ones I emulate and befriend.

It is not misanthropy to dislike and avoid noxious people; it is rational behavior. I agree that disliking nearly everyone who isn't exactly like you (or your ideal person) is misanthropy, because good judgment is lacking.

Raymond Tseng writes:

Besides the beautiful bubble, haven't your rigid preferences been eased as well?

It seems likely that you might actually enjoy the company of many people on your antipathy list in your current state. I'm sure a great deal of your colleagues and friends are checked off on multiple items of your list.

Vipul Naik writes:

"guys with girlfriends [...] and girls who dated anyone on the preceding list."

You might have shortened your last clause to "girls who dated guys."

Kashmira Kumaran writes:

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Brad Strang writes:

I shared similar antipathies in my high school period, which can be explained partially from a psychosocial frame, half controlling others/trying to understand them and half feeling a need to belong. As I grow older, and I attain slow prodding wisdom, my need to be authoritative and belong, wane.

Tim writes:

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Cryptomys writes:

Kenneth Rogoff probably disliked anyone who wasn't at least an expert in chess.

Scott writes:

Why did you view gays with antipathy?

Richard Besserer writes:


You're giving yourself too much credit. As far as I'm concerned anybody who seriously believes his teenage self wasn't too self-absorbed to listen to a word the grown-ups in their lives had to say about anything important usually is.

Maturity is generally only acquired the hard way, through experience grown-ups have but teenagers obviously don't. Having to pay for their own food, lodging and car repair forces most people to quickly develop a sense of proportion and how to get along with people they can't stand but have no choice but to tolerate (aka managers and co-workers from hell).

It doesn't hurt that the older you get, the more self-sufficient and experienced you tend to become, and the better able you are to shut out of your life people you don't enjoy being around and to offer something worthwhile enough to people you do enjoy being with to convince them to put up with you.

This includes, but is not limited to, the sorts of pretty girls you wouldn't have had a chance with in high school because they thought you were a loser.

What would I have told my teenage self? Nothing. It would have just been another lecture, about as effective as talking to the brick walls of my old high school. If I came across a time machine, I'd have plenty of more productive uses for it. Settling the age of the Earth comes to mind.

Floccina writes:

Sometimes I just observe people very different than me as an interesting phenomenon. I think that libertarian though help with this.

NZ writes:


I'd imagine that in Bryan's statistical experience, enough gay people happened to fit into one of those other groups--especially liberals--that he could fairly safely assume that if a person was gay he'd have some other resentable characteristic as well.

Plus, most straight teenage guys are naturally repulsed by male homosexuality. Buggery and whatnot.

James Oswald writes:

Aww... Monty Haul campaigns can be really fun for awhile. It gets boring to continuously play low level campaigns with crappy magic items. I may have disliked stupid people in my youth, but I would befriend anyone carrying a Player's Handbook.

Mike Rulle writes:


"In many cases, people can't help being the way they are. People don't choose to have low IQ. So understanding rather than contempt is in order."

"If you really think that only 1% of people are worth talking to, search for the 1% instead of lamenting their scarcity."

Was a Misanthrope? Wow. I cannot believe those phrases came out of your keyboard. Surprisingly revealing. You get some credit for admitting your HS emotional weakness (I could not admit such weaknesses)---but you almost sound proud of how you were. If true, you were the kind of person I would have loved to debate in HS. I would have perceived you as a kind of intellectual bully to take down. I would not have liked you very much, I admit. You were very immature, clearly, for your age.

I have to be honest, some of those traits still leak through today. For example, you have a tendency to value people based on IQ as the quotes from above show. I find this disturbingly shallow and, paradoxically, anti-intellectual.

IQ is the intellectual equivalent of a high horsepower engine. It has no intrinsic value per se other than how it is used. Without proper direction and guidance, it is a fundamentally neutral capability, like physical strength. Understanding what we should be---or do---as well as fundamental decision making has little to do with high IQ. At least at the zone you seem comfortable with---the "top 1%".

Society needs high IQ people. I am not against high IQ people. I have a high IQ myself. But I have seen far too much wasted horsepower by high IQ people to ever accord them any special consideration. And I have learned far too much from so called normal intelligent people and below to not accord them equal status.

I had a friend who had never taken a IQ test. She decided to see what it was. When she told me what it was we both laughed hysterically at the absurdity of her 87 IQ. We laughed because we knew how it would be perceived and how ultimately meaningless it was (unless she wanted to teach Math). But there was little we could not converse about at the highest level of understanding.

For example, I think the modern university is more than adequate evidence of wasted IQ. They do not stand alone, but do fine as an example. Many great things are done at Universities. But relative to their intellectual horsepower, they leak intelligence like the Exxon Valdez leaked oil.

Too many academics are hopelessly talented. Other people as well. I have to say, you have shocked me.


John Fembup writes:

I always thought Holden Caulfield was a phony, too.

Damian writes:
3. What about serious character flaws that people can help? For the most part, people are the main victims of their own character flaws. So just leave them alone and perhaps they'll learn.

Isn't it also possible that people with serious character flaws (or slightly serious ones) actually are never told that about their flaws? And so they go through life without anyone directly telling them how they grate on people? It's awkward to talk to someone about this, but it could be beneficial to them.

Richard writes:

My experience is that people are most misanthropic when they're unhappy with themselves. People build themselves by tearing others down.

Richard writes:

Just to elaborate a bit, as a teenager with a high IQ and poor social skills, it was tempting to attribute the fact that I had no friends in flaws in other people instead of myself.

Teenage Bryan's dislike of basically all girls who dated guys is telling. I'm sure that if he had heard that a liberal cheerleader had a crush on him, his antipathy towards liberals and cheerleaders would've dissipated very quickly.

Philo writes:

“I have little in common with most people.” Compare: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto” (Terence).

NZ writes:

I return to the comments again to consider this statement:

Misanthropy towards people unlike oneself is basically normal and universal, especially in young people. Evolution saw to that. Shedding one's misanthropy is certainly uncommon, requiring determination, some intellectualizing, and lots of practice.

JohnC writes:

Likelihood of statements to have been uttered by the average economist as an adolescent:
"And behind this door they'll find....more orcs! [sighs] Oh, how I wish there were a saving-throw against loneliness."
∆ (Very likely)
∇ (Very unlikely)
"Good thing I threw that last second TD pass. Otherwise, I would have been late picking up the prom queen. Now which party do we hit first?"

SaveyourSelf writes:

Bryan, fun post. Witty too.

I postulate that your young-self would not respond as you suspect to your future-self's wisdom, for the reason that human behavior is inseparable from the environment that shapes it.

Consider your teenage environment. If it was anything like mine, it was primarily prep-school for mating, and mating was portrayed as winner takes all under the model of lifetime monogamy—once the lady chooses her mate, all others are excluded forever. Competition, therefore, is intense, time is urgent, and the outcomes allow for only one winner--everyone else loses. Given that environment, is it any wonder that you judged the other people around you—your competition—so harshly.

Consider the change in your environment once you graduated. The dating pool got enormous. Working a job in the free-market system revealed that competitive outcomes are usually win-win rather than the win-lose. Even the all important mating outcomes didn't produce losers. Coupling between people rarely resulted in monogamous exclusion of other people [at least not for very long] and when people finally discover how much work child-rearing is, no one is nearly so eager to kill anyone else over the chance to have more.

I propose, then, that to truly accelerate your young-self in to maturity [if you could go back and talk with him], you would have to tell him—or show him—how his environment would change rather than advise him how to behave differently. I suspect he was smart enough at that time that he would see the implications of the changed environment and respond accordingly.

@Damian "Isn't it also possible that people with serious character flaws (or slightly serious ones) actually are never told that about their flaws? And so they go through life without anyone directly telling them how they grate on people?"

My father once told me that there is no shortage of people in the world who will criticize you. I have seen nothing in my life to refute that statement. I doubt anyone with a character flaw is left ignorant of that fact for long.

@Richard "My experience is that people are most misanthropic when they're unhappy with themselves. People build themselves by tearing others down."

I agree with you. If you cannot win the race outright, removing the faster people from the race works just as well. Innovating new technology to increase your speed might also work. Leaving the race to do something else is a viable choice. So is taking shortcuts. There are many ways to compete.

PrometheeFeu writes:

I would point out that your teenage self was locked in an institution for many hours a day with little opportunity for escape. I very much longed to abandon the unwashed masses as a teenager in search of other people worth spending time with, but leaving school was not an option.

Adrian Meli writes:

Loved the post and loved NZ's response!

Panskeptic writes:

You're not out of the woods yet. You still believe in libertarianism, a childish fantasy that posits that individuals and the market cure all ills without government intervention or societal responsibility.

Works well in Somalia, right?

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