People think you're a jerk (here's how to fix it)

by Dorian Minors

April 11, 2015

Analects  |  Newsletter


When you do things, people tend to assume you’re doing it because of who you are. This is problematic any time you do something slightly rude. Accidentally bump into someone on the street and if it’s not obvious it’s an accident that person will assume you’re a jerk. Don’t say hi to a colleague because you’re in a rush (or didn’t actually see them properly) and they’ll assume you’re a jerk too. It’s science. It’s problematic. And this article tells you how to fix it.


This is an article from our predecessor, The Dirt Psychology.

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Unfiled: this is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.

Article Status: Complete (for now).

No one is more of an expert on you than you. I would never go and see a ‘Dorian Minors’ specialist, just as you wouldn’t (shouldn’t) go see someone who would specialise in you. You might see someone who’s a specialist in an area you want to improve in but only you are an expert on you as a whole. This may sound heartening to some (it’s certainly nice to be an expert in something) and disheartening to others (one gets the sense that if this is what being an expert means, there’s still a long way to go). But it’s true; only you can have the depth of understanding you have on the various factors that make you do the things you do.

This fact is especially important when we think about our actions. We spoke last week about the fundamental attribution bias. This principle basically talks about how we usually assume that people do the things they do because of who they are and don’t necessarily consider the context. The waitress who’s rude when taking your order becomes a selfish and arrogant person, instead of a single mother who’s worrying about her kid that woke her up at 4:30 with a fever and is now laid up at home sick. An exceptional example, but you can see how easy it would be to assume that it’s her personality that’s the problem because you aren’t aware of the context she lives in. On the flip side, when you act, you’re generally entirely aware of the context you live in. You know you’re late for a job interview so it’s ok that you cut in front of that car just this once or don’t spare the time to apologise for bumping into someone as you sprint into the building. You probably don’t think about it, but if you did you would probably think that had they known, they wouldn’t have minded your momentary lapse in etiquette. The same goes for all your actions. You’re fully aware of the context you’re acting in and can fully explain your actions. In fact, this is so often true that it can be rather easy to convince oneself that all incoming negativity is in fact other peoples’ fault (I’m sure you know someone like this).

As a result of these things, we’re left with what’s called the actor-observer bias (or asymmetry) coined by Jones and Nisbett in 1971. They realised that when you’re the actor, you tend to explain actions in terms of and attribute them to the situation unfolding around you. However, when you’re the observer, you tend to explain someone’s actions in terms of their personality. However, neither explanation is entirely true; actions are born out of both context and personality. Psychologists think we do this because it’s easier to notice other people, rather than their contexts when we observe them and our brains simply aren’t willing to make the ‘effortful adjustment’ of considering the context (i.e. can’t be bothered). However, when we act, the context becomes much more salient (important and obvious) to us. What does this mean? Well, it means that it’s very likely that we’re constantly misjudging people. This is problematic in and of itself; think of the people you’ve dismissed and the stress you’ve experienced by thinking people are more awful than they might actually be. Or, on the flip side, think of how many people you think are fantastic because of how they act around you without realising that behind the scenes their actions are not quite genuine. I’d be willing to bet that more than once in your life you’ve been let down by someone you initially thought was a delight. Might be worth considering next time you decide someone is a jerk (or is awesome).

What this also means is that one must consider how others perceive their actions. Think about how many slightly rude or unethical actions may have been misattributed to a flaw in your personality because of someone else’s bias. Without the context being blindingly clear to them, one is likely to assume the worst. It might be worth taking the time out to consider whether you have done anything today that might bear explaining to someone affected. As much as possible I’ll think back to social interactions I’ve had today to see if I can identify whether people might have misconstrued my actions. More often than not I can think of something. When that happens, if it might be important I’ll send a quick text to clarify and although it usually seems like the person hasn’t remembered, or didn’t notice, I wonder how many times I’ve averted a lasting judgement. And very occasionally, I notice that this practice does in fact have a noticeable effect on someone’s behaviour towards me. However, there is a caveat. Spending too much time dwelling on how people perceive you can put your life in the toilet. Ask anyone with social anxiety. Don’t ruin your life trying to fix every misimpression, just be aware. Want some scientifically tested ways to make kick-ass first impressions so this sort of thing doesn’t happen? Go here. Or maybe this article has made you a little nervous about talking to new people? Check out our article on approach anxiety and how to beat it here.  Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.

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