How many people who you encounter each day do you think are jerks? Most folks would say quite a few. Well, in this piece, I show how your expectations can add to the problem or work toward a solution.
What percentage of the general population do you think are jerks? Let’s define a jerk as someone who consistently thinks only of himself, tending to disregard the effects of his behavior on others. Examples can range from simply rude behavior, such as blasting rap music loud enough for the entire neighborhood to enjoy to the dangerous behavior of weaving in and out of traffic at high speeds.
The tendency, when we witness this type of behavior, is to make the very broad generalization that all people are jerks. Usually, given only a brief reconsideration, we realize that this observation falls into the extreme category. In conducting an informal survey among my friends and acquaintances however, I was alarmed to discover that the average answer I received to the above inquiry was something in the neighborhood of 50%. I, who sometimes struggle with cynical tendencies, have estimated that only 5% of the population are jerks. I found the contrast to be somewhat alarming because I know that our perceptions and expectations of people influence how we react to them, and that, in turn, influences how they react toward us. This is known in social psychology circles as a self-fulfilling prophesy.
A self-fulfilling prophesy is defined as a false definition of a situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true. A classic example of this phenomenon was demonstrated in a 1968 experiment by Robert Rosenthal, a social psychologist from Harvard. He administered IQ tests to elementary school children from 18 classrooms. He then identified 20% of the pupils to their teachers as “intellectual bloomers,” when, in fact, these students scored no differently than their peers. When he returned at the end of the year and retested the pupils, he learned that the same 20% of the student population did, in fact, achieve higher test scores. Rosenthal concluded that the result could only be ascribed to how the teachers unconsciously treated the “intellectual bloomers” during the course of the school year. He found the teachers smiled more at these students, gave them more encouragement, made more eye contact, praised them more and criticizing them less than other students in the class. These kinds of results have been replicated in several follow-up studies in schools and in the workplace and point to the importance that existing beliefs play in influencing situations, even when they exist only in the observer’s mind.
How, then, do you imagine this process plays out when we are walking around thinking that half the people we run into are jerks? Most of the people I spoke with rounded their 50% figure down considerably when they stopped to consider it, but that was only after they had been prompted to do so. To what extent do you consider that people are friendly, decent and helpful? Remember, how you approach them influences how they respond to you. Are you approaching others with the idea that they are essentially good or with the idea that they are somehow selfish or not to be trusted? When speaking with people, do you look them in the eye, smile and give other subtle signs of encouragement or acceptance, such as giving a light touch to the shoulder or forearm? Do you listen attentively when they speak or are you just waiting for your turn to talk?
Over time, we tend to develop the unfortunate habit of thinking of people in terms of the things about them that bugs us. This can often be the case not only for friends and coworkers but our spouses and children as well, lending credence to the expression familiarity breeds contempt. This all too human tendency is a fault to be guarded against.
Being generous of spirit is more than its own reward. People tend to like people who like and approve of them. By thinking of them and acting toward them as if they are worthwhile and fostering an appreciation for who they are, people will likely reciprocate and think more highly of you. Consider what it would cost you were you to decide to walk around noticing and acknowledging in subtle but important ways just how wonderful and valuable everybody is. What would it cost you to do that? Everybody has their own wonder and beauty when you come right down to it. Why not focus on this rather than seeing them for their faults and shortcomings?
People who are successful in their lives have mastered this quality, whether by natural inclination, as a result conscious determination or by studying someone like Dale Carnegie. I’m sure you know people like this and know they are a joy to be around. With a little practice, discipline and examination of whatever resistances you may have to the notion, you could join their ranks.
I suspect that the kid who rattles my office windows by serenading me with LL Cool J’s latest hit is inadvertently doing me a service. I think each of us unconsciously resolves a little bit, when confronted with a jerk, to strive to be less jerk-like in our own behavior. Perhaps the one jerk is serving as a kind of anti-role model for the other nineteen of us, driving us in the direction of civility. One could easily learn to associate encountering jerks with the need to be more considerate, forgiving and generous ourselves. It’s almost as if the universe was providing us with occasional reminders that we can consciously have a positive impact on those around us and don’t need to perceive ourselves as victims of other people’s shortsightedness. A radical concept I know, but one deserving of some consideration another new year unfolds.