A day rarely goes by without hearing people refer to other folks as “absolute jerks,” “buttheads,” or “a-holes.” Such terms are among the most popular in everyday, or folk, psychology. We obsess about their presence among relatives, friends, peers and in public and political life.
It’s notable, then, that the terms have no direct equivalent in clinical psychology, which, while in the business of diagnostics, strives to avoid name-calling and moral judgment —not that they can be avoided. For example, to describe someone as a “malignant narcissist” is both name-calling and a moral judgment while being a diagnostic term.
I’m convinced that “absolute jerk” is a true category of human behavior worthy of clinical analysis. It encompasses a wider range of behaviors and people than is covered by such clinical terms as narcissism, psychopathy, and dark-triad personalities. There are absolute jerks who don’t fit those formal diagnostic categories.
That clinical psychologists don’t have diagnostics for these core concepts in folk psychology is a problem for both clinicians and lay people. To sound more clinical, and objective, people misdiagnose absolute jerks using clinical terms like “narcissist” and “psychopath,” which frustrates clinicians.
Conversely, lay people would benefit from clinical insight into what’s going on with absolute jerks. Given the disconnect between folk and clinical psychology, absolute jerks get away with a lot of mischief, much to the frustration and even ruin of many people’s everyday lives.
Clinical psychologists tend to define their diagnostic terms based on static and even congenital conditions. For example, they pay little attention to what could be called motivated psychopathy, the advantages of acting like a psychopath if one can get away with it. A cult leader may have diagnosable congenital traits like psychopathy but the same can not likely be said of every cult follower.
Most of us are clearly very concerned about the damaging effect of absolute jerks. Still, our ability to diagnose them is limited. Without an ability to diagnose them, we’ll tend to misdiagnose and worse, we’ll have difficulty knowing how to keep absolute jerks from getting away the damage they cause.
For about 25 years, I’ve been pursuing a scientific explanation for absolute jerks. Here in summary is what I’ve got so far.
Absolute jerk is a lifestyle. Anyone might adopt this lifestyle. Being an absolute jerk is context-dependent but not content-dependent. That is, people might adopt the lifestyle in some contexts and not others—in some situations, with some people, or on some topics. But adopting the lifestyle has nothing to do with their idea content, their rationalizations, or causes. Some people adopt the lifestyle claiming that it’s their duty, given their ideology, mission, or cause; others do for no cause beyond “cause I said so.”
Absolute jerks are more accurately described as trumpbots, people robotically playing fake (trumped up) trump cards. They will say or do anything to trump all rivals and challengers.
It is inaccurate to describe them as thinking or believing what they claim. Their robotic behavior is formulaic: They’ll say and do anything to trump all challenges to their authority. They always have an answer for everything that proves them right, righteous, and mighty, but their answer can be anything.
They’re not thinking about what they’re saying. They’re saying whatever they need to hear in order to feel indomitable. Content has nothing to do with it. They don’t mean what they insist is so important..
The lifestyle is possible because we are animals with language, animals made anxious by language that exposes us to an overwhelming range of anxiety-inducing possibilities inaccessible to other animals. And while language floods us with doubts, language can assuage all doubt through rationalizing language. As the range of anxiety-inducing possibilities expands in our increasingly complex world, our anxieties grow and more people adopt the indulgent and dangerous absolute-jerk lifestyle, terrified by reality, shutting down, refusing to listen, opting for robotic dominance.
Much of the literature for dealing with “difficult people” suggests calmly talking them out of their tree, reasoning with them so that they’ll come to recognize the nonviability of their lifestyle.
I think this reflects our moral ideals of treating all people with respect, giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, understanding where they’re coming from, hoping they’ll follow our example and reciprocate reasonableness. Either that, or the literature recommends exit, just getting them out of your life, which makes sense if you can.
But sometimes you can’t, and sometimes they’re too deep into the lifestyle to hear reason, finding it just more noise to dismiss and challenges to be dominated. Giving the benefit of the doubt often enables them. It implies that you believe they believe what they’re saying. Debating them, however tactfully, counts as a win to someone who is robotically self-affirmed every time someone takes their bait. Their robotic dominance is like territorial mammalian braying, but with words, which makes it confusing. We tend to think that people mean what they say. Absolute jerks don’t.
There’s no arguing with people addicted to this lifestyle, but sometimes you have to confront them, flaunting your human fallibility and calling them out for their fake infallibility. Don’t debate them. They’re just getting off on you taking their bait. Call them on that instead.