Assholes are everywhere. Every day we see them, cutting into lines, starting pointless arguments, making service workers’ careers a living nightmare. Occasionally, regrettably, we’re the asshole.
And yet, for a mode of being that’s so commonly witnessed, it’s a surprisingly tricky one to define.
So for a deeper exploration of the asshole, we turn to Aaron James, philosophy professor at the University of California, Irvine, who in his 2012 book Assholes: A Theory spends 288 pages grappling with the problem (for a digested version, see his much shorter and entertaining treatise on the subject on his blog). To paraphrase James’s argument, in his view, assholes share three fundamental qualities:
- They make a habit of giving themselves special advantages and privileges in life.
- They do this out of a deep sense of personal entitlement.
- They find it easy to ignore or brush off the complaints their actions provoke.
To this James adds an important corollary: While assholes are invariably “repugnant from a moral perspective,” their crimes are relatively trivial in the grand scheme of things. They’re not as oblivious to ethical constraints as psychopaths are, he explains; it would feel offensively weak to classify monsters of history like Hitler and Stalin as mere assholes, for instance. Still, whenever we encounter their minor misdeeds, assholes have the power to perplex and bug the hell out of us.
Here then we provide a universal definition based on our general experience of the phenomenon — or, as a philosopher would term it, an a posteriori definition, which is just too good not to point out — and it seems to hit the mark. We also provide a few specifics: What are the typical strains of asshole-ish behavior we can expect to run into day-to-day? And in each case, just what’s going on in these assholes’ heads?
The Lying Asshole
There are a whole range of reasons people seek to deceive, of course, and not all of them have to do with outright assholery. In 2016, a group led by Timothy Levine of the University of Alabama at Birmingham published research that attempted to quantify the kaleidoscope of motives humans have for fabrication.
According to their findings, 44 percent of the lies people tell are for what we might describe — according to our a posteriori definition — as asshole-ish reasons of self-promotion. Within this, 31 percent are told to gain either a personal or economic advantage over others; 8 percent are to shape a positive impression; and 5 percent are intended purely to get a laugh. Added to this set are what we might think of as super-asshole lies: Four percent of lies are told purely to hurt people, while 2 percent come under the category of pathological lies — told because the whole concept of truth doesn’t tend to trouble the liar’s delusional version of reality.
The Bragging Asshole and the One-Upping Asshole
Often, we’ll find an asshole-ish lie comes gift-wrapped in the form of a boast. Outrageous bragging and compulsive one-upmanship is all classic asshole terrain, and while a boast may also be an exaggeration or a factually true statement, it shares the obvious asshole-ish goal of self-promotion.
There’s more to it than that, though. In 2012, a Harvard neuroimaging study found that boasting activates the same chemical reward mechanisms in the brain as eating food or having sex. This means that both bragging and the annoying urge to go one better might actually be an addiction for some people that’s akin to a drug habit, and not simply pure conversational power-play.
The Belittling Asshole and His Asshole Cousins, the Judge-y Asshole and the Condescending Asshole
The converse of asshole-ish bragging, of course, is assholeish belittling. Whether it’s needlessly commenting on someone’s weight or looks or dropping icy hints about their finances or social status, the asshole’s objective here is to make the other person feel like shit in order to make themselves feel less like shit. (We talked about this — and how to deal with it — in our recent interview with a former FBI spy-catcher.)
One potential source of this behavior is the classic asshole neurosis, the “inferiority complex,” a disorder that was coined by Austrian psychoanalyst Alfred Adler in the 1920s. Adler’s theory was that as children, we experience a deep inferiority in relation to the adults who lord it over us, and we spend much of our later lives striving to compensate by acting in ways that make us feel like winners.
For some people, this evolves into an antisocial habit when they realize they’re being repeatedly rewarded for overcompensating — that is, by pushing so hard for a sense of superiority that they trample social norms and taboos in the process. This can manifest as a “superiority complex,” technically a sub-species of the inferiority complex that specializes in putting others down. Basically, if you’ve ever casually been called “pussy” for not measuring up to some sort of macho standard, that’s what’s likely to have been going on there.
The Self-Obsessed Asshole
A pressing need to put others down and a thirst for superiority might also be signs of a rarer, more terrifying wellspring of assholeness: A “grandiose narcissistic personality disorder” (NPD), which is explained by some psychologists as the clinical endgame of a superheated inferiority complex.
Unlike common overcompensating behaviors, though, pathological narcissism is seen as a mental illness, and can come with a host of malignant characteristics. Many of these — such as a lack of empathy — stretch our definition of asshole-ish behavior toward the psychopathic, but a quick scan down the American Psychiatric Association’s list of nine criteria for an NPD diagnosis reveals a personality type that’s starting to look very much like the a posteriori definition from Aaron James we started with. The basic asshole-ish essence of narcissism is perhaps best captured by the list’s criterion number four: “requires excessive admiration.”
Two other narcissistic traits particularly stand out as fitting the asshole template: Their notoriously thin skin (narcissists can react aggressively even to modest criticism, which is why it might not be a good idea to bust their balls) and their sense of entitlement and “grandiose self-importance” — simply put, their belief that at all times they deserve more respect and better treatment than everyone else in the room.
And in fact, these two qualities might be closely linked: In 2004 a study at Case Western Reserve University found that it’s a narcissist’s sense of entitlement that drives them to lash out against their critics: “Entitled narcissists are readily offended, and they are eager to save face and to defend their rights. As such, they tend to see forgiveness as a costly and morally unappealing option.”
The Aggressive Asshole
A long string of asshole behaviors might be explained by the presence of an “antisocial personality disorder” — another American Psychiatric Association-endorsed clinical diagnosis whose more extreme cases can be dangerous and scary to be around.
Be wary if you run into the the line-cutting asshole, the always-interrupting asshole, the grabby asshole who shoulders you out of the way to get to the last tuna sandwich or the asshole who drives down residential streets at twice the speed limit. These may be the surface signs of a much more disturbed worldview than is at first apparent — one that shows, according to the diagnosis checklist, a “reckless disregard for safety of self or others” and a complete “lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.”
Or they might, to circle back to our initial slippery concept, just be being an asshole. It’s very hard to tell.
How to Deal With These Assholes
With such an array of underlying issues potentially fueling asshole behavior, it seems clear that asshole-ishness shouldn’t be regarded as a single personality type but as symptoms of a much deeper disturbance. And the fact that assholery could be caused by any one of these hidden conditions — some, like straightforward ambition or insecurity, being relatively benign; some, like pathological narcissism, being highly toxic — may explain why we find its little everyday transgressions so infuriating and tough to compute.
In any case, the best response is rarely to simply shout “asshole!” at the problem. In his book, James admits that, due to their immunity to social pressure, “No amount of angry protest will get a true asshole to listen,” and you can’t hold out hope that they’ll change their ways. Instead, he advises finding “the sweet spot” between simply giving in to an asshole’s actions — and the maddening frustration of letting him get away with it — and all-out confrontation, which could end badly. The tactic he recommends is a surprising one: Co-operate with the asshole, he suggests, but do it on your own terms and without being friendly.
In practice, if some asshole is inserting himself into a line in front of you, you might say, “Excuse me, am I in your way?” before making room for him. Or if you’re haunted by an asshole constantly interrupting you at work, get into the habit of publicly inviting their opinions before they have a chance to butt in. “Ideal asshole management,” James explains, “is akin to the martial art of aikido, which allows one to absorb the force of one’s attacker, by turning his own momentum against him.”
The point is to assure everyone who witnessed the asshole’s misdemeanor that it hasn’t gone unnoticed, that it’s duly gone on record, while satisfying yourself that you haven’t been a passive sucker in the face of it — thereby saving your day from ruined.
And if that doesn’t help?
Write a cult song about it. It worked for Denis Leary.