Have you ever met someone so heinous, so awful, so intensely obnoxious, that you’ve had to stop yourself from offering them up for a scientific study to locate the exact psychological profile that would create such a straight-up asshole?
Apparently, quite a few people – nearly 400, in fact – had the same thought. The result: a new paper, published in the journal Collabra Psychology, which sets out in scientific terms precisely what it is that makes that asshole such an asshole.
“Previous research has found that several commonly used insults […] are uniformly associated with self- and other-reported antagonism,” explains the study. “We aimed to replicate and extend these findings by focusing on “asshole,” a common insult used to refer to both men and women.”
Well, in any study into what defines an asshole, the first step is going to be clear: find the asshole. Study participants, recruited through the Mechanical Turk, were asked to think of the “biggest assholes” in their lives, and describe them in terms of the Five-Factor Model of personality – their extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience.
“People didn’t really have very much trouble figuring out who the ‘biggest asshole’ in their life was,” said Brinkley Sharpe, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, University of Georgia.
“On average, participants didn’t think that they were very close to these individuals, which makes sense because these people are being described as having pretty aversive behaviors.”
We often bring you scientific studies which confound and surprise, but this is not one of them. The typical asshole – according to science so no hate mail please – is a middle-aged man, and either a current or (more likely, for obvious reasons) former romantic partner, friend, family member, boss, or co-worker.
So, what makes somebody deserving of the title “asshole”? When they compiled participants’ perceived personality profiles of their chosen asshole, the researchers found it came down to a couple of things: high anger and low agreeableness. The average asshole was seen as bigoted, self-centered, impulsive, and irresponsible.
Sound familiar? It should. Assholes, the researchers realized, are often seen as having very similar personality profiles to people with psychopathic, antisocial, and narcissistic personality disorders.
Of course, all assholes are not created equal, and the team found quite a bit of variation in why participants deemed their target study-worthy. Some, for instance, were included because of vague reasons like being “rude” or “rolling their eyeballs when I speak” – things we’ve probably all been guilty of a few times in our lives.
Others, though, had definitely earned their title.
“Some of the responses were pretty violent,” said Sharpe. “We had a couple where the individual had done something that was frankly criminal.”
Now, if you’re reading this and thinking “wait… am I an asshole?” then we have good news: chances are, just asking the question means the answer is no. According to the study, participants think of assholes as knowing full well that they upset people – they just don’t care.
“It’s interesting to me that the behaviors people were keying in on sort of run the gamut,” Sharpe said. “When we talk about personality, the asshole was described as somebody who is not agreeable and is angry."
“When we talk about behaviors, the asshole was not necessarily being antagonistic toward people, but they just didn’t really care about what others were thinking or how they were perceived by others.”