The Science Behind Why Some People Are Jerks

Newsflash: Scientists may have answered the immortal question, “Why are people such jerks?!” Research into the science of selfishness by two Yale psychologists, Adam Bear and David Rand, shows people’s surroundings have a lot to do with it: Those who grow up in caring, compassionate environments tend to be caring and compassionate themselves, and those who spend a lot of times with jerks… well, they tend to be jerks. The study also gives interesting insight into how people’s behavior can change — Nice people can make their behavior more selfish if they have time to think about it. But selfish people? They stay selfish.

Bear and Rand developed a mathematical model of human behavior that “incorporates ideas from the evolutionary game theory of cooperation and the behavioral economics of intuition and deliberation,” according to In the study, test subjects were asked to play a variety of games in which they could act selfishly or helpfully. Some games offered the potential for reciprocity (so, if a subject was nice in the game, another player might repay that kindness later), and some didn’t. In some situations, players had the opportunity to deliberate before making choices, and in others, they had to act on instinct.

The study found, surprisingly, that when people who were instinctively helpful had time to weigh their actions, they altered their behavior to be more selfish if it would help them win the game. When the selfish players (the “jerks”) had time to deliberate, they wouldn’t alter their behavior to be nicer. Bear told Sputnik News, “There’s an asymmetry in what stopping to think can do. Stopping to think can never lead a mean person to become nice. It can only lead to a nice person becoming mean.”

If that weren’t depressing enough, the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also found that “ evolution only ever favors ” players who are intuitively selfish or who are naturally nice, but choose to act selfishly when they’re given a chance to think about things. The researchers concluded that, ultimately, deliberation only gives people more opportunities to be selfish — apparently having time to think about the consequences of our actions doesn’t encourage us to be nice. The moral? It pays to be a jerk. (Or, at least, it pays not to be nice all the time.) Er… yay for humanity?

Images: BBC; Giphy (1, 2)