You’re such a jerk

If that headline makes you feel bad, an expert says it's because we're genetically wired to take offense

Topics: Books, insults, Neuroscience, Editor's Picks,

You're such a jerk (Credit: ollyy via Shutterstock)

Insults are painful because we have certain social needs. We seek to be among other people, and once among them, we seek to form relationships with them and to improve our position on the social hierarchy. They are also painful because we have a need to project our self-image and to have other people not only accept this image, but support it. If we didn’t have these needs, being insulted wouldn’t feel bad. Furthermore, although different people experience different amounts of pain on being insulted, almost everyone will experience some pain. Indeed, we would search long and hard to find a person who is never pained by insults—or who himself never feels the need to insult others.

These observations raise a question: why do we have the social needs we do? According to evolutionary psychologists, our social needs—and, more generally, our psychological propensities—are the result of nature rather than nurture. More precisely, they are a consequence of our evolutionary past. The views of evolutionary psychologists are of interest in this, a study of insults, for the simple reason that they allow us to gain a deeper understanding of why it is painful when others insult us and why we go out of our way to cause others pain by insulting them.

* * *

We humans find some things to be pleasant and other things to be unpleasant. We find it pleasant, for example, to eat sweet, fattening foods or to have sex, and we find it unpleasant to be thirsty, swallow bitter substances, or get burned. Notice that we don’t choose for these things to be pleasant or unpleasant. It is true that we can, if we are strong-willed, voluntarily do things that are unpleasant, such as put our finger in a candle flame. We can also refuse to do things that are pleasant: we might, for example, forgo opportunities to have sex. But this doesn’t alter the basic biological fact that getting burned is painful and having sex is pleasurable. Whether or not an activity is pleasant is determined, after all, by our wiring, and we do not have it in our power—not yet, at any rate—to alter this wiring.

Why are we wired to be able to experience pleasure and pain? Why aren’t we wired to be immune to pain while retaining our ability to experience pleasure? And given that we possess the ability to experience both pleasure and pain, why do we find a particular activity to be pleasant rather than painful? Why, for example, do we find it pleasant to have sex but unpleasant to get burned? Why not the other way around? I have given the long answer to these questions elsewhere. For our present purposes—namely, to explain why we have the social needs we do—the short answer will suffice.



We have the ability to experience pleasure and pain because our evolutionary ancestors who had this ability were more likely to survive and reproduce than those who didn’t. Creatures with this ability could, after all, be rewarded (with pleasurable feelings) for engaging in certain activities and punished
(with unpleasant feelings) for engaging in others. More precisely, they could be rewarded for doing things (such as having sex) that would increase their chances of surviving and reproducing, and be punished for doing things (such as burning themselves) that would lessen their chances.

This makes it sound as if a designer was responsible for our wiring, but evolutionary psychologists would reject this notion. Evolution, they would remind us, has no designer and no goal. To the contrary, species evolve because some of their members, thanks to the genetic luck-of-the-draw, have a makeup that increases their chances of surviving and reproducing. As a result, they (probably) have more descendants than genetically less fortunate members of their species. And because they spread their genes more effectively, they have a disproportionate influence on the genetic makeup of future members of their species.

Evolutionary psychologists would go on to remind us that if our evolutionary ancestors had found themselves in a different environment, we would be wired differently and as a result would find different things to be pleasant and unpleasant. Suppose that getting burned, rather than being detrimental to our evolutionary ancestors, had somehow increased their chances of surviving and reproducing. Under these circumstances, those individuals who were wired so that it felt good to get burned would have been more effective at spreading their genes than those who were wired so that it felt bad. And as a result we, their descendants, would also be wired so that it felt good to get burned.

Evolutionary psychologists would also remind us that the evolutionary process is imperfect. For one thing, although the wiring we inherited from our ancestors might have allowed them to flourish on the savannahs of Africa, it isn’t optimal for the rather different environment in which we today find ourselves. Our ancestors who had a penchant for consuming sweet, fattening foods, for example, were less likely to starve than those who didn’t. The problem is that we who have inherited that penchant live in an environment in which sweet, fattening foods are abundant. In this environment, being wired so that it is pleasant to consume, say, ice cream, increases our chance of getting heart disease and other illnesses, and thereby arguably lessens our chance of surviving.

* * *

Evolutionary psychologists Mark Leary and Erika Koch offer the following description of the social predicament of our ancestors: “In many ways, the African savannah was a relatively hospitable environment for early human beings (and their pre-human ancestors). . . . Early human beings lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, moving about seeking edible plants and animals. The primary dangers were predators, foreign bands of potentially hostile people, and starvation, particularly when one was too young, old, ill, or injured to find food on one’s own.” They add that “solitary individuals could not survive for long in such an environment.” As a result, those of our ancestors who sought the company of other people—who found it pleasant to be part of a band and unpleasant to be alone—were far more likely to survive and reproduce than those who shunned people—who found it unpleasant to be part of a band and pleasant to be alone in the wilderness.

And once they were part of a band, our evolutionary ancestors who found it pleasant to form social relationships with other members of the band and to rise up within the band’s social hierarchy were more likely to survive and reproduce than those who found these things to be unpleasant. After all, those who had friends and social status probably had better access to the band’s resources, especially its supplies of food. And if an ancestor was a male, his reproductive ability was presumably a function of his social status: socially dominant males were more likely to find reproductive partners—and thereby become our evolutionary ancestors—than those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Having said this, I should add that although an abiding concern with their position on the social hierarchy helped our evolutionary ancestors survive and reproduce, this is no longer the case. If a modern human’s position on the social hierarchy falls, he will still probably have food to eat and a roof over his head. And as far as reproduction is concerned, we need to keep in mind that those at the bottom of the social hierarchy are no longer prevented from reproducing; in fact, in many cases, they are remarkably prolific.

We are now in a position to offer a fairly complete answer to the question we raised two chapters back: why are insults painful? They are painful, as we have seen, because we have certain social needs. And why do we have these needs? Because our evolutionary ancestors who were wired to have them—wired, that is, so that it felt good to be among other people and once among them, felt good to form relationships with other individuals and to attain a certain position on the social hierarchy—were more likely to survive and reproduce than those who weren’t wired in this manner. We modern humans have inherited the genes of these reproductively successful individuals, and consequently we are wired, as were they, to have social needs. It is therefore an evolutionary accident that we have the social needs we do. If the environment of our evolutionary ancestors had been different, our social needs might also have been different. Change their environment dramatically, and we might have ended up solitary creatures like orangutans, or we might have become even more gregarious than we are.

* * *

We humans are wired with a number of biological systems. One of these systems monitors our hydration level. It operates continuously and unobtrusively; indeed, it is only when it has something to tell us—namely, that we are dehydrated—that its existence becomes apparent: it will cause us to feel thirsty. Mark Leary has theorized the existence of another biological system that, rather than monitoring our hydration status, monitors our social status. Should our social status fall, this system will alert us by making us feel bad. Here is how Leary describes this system:

Successfully maintaining one’s connections to other people requires a system for monitoring others’ reactions, specifically the degree to which other people are likely to reject or exclude the individual. Such a system must monitor one’s inclusionary status more or less continuously for cues that connote disapproval, rejection, or exclusion (i.e., it must be capable of functioning preconsciously), it must alert the individual to changes in his or her inclusionary status (particularly decrements in social acceptance), and it must motivate behavior to restore his or her status when threatened.

At the heart of this biological system is the “device” that Leary calls a sociometer. Our sociometer is always on, running in the background. Suppose, for example, we are at a party, having a conversation with someone. Without our even realizing it, our sociometer is monitoring our social environment. Thus, when someone across the room mentions our name, our sociometer will direct our attention to that conversation. What is she saying about us? Are we being praised? Insulted? If it turns out that she is saying something negative, our sociometer, says Leary, will cause us to experience unpleasant emotions: we might, for example, experience anger. These emotions will in turn motivate us to do something to defend our social status. If it turns out, though, that she is saying something nice about us, we might experience a rather different emotion, the glow of social acceptance.

Our sociometer is quite sensitive. Besides being able to detect blatant signs of a change in our inclusionary status, such as someone screaming “I hate you,” it can detect subtle signs, such as pauses in a conversation or a lack of eye contact during a conversation. Indeed, our sociometer can be too sensitive: according to Leary, “people with unstable self-esteem essentially have an unstable sociometer that overresponds to cues that connote acceptance and rejection. For such people, minor changes in inclusion or exclusion result in large changes in the sociometer and self-esteem).” This would explain, of course, why people with low self-esteem find insults to be particularly painful. Although our sociometer detects both signs of social rejection and signs of social acceptance, it is, says Leary, more sensitive to rejection than to acceptance: “Not only does a slightly negative reaction have a much greater impact on most people than even a strongly positive one, but a single negative reaction can counteract and undo a plethora of accolades.” Furthermore, our sociometer is self-adjusting: it is “sensitive to the idiosyncratic standards of particular people. What may not jeopardize one’s image in one person’s eyes may lead to rejection by another.” Thus, the sociometer of a teenager may take in stride an insult unleashed by a parent but set off major alarms on detecting a classmate’s sarcasm.

* * *

The theory that we come equipped with sociometers explains a lot—but not everything. After all, these social-rejection detecting devices would be an utter waste unless there were a significant amount of social rejection for them to detect, much as ears would be a waste if there were never any sounds to hear. As it so happens, though, we live in a world awash with social rejection, much of it expressed with insults. Why is this? Why do we go around insulting each other?

Thanks to our evolutionary past, we regard ourselves as participants in an ongoing battle for position on the social hierarchy. Our opponents in this battle are other people, and we view the battle in question as a zero-sum game: for someone to rise on the social hierarchy, someone else must fall. In order to avoid losing ground in this battle, we behave in a defensive manner: we respond vigorously to those who insult us. And in order to gain ground, we engage in programs of social self-promotion. Some of these programs are positive: we say nice things about ourselves so those around us will know how wonderful we are. Along these lines, we might take steps to project our self-image: besides thinking of ourselves as a poet, we might take steps to make others aware of our poetical ability so that they can admire us for it. We might also provide our friends with evidence of our popularity: a young woman, for example, might tell her friends about the parties she has been invited to or about all the men who have recently asked her out. And since, in our culture, material well-being and social prominence are connected, we might provide others with evidence of our affluence: we might, for example, wear an expensive watch or even tell them how much it cost.

It is instructive to examine the conversations we have with other people. What we will discover is that many of these conversations contain a significant element of self-promotion. Sometimes we boast outright about the wonderful things we have done. More often, though, we come up with ways to let other people know how wonderful we are without seeming boastful about it. Thus, rather than telling her friends about all the men who have recently asked her out, the young woman mentioned above might tell them that guys are driving her crazy, in the hope that they will ask for detailed information about how, exactly, they are driving her crazy. She can then report that Tom asked her out, then Dick, then Harry, and so on. In doing this, she isn’t boasting; she is merely answering the question they asked.

In the last decade, many young adults have resorted to tattoos as part of their personal program of self-promotion. By getting, for example, a tattoo that says loyalty , they can make the world aware of a character trait that might not otherwise be obvious. And if they don’t want to be quite this blatant in their self-promotion, they might ask the tattoo artist to write the self-descriptive word in a foreign language. Then, when people ask them what the tattoo means, they can humbly respond that it is, say, Japanese for courage.

Another recent trend is the use of the Internet for self-promotion. People create web pages to tell the world who they are, what they stand for, and what they have accomplished. They might round out this promotional effort by sending out, many times a day, messages telling what they are doing, including reports on what they are buying, what they are wearing, or where they are eating. Those who do this, I should add, are unlikely to characterize their online activities as a form of self-promotion. To their way of thinking, they are just keeping in touch with friends.

Other programs of self-promotion are negative: rather than saying nice things about ourselves, we disparage the people around us. Suppose, then, that Alice proudly tells Betty about her latest consumer purchase, a Coach brand handbag. She adds that it was a real steal—that she paid “only” $300 for it. Why is Alice telling Betty this? In part, she is simply sharing information, but there is probably also an element of self-promotion in this revelation, inasmuch as owning such a purse can, in certain circles, advance her social standing. Alice might deny having such a motive, but if so, it could well be because she does not fully comprehend the motives that lie behind her consumer purchases.

Betty, however, might react to the announcement not by admiring Alice but by envying her. Indeed, she might feel threatened by Alice’s purchase: she might worry that by making it, Alice will surpass her on the social hierarchy. Consequently, Betty will find herself tempted to denigrate the purchase and thereby put Alice in her proper place on the social hierarchy—namely, somewhere below Betty. With these thoughts in mind, Betty might undertake a defensive strategy. She could openly disparage Alice’s purchase, but this could jeopardize their relationship. Better, then, to resort to subtle putdowns. Along these lines, she might tell Alice that she had considered buying that handbag but decided against it—the implication being that she didn’t find it worth buying. Or she might tell Alice that if she were going to splurge on a handbag, she would never settle for a Coach; she would instead acquire a (rather more expensive) Louis Vuitton. Betty might also be tempted to belittle Alice’s purchase to mutual friends.

* * *

Mark Leary, as we have seen, thinks our sociometer is the source of the angry feelings we experience when we have been insulted: by causing us to experience them, the sociometer motivates us to respond. This is why, when someone insults us, we feel driven to retaliate with an insult.

I would like to extend Leary’s sociometer theory by suggesting that another important emotion our sociometer causes us to experience is feelings of envy in response to an indication that someone is or soon will be above us on the social hierarchy. Thus, our sociometer might trigger feelings of envy in us when a classmate is elected prom queen, a friend buys an expensive handbag, a colleague wins an award, or a teammate wins the praise of the coach. In any of these cases, our feelings of envy might cause us to unleash a first-strike insult against the object of our envy.

I suspect that if we analyzed the malicious first-strike insults we inflict, we would discover that feelings of envy lurk behind most of them. Envy is a fascinating emotion. It is ubiquitous, but we wouldn’t know this from talking to people: although most people will readily admit that they experience anger, few will admit that they experience pangs of envy, and fewer still will admit that these pangs cause them to insult others. Envy is also an emotion that, like anger, can motivate people to do things that, as rational agents, they have no business doing. Indeed, I would argue that unless we understand envy, there is a broad range of human behavior that will baffle us.

* * *

The theory that we are wired by evolution to care very deeply about our social status explains why virtually everyone periodically unleashes insults. It explains why, although cultures may differ in what counts as an insult, the concept of an insult is shared by all cultures. And it explains why people have apparently been insulting each other since the dawn of time. It is important to realize that even though we have been evolutionarily programmed to do something, it is possible for us to override this programming. When lunchtime rolls around, for example, we will experience hunger pangs: they are evolution’s way of getting us to eat. But if we are on a diet and have willpower, we will ignore these pangs. It is also important to realize that we did not evolve so that our chances of having a good and meaningful life would be maximized. Indeed, the evolutionary process is utterly indifferent to the quality of our life. All that matters, as far as evolution is concerned, is that creatures be likely to survive and reproduce, perhaps in misery.

Therefore, if our goal is to have a good and meaningful life, we will periodically take steps to override our evolutionary programming. We will restrain ourselves from doing things that would be pleasurable, such as having a bowl of ice cream when we are on a diet; we will also force ourselves to do things that are unpleasant, such as swallowing a bitter-tasting medicine. A person who is unwilling or unable to override extensive portions of his evolutionary programming will be unlikely to live the life of his own choosing. He will instead become a slave to pleasure, assiduously seeking to do whatever feels good and avoid doing whatever feels bad.

Among the evolutionary programming we will want to override, if we wish to have a good life, is the programming that makes us want to insult others and that makes us get angry in response to their insults of us.

Reprinted from “A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt–And Why They Shouldn’t” by William B. Irvine with permission from Oxford University Press USA Copyright © 2013 by William B. Irvine.

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