4 Things That Turn Us Into Jerks & How to Be Your Best At All Times

Photo by Lara Laing
Photo by Lara Laing
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The Problem: We’re not always our best and sometimes we even turn into crabby jerks.
The Science: Research shows that certain phenomena actually predict when we will not be ourselves.
The Solution: Learning about these situations can help you be at your best at all times.
We know when we are at our best: we’re kind, fun, aware of others’ needs and lend a helping hand. On the other hand, we also know when we’re real jerks. We’re sometimes crabby, pissed off, say the wrong thing, and generally frown at the world. Inevitably, we end up not feeling good about our behavior. So what turns us into jerks and what can we do to harness our best selves? Social Psychology actually shows us 4 situations that can bring out the worst enough. The good news is that learning about them can help you be at your best at all times. All it takes is a little awareness:


We’re living in a time that encourages fear in our everyday lives: “Tax season!” Rise in cortisol. “Traffic jam!” Rise in heart rate. “My boss is calling.” Palms start to sweat. “My partner is upset with me!” Insomnia. “Too much to do, too little time.” I can’t focus. Stress, anxiety and depression are all too common. The consequence of these mental states is self-focus. Evolutionarily, self-focus was adaptive when we were in high-stress situations (think: running from a lion). However, nowadays when we are under chronic stress, we are also under chronic self-focus which lowers our ability to connect with others in meaningful ways. In some cases, we are too self-focused to actually make eye contact with another person which is the key to resonance and empathy. Think of a day when you have a lot to do and are experiencing high levels of stress. You develop “tunnel vision” as you focus on your goals and are so immersed in your own world that your best friend could walk by and you may not notice. In a classic study, students of the Yale Divinity School were told to rush somewhere to give a talk on the Good Samaritan of all things. If they were told they were late, they wouldn’t stop to help someone strategically sprawled on the floor in their way in obvious need of help. These seminarians basically turned into insensitive jerks even though they were going to talk about the Good Samaritan! However, when the participants were told to take their time, they were more likely to help.

1. Solution: Turn Your Self-Focus into Other Focus.

Think of a time when you were having a “bad day” and someone called you who was having a far worse day. All of a sudden, you were comforting them and thinking about ways in which you could help. What happened to your mood? To your mental state? As you focused on them and helping them, you felt energized, your mood improved and your perspective on your own situation probably broadened significantly. After helping them, you felt refreshed and better. That is what happens when we switch from self-focus (think stress, narrow perspective, misery) to other focus (compassionate outlook, empowerment, wisdom). I’m not saying focus on other at the expense of your own well-being and at all times as self-compassion is also important, but balancing other-focus with self-focus can be of incredible psychological benefit while also uplifting others.

2. Do Things That Make You Happy

Some people might think focusing on your own happiness is selfish but this is not the case. If you are happier you are more likely to help. While negative emotions can increase self-focus, positive emotions, on the other hand, broaden our perspective, as has been shown by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North-Carolina at Chapel Hill. On a day when you are feeling great, you are more likely to notice if someone needs help and to reach out a helping hand. Ironically, a great way to increase our happiness is to be empathic, to reach out and to help others. And the choice to live our lives in that way is ours.

Bystander Effect

So what else can turn us into jerks? Let’s consider the apathy to suffering that we often see in busy urban areas. It may in part be due to heightened stress levels but also to the bystander effect. The “Bystander Effect” is a psychological phenomena akin to “they don’t care/think it’s a big deal, so it’s not” i.e. the more people there are around doing nothing about the situation, the less likely people are to take responsibility and help. The prime example was the Kitty Genovese case in which a woman was stabbed by night and in which witnesses in nearby buildings did nothing to help.

3. Solution: Develop Awareness.

Now that you know about the Bystander Effect, you don’t have to be slave to it. Making the decision not to fall prone to being a “bystander” can help you overcome that tendency or the social pressure to conform. Awareness-building exercises like meditation will help you become more mindful and alert (see here and here for more on meditation).


Of course, if a situation feels too large to handle, our willingness to help others decreases. Daryl Cameron from the University of North Carolina has shown that, if we see a photo of one person suffering, we are more likely to wish to help but if we see a photo of ten needy people, we are less likely to feel compassion. In fact, other people’s pain can sometimes also trigger “personal distress,” a feeling of empathic pain that feels too overwhelming and may trigger a desire to just flee the situation – thus appearing to ourselves and others as a jerk.

4. Solution: One Step at a Time

In these cases, it is important to remember that, even if we can’t help everyone, we can always make a difference. As Mother Theresa said, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”

Being Stuck In Our Head

Ironically, having too much time to think can also turn us into jerks! Why? Because our first tendency is to be kind, fair and generous. David Rand found that adults’ first impulse is to help others and be fair. However, he also found that this was not always the case when people were given too much time to make a decision. Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business professor Dale Miller found that adults often want to help others but then stop themselves from helping because they worry that others will think they are acting out of self-interest can stop them from this impulse to help. Frank Flynn, also at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business showed that people want to help if asked but don’t help because they assume that someone does not need it. In all cases, too much thinking, too little action. The result: failed opportunities to be your best and make a difference!

5. Solution: Go With Your Heart

Here again, go with your heart and go with your gut. When you know you can make a difference, just go for it. In most cases, you will find it rewarding.

6. Solution: Get Creative

In other situations, you may feel unsafe or that you don’t have the resources, and in that case consider another option like calling for help or asking others to join in to help. In some cases, when you are not well, it is also important to take care of yourself.


Sometimes we’re just jerks because we feel that others aren’t similar to us. We’re more likely to help someone if they feel like family or like “one of us.”  A major determinant of empathy is our feeling of connection with the person in need. The more similar a person (or animal) feels to you, the more you identify with them and the more you will tend to want to help them. This can turn us into jerks too. Think about it, we’re all in this same boat (the planet) together. Why should one person be more deserving than the other. And why should we limit our ability to make a difference in someone else’s life?

7. Solution: Remember Shared Humanity

People like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King and Gandhi felt such a broad sense of connection to others that their compassion was broad. To quote Albert Einstein: “Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.”

This article originally appeared at EmmaSeppala.com.

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Emma Seppälä

Emma Seppälä

EMMA SEPPÄLÄ, Ph.D. is the author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success and Science Director of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. She also teaches at Yale University and consults with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She founded Fulfillment Daily and a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today.
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