This Stanford Professor Has a Theory on Why 2017 Is Filled With Jerks

By
Pharma bro Martin Shkreli. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

We are living in a world full of assholes. To be sure: There are no census figures to back this up, no national registry from which to draw statistics, but one need only look at the headlines to see that the asshole population has not only grown in recent years but also spawned some new and rather alarming mutants. I mean, Martin Shkreli? Travis Kalanick? PewDiePie?

“You can make the argument that we are living in Peak Asshole,” says Robert Sutton, a Stanford professor who, as the author of the iconic 2007 book The No Asshole Rule, is perhaps the world’s leading expert on the species. According to Sutton, the problem of “disrespectful, demeaning, and downright mean-spirited behavior” is “worse than ever,” which, while it may be bad news for humanity, is good news for The Asshole Survival Guide, the book Sutton came to New York to promote. And he has a point, citing the recent “fiascoes” at Uber and Fox News as examples of “assholes running wild.” Then, of course, there’s “the degeneration of American political discourse,” as Sutton delicately puts it. We are sitting, on a Monday afternoon in mid-September, in what may arguably be the red-hot center of an Asshole Heat Map, if one existed: the pink, veined lobby at the base of the colossal penis that is Trump Tower.

Sutton is not a Trump supporter, but, sipping an iced tea from the building’s beleaguered Starbucks, he is hesitant to outright label Trump an asshole, although his definition (“a person who leaves people feeling demeaned, deenergized, and disrespected”), he agrees, “certainly applies.” But Sutton doesn’t want to be, you know, an asshole: “Most of politics is everybody calling everybody else assholes.” And assholism, after all, is contagious. “Nasty behavior spreads much faster than nice behavior, unfortunately,” Sutton says. As he points out in his book, research shows that even a “single exposure” to negative behavior, like receipt of an insulting email, can turn a person into a “carrier.” “Literally like a common cold,” he adds. Similarly, when the president calls his detractors “haters and losers” in a tweet, when the wallpaper of life is made up of faces that belong to certified assholes like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Don Jr., etc., etc., ad infinitum, it most likely has a trickle-down effect. “The more assholes you’re around, the more asshole-y you get.” But there are other factors that have led to this explosion of assholes, Sutton points out, everything from heat and crowding to imbalances in power and the wealth gap. “The research says that when we’re in those situations, there’s envy going up, and sort of disdain goes down.” Research also shows that technology has increased the “asshole problem,” as Sutton puts it, because people are much more likely to be mean if they don’t have to make eye contact. And because technology has created the expectation for things to happen faster, and at all hours of the day, hurriedness and sleep deprivation have become major factors.

“That’s the other thing with him,” Sutton says, lowering his voice in reference to the insomniac-in-chief, as though he might be swarmed by a team of guys in MAGA caps any minute, although the only people in evidence are European tourists. “Sleep deprivation is one of the most reliable ways to put someone in a bad mood. So maybe he should only be allowed to tweet after he was certified that he had eight hours of sleep three nights in a row.”

Sutton wasn’t always “the Asshole Guy,” as he somewhat reluctantly calls himself. As a psychologist, he has always focused on the expression of emotion in the workplace. But in the course of working in academia among tenured professors, and in talking to his wife, who spent time as a litigator at a large firm, the subject of assholes naturally came up. And back in 2003, when a friend at Harvard Business Review approached him about contributing to its “Breakthrough Ideas” feature, he said he had one idea but he wasn’t sure it was a breakthrough — assholes having been around since the dawn of man — and the journal probably wouldn’t print it. It did. When the article came out, Sutton received an “incredible storm of emails,” he says. This may have had something to do with the fact that 2004 was also a banner year for assholes, with the Iraq War and the Martha Stewart trial in the news and Fahrenheit 9/11 and Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ in theaters, but in any case, interest was sufficient that, when Sutton finished a long book about “evidence-based management,” he turned back to the subject for The No Asshole Rule.

The book was a best seller, and its titular coinage has since sunk into the lexicon. Today, a company that doesn’t at least claim to have a “no asshole rule” would be as odd as a person who doesn’t have, well, an asshole, although it does not seem to have had much of an effect on their proliferation. Sutton is frequently approached by people touting the rule who are clearly assholes. “It’s even worse when they say they have it and they’re assholes, because then, as I say, they’re assholes and hypocrites,” says Sutton, noting that in the decade since, the breadth of academic literature focusing on “all things asshole” has expanded considerably. “It’s a real growth group,” he says. Now there’s Berkeley professor Geoffrey Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-Word; Assholes: A Theory, by University of California professor Aaron James; Dacher Keltner’s The Power Paradox; and Sutton’s friend Adam Grant’s Give and Take.

Again, there’s no data proving that this academic boomlet is indicative of a worldwide increase in assholes, but studies in related areas, like workplace bullying, suggest it’s possible, and Sutton himself was soon drawn back to the topic. It may, he allows, have something to do with his increased exposure to the growing tech industry through his work at Stanford, where he co-founded the Technology Ventures Program, which puts him in contact with many present, past, and future employees of Silicon Valley tech companies. “We produce a lot of those bros who become assholes, unfortunately,” he says, although finance and health care also rank high on the list of professions in which “power differences and time pressure and fatigue” combine to create toxic environments. His favorite strategy for coping with assholes comes from a Stanford administrator whose equanimity Sutton always admired. “I never could figure out why he was so serene in the face of certain assholes, especially in particular a petty tyrant we have in our midst. But what he does is he pretends when people are nasty that he’s a doctor who specializes in studying assholism. And he says to himself, ‘Oh, what a fascinating subject or specimen. I can’t believe how lucky I am to see this close up,’ which is funny, because I guess that’s partly who I am.” He also likes a strategy he calls “time travel”: “Think about it like it’s tonight and you’re looking back at it, and it won’t seem so bad.”

Although the new book seems exceptionally well timed, Sutton finished writing before the election, and he notes in it that he doesn’t buy into the adage that assholes finish first. The presence of a major-league asshole in the Oval Office would seem to prove him wrong, but Sutton stands by this theory. “The evidence generally is that when you treat people badly, the only time it really seems to work is if you’re in a zero-sum game and it’s a shorter-term game,” he explains. “And my perspective is that even if you’re in the zero-sum game, where the assholes get ahead, there’s all this negative carnage. The people around them, their physical and mental health and personal relationships, they all suffer. And I don’t want to go to Trump too much, but God, look how many people he’s gone through.” In the long run, he concludes, “people who treat each other with some civility generally do better.”

But what about when the long run is, you know, long? It could always be worse, Sutton says, as we step on the escalator that will take us down through the tower’s pink innards, back into the breathable New York City air. “One thing I could say about Trump is that the duration of it is really long, but there’s some that are even longer,” he says. For example: “I’m with all these colleagues that are all tenured, and Stanford has no mandatory retirement,” he points out. “So when I’m with an asshole, all I can do is hope.”

*This article appears in the September 18, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

This Professor Has a Theory on Why 2017 Is Filled With Jerks