Why Jerks Don’t Know They’re Jerks

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How assertive should you be?

Many people are very poor at judging how assertive they should be in business negotiations, a new study finds, which may make them look like jerks or pushovers.

The research, which is published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, examined one of the basic challenges of assertiveness at work and in life (Ames & Wazlawek, 2014).

Lead author Professor Daniel Ames explains:

“Finding the middle ground between being pushy and being a pushover is a basic challenge in social life and the workplace.

We’ve now found that the challenge is compounded by the fact that people often don’t know how others see their assertiveness.”

In one of four studies they carried out, MBA students engaged in mock business negotiations.

Afterwards, each rated their own and the other person’s assertiveness.

They were also asked to guess what the other person in the negotiation had said about them.

It turned out that participants’ self-awareness was remarkably low:

  • 57% of people seen by others as under-assertive thought they’d been appropriately assertive or even over-assertive.
  • 56% of people who were seen as over-assertive actually thought they’d been appropriately assertive or even under-assertive.

Ames concluded:

“Most people can think of someone who is a jerk or a pushover and largely clueless about how they’re seen.

Sadly, our results suggest that, often enough, that clueless jerk or pushover is us.”

Line crossing illusion

There was another nice finding from the study for those who did actually get their level of assertiveness right.

When Ames and Wazlawek looked at the people who were rated by others as having the ideal level of assertiveness, these people were convinced they’d been pushing too hard!

This was a pattern that emerged across multiple studies: many people thought they’d crossed the line in negotiation, when in fact they hadn’t, it was an illusion.

Feeling they’d crossed the line was particularly dangerous for negotiators because then they started trying to repair the damage they thought they had done.

This tended to lead to worse deals for both parties involved.

As so often in life, we frequently operate in the dark, without a good read on how we are perceived by others.

To avoid being seen as a jerk, or even a pushover, it’s vital to get some feedback from others — or better still some training — that will enable you to better see how you are coming across.

Image credit: Dave Appleby

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 2 July 2014

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License