How Do People Become Total Jerks? BY Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D

What all detours to total-jerkdom have in common.



  • DSM-like rubrics are useful for categorizing “dark” personalities but do little to explain them.
  • People detour into total jerkdom by way of many paths, some of them opposites — for example, being dominant or oppressed.
  • Total jerks take the path of most insistence because it’s the path of least resistance.

For diagnostic purposes, it’s enough to have DSM-like rubrics for categorizing difficult people: If a subject has X number of these descriptive traits, it’s fair to describe them as having this or that condition.

For greater diagnostic accuracy, we can expand the rubrics and descriptions. There’s psychopath, narcissist, gaslighter. There are the dark triad traits and now a five-trait characterization: callousness, deceitfulness, narcissistic entitlement, sadism, and vindictiveness.

But science isn’t just description; it’s also explanation.

The path to becoming a jerk

How then does someone become a total jerk? Alas, by many paths, many of them opposites — unfortunate genetics or bad parenting, too much or little of this or that bio-chemical. One can become a cynical con artist or a gullible dupe. One can end up with so much power they can get away with being a total jerk or so little power they have nothing to lose by being one.

Biography (etiology) aside, is there something all paths have in common, some integrated explanation for how people detour into total jerkdom? I suspect there is.

Being a total jerk is a human thing, a path of least resistance made both useful and possible by symbol-fluency — in other words, the human capacity for language. We humans have something beyond the responsiveness evident in all organisms and the feelings evident in all animals.

All organisms interact selectively with their circumstances, for example, consuming food, not poison; water, not bleach. All organisms let some stuff in and keep other stuff out. It’s obvious why they must:

Organisms aren’t durable objects. We’re fragile and must struggle for our persistence, not just reproducing offspring but regenerating ourselves in real-time, fast enough to outpace the aging, crippling degeneration that eats away at us 24/7.

Self-regeneration takes work. Work takes energy. But energy currents are just what degenerate us.

So we all have to let in the right, not the wrong energy currents. To be well-adapted means being good at just that. An organism that interacts with the wrong energy currents degenerates and dies.

Most organisms selectively interact without feeling or thinking about it. Animals selectively interact by feel, a “yum” vs. “yuk” response — absorbing what feels good and avoiding what feels bad.

With language, we humans selectively interact by means of concepts too. We can conceive of all sorts of possibilities — so many that we’re easily overwhelmed. We can imagine all sorts of real and imaginary threats and missed opportunities. We can foresee our own deaths in ways no other organism can.


Given language, we’re an exceptionally anxious species. A rat is anxious, but only about a few threats. We humans are exposed to so many possibilities, it’s like we’re trudging through an erosive sandstorm of discouraging conceptual possibilities, dread, and FOMO. Compared to human life, a rat race would be a vacation.

With language, we can also generate concepts by which to avoid other concepts. We can engage in threat displacement, worrying about imaginary threats so we don’t have to think about real ones.

Selective interaction in the conceptual, language-fueled realm manifests as confirmation bias, interacting with what encourages us, not with what discourages us.

Confirmation bias is a problem that most of us recognize we must manage. There’s a taboo against saying no to every bit of disappointing news. Scientists, heavily biased against confirmation bias, have become our role models. We learn to bite our tongues rather than spitting out criticism. We learn to apologize when we lash out impulsively against discouragement.

In contrast, for total jerks, confirmation bias becomes the answer to all problems.

It’s easy. To become a total jerk, just double down and out-escalate in every confrontation. Never concede anything, never apologize or compromise. Become shameless and when challenged, be shameless about your shamelessness. Insist that you’re being consistent by declaring yourself rational, more scientific than scientists, even while engaging in reckless hypocrisy. Have proud blind faith in yourself and when challenged on that, have proud blind faith in your proud, blind faith.

To become a total jerk, you’ll make sacrifices but they’re all worth the advantages gained. Conscience, heart, and mind, caring about the meaning of what you say — all of that must go, but that’s a small price to pay for giving yourself and others the impression of having an uninterrupted winning streak.

Taking the total-jerk detour of least resistance, you become challenge-proof, invincible, and incorrigible — literally un-correctible. You feel like a god which is much easier than being human. You can do anything you want and whatever you do is always the best.

Since winning is relative to losing, the total jerk just has to master some techniques for deflecting and discrediting all challenges to their authority. It’s not difficult: Credit all good to yourself, discredit all bad to your rivals.


There are many familiar cliches by which you can pose as the judge presiding over all arguments you enter. Just parrot the cliches. Conscientious people will mistake you for meaning and caring about what you’re saying and will tend to back down.

Externalize all doubt: Make others doubt themselves so you don’t have to doubt yourself.

Pose as the authority. Decent, civilized people trying to connect with you will give up on trying to beat you. Some will join you.

Abandon give-and-take for take-and-take as though you’re on some holy war mission, that makes you holy enough that it’s your dirty duty to defeat everyone in your way.

And what for? What’s your grand cause? Though you may brandish a cause as though it’s so important, it trumps all other concerns, that’s just for show. You don’t have a cause other than keeping yourself invincible.

That’s what it’s like to detour into total jerkdom and it’s good to try to imagine how you too could slide because it’s an option tempting to any of us if we can get away with it.

Total jerks are parrotsites, parasites by parroting whatever clears for them a path of least resistance to wherever they want to go. They’re bullsh*tdozers, bulldozing through everything in their path by means of BS — not caring what’s true, only what’s useful for getting their way.

These days, the sandstorm of possibilities only grows: There’s so much world to worry about, and so many new cliches by which to deflect them.

There’s a lot of talk about how to have difficult conversations with people who have different values from yours. Total jerks don’t really have values.

There’s not enough about how to close the total jerk path of least resistance, how to make it cost a total jerk to indulge in their easy way out.

It’s easier to play God than be human, unless we figure out how to make it harder.

Here’s a four-minute video on what all total jerks have in common.

And here’s my new podcast on psychoproctology: Ahole diagnosis,


Reprinted with Permission.

Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP

Original Article