How Good, Kind, Caring People Became The Bad Guys

An unfortunate psychological trait.

How Good, Kind, Caring People Became The Bad Guys

There's a story about Zig Ziglar, the motivational speaker and author. Apparently, a woman approached Ziglar at one of his seminars, begging him for help. She said she hated her job. Her boss was horrible. Her coworkers were so mean to her.

What should she do?

Well, Zig told her to shut up and stop complaining. He said she sounded like the negative one. He told her to chant aphorisms into a mirror. Low and behold, she was cured.

I've got bad news for everyone. Zig didn't help this woman. In fact, all he did was reinforce a cognitive bias that psychologists have been studying for decades now.

This bias explains a lot about the state of the world today.

But first, a personal story:

I don't know if you've ever been trapped in a small space with a severe, violent schizophrenic relative.

It's not fun.

When I was a teen, my mom started having delusions and hallucinations. She thought the CIA was spying on my dad. She thought a Category 4 Hurricane was going to hit the house. She thought I was a space alien. She thought dinosaurs were real. She tried to make bombs out of old electronics and threw them in our rooms in the middle of the night. And, she tried to seduce my brother.

All of that happened in the span of ten years.

I got pretty good at spotting the early red flags. My mom said and did little things that didn't make sense. She started dropping incredibly pessimistic observations or insults into the middle of small talk. She hid things in weird places. She stayed up even later than usual, not watching television, just smoking and drinking black coffee, staring off into the midnight void. The tone of her voice changed.

So did her body language.

I tried to warn my dad and brother. Every single time, they ignored me until it was too late. My dad usually got angry at me. He thought I was trying to wreck the family vacation or whatever. More than once, he piled us into the car and drove us to a beach, where my mom's health completely unraveled and I got stuck following her around and trying to keep her from drowning herself.

So I got used to quietly watching things devolve, until one night she'd get so violent my dad had to call the police.

The police wouldn't come.

(At first.)

They frequently told us they couldn't do anything until after she hurt someone. It didn't matter if she implied she was going to do us harm. It didn't matter if she made us feel unsafe. It didn't matter if a court had ordered her to take medication.

In the end, she wound wind up hurting one of us. Then the police would arrest her. Then the doctors would evaluate her and determine that, yes, she belonged in a mental health facility, but only for as long as our health insurance provider allowed.

Social workers started visiting my house. They came to my school. I was called out of class to answer their questions. They asked me if I felt safe in my home. They asked if I was okay.

I lied.

I lied because I'd been taught a valuable lesson, one that I didn't truly understand for years. When you complain, people judge you. It doesn't matter what you're complaining about. It doesn't matter what you're protesting or whistle-blowing. It doesn't matter if your life is at stake. It doesn't matter if thousands of lives are at stake. It doesn't matter if the fate of humanity is at stake. Someone's first instinct is to suspect you. It's to accuse you of lying. It's to label you a troublemaker.

They hear negative words coming out of your mouth. They associate those negative things with you, because you're the person saying them. That's how our primate brains operate. It takes a lot of self-awareness to overcome that, and many people lack it.

A lot has changed since then.

Now I'm an adult, watching this kind of thing play out on a global scale every single day with the collapse of public health, the collapse of our democracies, the collapse of global industrial civilization, and the collapse of our ecosystems.

Now it occurs to me.

I've already lived through collapse. I've watched the collapse of my mom's mental and physical health. I've watched the collapse of my family. And I've watched the collapse of at least one university.

You could call me a connoisseur of collapse.

Over the last few years, I've studied the psychology of denial and cognitive dissonance. There are so many bugs and glitches in the human psyche to explain what's happening and why it takes so much patience, and so much effort, to ever get anyone to take threats seriously or to change their behavior, for any reason.

Here's one of the most fascinating ones:

Spontaneous trait transference.

In the 1990s, psychologists John Skowronski and Donal Carlston began noticing something strange when someone tried to raise concerns about someone else. Instead of believing them, people tended to transfer those negative traits to the person trying to warn them. They confirmed the behavior in four different studies. They defined spontaneous trait transference as when "communicators are perceived as possessing the very traits they describe in others."

He who smelt it dealt it.

Am I right?

As Skowronsky explains, "politicians who allege corruption by their opponents may themselves be perceived as dishonest" and "critics who praise artists may themselves be perceived as talented." If you describe someone as negative, unreliable, or dangerous, people tend to misremember it as a self-description. Yes, they really think you were talking about yourself.

This tendency reinforces our worst behaviors, ensuring we never criticize those who deserve it while the ones who deserve praise never actually get it. All those fake compliments flying around? These people have probably never heard of spontaneous trait transference, but they've observed it. They've learned that if you pass out worthless attagirls all day long, people mistakenly assume you're a great person.

And it works.

Because humans are kind of gullible...

Rick Brown and John Bassili even found that people can transfer personality traits to inanimate objects like bananas. They do it without even thinking. Yes, you can condition someone to believe that bananas are evil.

It gets worse.

You know the phrase, don't shoot the messenger?

That actually happens.

In 2019, a team of psychologists at Harvard led by Leslie John reviewed hundreds of studies and conducted eleven different experiments to explain why people punish someone for giving them bad news. They learned that the human brain often reaches for the quickest, easiest explanations for negative events in their lives, especially ones that preserve their self-image and group harmony. As Leslie John and her colleagues write, "people are especially prone to attributing agency to others for negative outcomes." They also "attribute agency to those proximal to the event."

There's nothing more proximal to an event than the first person to tell you what's going on. Once again, our shared psychology discourages us from warning each other about threats.

And so:

"Bad news messengers may be prime candidates in recipients' search for antagonists to cast in accounts of unwanted outcomes." Bad news also motivates people to come up with "fallacious" causal explanations "often generated effortlessly, seemingly automatically." They generate these fallacious explanations through poor reasoning "characterized by shallow, unconscious thought."

That's how we wind up with so many conspiracy theories. They're easier to swallow than the truth.

They gratify us.

To sum things up, people tend to attribute the bad news and negative events in their lives to those around them, often their friends and family. They don't do a good job of distinguishing between a threat and someone trying to warn them.

They get them mixed up.

That's hardly a useful evolutionary trait, is it?

And yet, this trait explains so much of what's going on now. It explains why the public gets angry at climate protestors instead of the oil executives who've ruined their future. It explains how university students have somehow wound up as the villains in so many people's eyes, instead of the governments sponsoring and committing genocide. It explains why you can't criticize billionaires or super rich influencers without that incredibly annoying counter claim:

"You're just jealous."

It explains why you get pathologized and called everything from a doomer to a snowflake for caring about anything but yourself. It explains why pretending to care looks better.

It explains why my family didn't listen to me about my mom's mental health. It explains why Zig Ziglar was such an asshole to a woman who begged him for help.

I've tried to come up with little strategies and workarounds for all of humanity's psychological shortcomings.

It comes down to this:

You have to find a way to be the smart, positive, compassionate, mature, respectful, charming one. You have to do that even if everyone around you is acting like a complete idiot.

You have to achieve a fine balance between sugar coating and blunt honesty. Above all, you have to anticipate that all of your hard work won't achieve the results you want in the short term. It takes a long time. A lot of people won't listen at first.

You often have to trick people into doing the right thing.

It's exhausting.

It takes a lot out of you to be respectful to idiots all day long, especially when many of them go out of their way to do you harm. Despite the audacious tone of my writing (my dry humor is often mistaken for bitterness or anger), I try to remain calm and compassionate when dealing with people right in front of me.

And of course, a lot of people will call you rude or disrespectful, simply because you don't smile when you talk.

It's a lot to deal with.

It's all hard, because every single minute matters now. We don't have decades to change public thought. The plagues are getting worse and more frequent. The climate collapse is accelerating. The weather is getting more extreme. People are dying from heatstroke in the thousands now. They're getting swept away in crash floods. They're getting blown out of their apartments by typhoon-strength winds in the middle of the night. Every disease we ever dealt with is now converging on our weakened immune systems.

Our politicians spent the last year whining about TikTok while letting yet another zoonotic disease run rampant. The last threads of democracy are unraveling right in front of us.

It's hard to sound optimistic.

What's my point?

I guess, this:

When I was dealing with my mom's mental health, the worst part wasn't the fear or the violence. It was the solitude. It was lying to social workers. It was pretending everything was fine around my friends. It was waiting for my family to finally see what I saw.

Those days when my mom was in the mental health facility, those were the best. She was getting the help she needed. My family stopped being angry at me. It was when she came home, when she stopped taking her medicine, and things went back to "normal."

Those were the worst days.

It was lonely.

I hated those long stretches of "normal," when we were all waiting for the next schizophrenic break but wouldn't do anything about it. When I moved out, I was relieved. My mom suffered from schizophrenia for almost 20 more years before she died. At least I didn't have to live in that state of paralysis anymore.

I could have a life.

Know this:

You are seen. You are not working in vain. Millions of people out there are listening to your warnings, even if it often doesn't feel that way. Maybe it's not enough to stop the worst of everything.

But you're not alone.

It's something, at least.

Thank you to all the readers who support this site.

It makes a difference.

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