“A” Personalities: A Theory


GoodreadsWhen someone tells me he is an “A-type” personality, I cannot help but think of the title of Aaron James’ bestselling book: Assholes *A Theory (Anchor Books, New York, 2014). After all, what else would the “A” stand for when someone boasts to the audience he is an alpha male as if the rest of the room was full of less-worthy betas?

Self aggrandizement is not limited, of course, to assholes, but they certainly occupy centre stage (at least in their own mind). Not always the best place to be, considering that, medically speaking, A-types are more prone to heart disease than B-types.

As Wikipedia tells us, Type A personalities are,

“…ambitious, rigidly organized, highly status-conscious, sensitive, impatient, take on more than they can handle, want other people to get to the point, anxious, proactive, and concerned with time management… often high-achieving “workaholics” who multi-task, push themselves with deadlines, and hate both delays and ambivalence.
…Type A behavior is expressed in three major symptoms: (1) free-floating hostility, which can be triggered by even minor incidents; (2) time urgency and impatience, which causes irritation and exasperation usually described as being “short-fused”; and (3) a competitive drive, which causes stress and an achievement-driven mentality.

Not entirely flattering a description, is it? Rigid, status-conscious, ambivalent, impatient, short-fused, irritable, hostile, competitive… not the sort of person you want at a council table where cooperation, consensus and respect make for good governance. A-types at the table generally are seen by others as assholes. Hence the mnemonic association with the book. One wonders why anyone would boast of this.

Aaron James writes of a dichotomy between cooperative people and these A-types:

Even the “bright-line” rules of cooperation will have exceptions and cooperative people often put a certain amount of work into discerning both the spirit of the law and what is finally acceptable in a particular case. They thus seek clarification, check assumptions, ask permission or at least take a measure of care in good faith. The asshole, by contrast sees little need for the work of mutual restraint aimed at benefit for all involved. According to his generalized sense of entitlement, it is only natural that the various advantages of social life should flow his way.

(For the sake of politeness and civility, I am inclined to find another name for assholes. I cannot merely call them jerks, because James differentiates between assholes and mere jerks. Twits, idiots, dweebs, boors, shmucks, cads, jackanapes… these names fail to capture the essence of those truly despicable people whom James describes. I think I will have to simply refer to them as “a*holes” so as not to entirely dilute the impact.)

A-type, A*holes, pretty much the same thing, at least as far as I can fathom. Of course, I’m not a psychologist and I’m sure there are subtle shades of difference I fail to discern.

B-type personalities, on the other hand, Wikipedia says, work well together:

…generally live at a lower stress level and typically work steadily, enjoying achievement but not becoming stressed when they do not achieve. They may be creative and enjoy exploring ideas and concepts. They are often reflective…

Sounds like someone much easier to get along with in a group dynamic like the council table: unstressed, creative, exploratory, reflective. People who will contribute rather than control, will think rather than merely act. People you can work with and respect. people who use “we”  when describing accomplishments and work as a team. People unlikely to be described in James’ book.

A-types, however, will find themselves in it.

A review of the book in Macleans’ Magazine, notes:

… the author spends 214 quite convincing pages arguing that “assholeness” is less inattention than a permanent state of mind, and that assholes are more than numerous enough to be called out in book form… The true asshole, James writes, “is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.” He is narcissistic, self-absorbed, impolite, and permanently thoughtless to those around him—and it is almost always a him—nearly to the point of sociopathy.

I think James is hedging his bets with that last “nearly.” But as Zach Dorfman writes in his review in the Los Angeles Review of Books, that distinction is crucial to our understanding of a*holes:

Comparatively speaking, then, assholes are an altogether different breed, and are generally far less destructive to the social order. For assholes, while they might consider themselves “special,” understand the strictures of morality, and often employ moral reasoning to explain their own mistreatment. And, to risk stating the obvious, your run-of-the-mill asshole would never condone (even if he committed it) serious moral violations, such as rape or murder. Assholish behavior is therefore almost always a venial sin, and not a cardinal one. Our reactions to assholes differ accordingly: while sociopaths induce our horror, given their manifest inhumanity, assholes tend to irritate and anger us in more pedestrian ways. But while we feel ourselves to be at a cognitive remove from true sociopaths, assholes — since, as James argues, they are essentially rational beings, capable of moral reasoning and affected by it — are part of our general social order. They are our moral intimates, and so their casual disregard for our status as equals, worthy of the same treatment and respect they would accord themselves, makes the wound more visceral, if ultimately less destructive. Sociopaths cause singular flesh wounds to our psyches; assholes, a million little paper cuts.

James gives additional insight into the a*hole personality, listing three basic personality traits that define them for his theory. An a*hole, says James:

  1. Allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
  2. Does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
  3. Is immunized by his sense o entitlement against the complaints of other people.

In his examples, James uses these traits to identify as a*hole a person who:

  • Frequently interrupts in a conversation;
  • Weaves in and out of traffic lanes;
  • Persistently emphasizes another person’s faults
  • Is extremely sensitive to perceived slights while being oblivious to his crassness with others.

One could add this list many other acts from annoying to despicable that we all recognize or encounter on a daily basis: people who park in handicapped zones without the appropriate permit; people who wait until the last minute to merge lanes in congested traffic; who play VERY LOUD music in their automobiles; who ride bicycles on downtown sidewalks; who make inappropriate advances to children; who don’t pick up after their dogs, moves into your parking space as you’re backing up… the list of inappropriate behaviours is almost endless. But just doing something annoying or socially obnoxious doesn’t define an a*hole, at least in James’ theory.

Does the act make someone an a*hole, or is his action the result of him being one already? It’s a chicken-and-egg question.

SudospeakTake for example, this hypothetical scenario: a tradesman gathers his employees together on Christmas eve. They arrive expecting a bonus for all their hard work this past year. Instead he fires them all. Then he declares his company bankrupt, leaving workers out their wages and his suppliers owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. While he, of course, gets to keep his nice house and car and has a happy Christmas with the family.

Which came first: his action or his a*holeness? Did he make a decision that made him into an a*hole, or did he make that decision because he was already one?

I tend to think the latter, but either way the result is the same for his victims. No one would hesitate to call him an a*hole after the event, even if they didn’t before it.

James distinguishes between the average jerk and the true a*hole by saying the latter,

…acts out of a firm sense that he is special, that the normal rules of conduct do not apply to him… he remains willfully oblivious to normal expectations… sets himself apart from others, he feels entirely comfortable flouting accepted social conventions… immunized against anyone who speaks up, being quite confident he has little need to respond… will often feel indignant when questions about his conduct are raised.*

James makes the point that, regardless of scale, a*holes are “clearly morally reprehensible” not because of any single act, but rather because of the character traits that pervade all of their actions.

He also wants to avoid the extremes of classification where at one end you have the “royal a*hole” like a Hitler or Stalin, or some loathsome criminal type – a sociopath or psychopath – and the other the “borderline a*hole” whose status may vary at different times. In between these extremes is the character we all deal with, often daily, the everyday a*hole who might be a boss, a co-worker, a stranger butting into a line, or simply a local blogger.

He also differentiates between the simple invective term and the psychological one, too. A person may even be called an a*hole affectionately without it meaning that person is always one. Maybe he or she is just that way now and then (probably really just a jerk, in James’ cladogram). James is looking for a stable trait of character, something that runs through their life, not a transient effect or some act of inverted affection.

James elaborates his theory with a variety of cultural and environmental factors that might lead to the creation of a*holes:

  • Gender norms, which encourage boys to be assholes while discouraging girls;
  • Proliferation of narcissism via social networking and self-esteem parenting;
  • “Asshole capitalism”, a model of capitalism in which citizens feel entitled to unlimited personal enrichment even at social cost;
  • Weakening of “asshole dampening systems” like the family, religion, the law, the regulatory state, etc.

He adds that real “a*holes are

“…still repugnant people… upsetting, even morally outrageous… deeply bothersome… something that lingers in one’s memory like a foul stench; something that warrants a name we use for a part of the body we hide in public…”

Another common trait of a*holes James identifies is narcissism, even a “sanctimonious selfishness.” They have a deep need to have their special status recognized by others, and to receive what they feel is their “due” from others. They become especially outraged when anyone treats them like they treat others. They want their dignity respected but dismiss yours as irrelevant.

The a*hole sees no need to defend his special place in the social world, or he easily produces convincing rationalizations and moves on. He may even compliment himself on his resiliency and formidable argumentative powers. If reflection is for most people an important source of moral learning, the a*hole puts reflection mainly in the service of assuring himself. This leaves him quite impervious to reform…

It’s their “thick sense of moral entitlement” that is the most cumbersome and troubling about a*holes, their sense that they are morally entitled to special advantages, to say what they will without consequences, to criticize others without consideration, to be abusive and nasty. James argues they are:

…morally motivated … The asshole takes himself to be justified in enjoying special advantages … Given his sense of his special standing, he … is resentful or indignant when he feels his rights are not respected, in much the same way a fully sociable, cooperative person is.

They don’t frame their sense of entitlement in some larger context, such as a political or religious perspective. They simply feel themselves elevated to special, deserving status without the need to justify it. He adds,

In stark contrast with the grandiose reasoning of the era of colonialism, the asshole in more recent modern life often requires little or no pretext of larger cause for the special privileges he feels entitled to enjoy. He will usually have some sort of rationalization ready at hand — he is not the psychopath who rejects moral concepts altogether — but the rationalizations are becoming ever thinner, ever more difficult to identify. This newer, purer style of asshole often just presumes he should enjoy special privileges in social life as a matter of course and so requires little by way of reason for taking them as the opportunity arises.. his sense of entitlement is mainly identifiable in functional terms, as the stable disposition to come up with some such rationalizations or other, as the situation requires..

One can go on quoting James, but his thrust is clear as to what defines an a*hole.

He also spends considerable verbiage in the latter portion of his book categorizing a*holes, moral, boorish, smug – sweeping through bosses, royalty, politicians, bankers and US presidents. In this, James drifts into the pedantic. It may offer greater insight, but no more remedy. Pigeon-holing someone like this doesn’t them any more bearable.

The second part of the book takes a more specific look at a*holes in American culture, particularly in capitalism, politics and media. He also ponders whether are a*holes to blame or are they victims of their own personality? He argues for the former. The Literary Review put it:

But is the asshole genuinely culpable, or is he sick? James argues powerfully for the former. On the other hand, ICD-10, the World Health Organisation classification of diseases, identifies ‘dissocial personality disorder’ (F60.2) as being diagnosed by any three out of six signs, including ‘callous unconcern for the feelings of others’, ‘very low tolerance to frustration’, ‘behaviour … not readily modifiable by experience’ and the tendency to offer ‘plausible rationalisations for the behaviour bringing the patient into conflict with society’. Perhaps, on the other hand, there’s no reason why one can’t be mad and still an asshole, still morally culpable.

James offers some advice on “a*hole management” and writes a “letter to an a*hole,” (“in the spirit of Horace’s epistles…”) but these both assume the person can (or will) recognize their condition and will respond positively to it. I’m not convinced there’s an effective remedy along these lines.

In my experience – and of late I’ve had my share of experiences with some a-types – a*holes get more defensive, more abusive and more argumentative when you try to point out their problem or even challenge their presumption of special status. They have a thick skin when it comes to abusing others, but a very thin skin when it comes to being criticized themselves. They don’t want to listen to a litany of their flaws: they want to condemn yours.

I’m not sure you really can reach through their wall of rationalization, narcissism and moral entitlement. As Dorfman writes,

…the asshole, who is most naturally at home in a world of hyper-individualistic morality, one where obligations toward others are argued to be minimal, or at least apply only to the other, littler people, and never to the asshole himself.

We live in the culture of the selfie, where narcissism is actively encouraged and everyone’s comment is treated as being of equal valuable to everyone else’s on social media. We are empowered by the technology to strike out, to react without thinking, to harass, to demean and belittle others instantaneously. In our culture a child’s self-esteem gets more respect than their education or behaviour. Our inflated sense of self-worth is developed early. We are encouraged by ads, by TV and by popular culture to be selfish; to want more, to demands our own space and time, to engage in self-absorbed pursuits rather than cooperative and shred ventures.

Popular culture makes a*holes, not deflates them. It encourages all of us to be jackasses, to make sex tapes, to be “gangstas” and be publicly, egregiously bad. Being an a*hole garners attention and that’s what we’re told we need: media recognition vindicates us. It puts the A-type at the top of the recognition heap (just look at the many “reality” TV shows that reward greed and antisocial behaviour while they laud a*holes). And if we can’t get external media attention: we make it for ourselves on blogs and social media. Every a*hole can get his audience through Facebook “friends” and Twitter followers.

We’ve entered a new age of a*holeness that is powered by social media and technology, but our loss of critical thinking, reflection and morality. It’s like some behavioral ebola. Being able to identify them is not sufficient: to keep us all from being infected, we need to be able to effectively contain and reform them.

That, however, seems an improbable, even impossible task. James’ book is a good read if you want to commiserate with his views, but not if you want a solution.

*  You’re probably thinking this is about one or more of my fellow bloggers, maybe a former newspaper editor, or a candidate or three in the municipal election who canvassed at your door recently, boasting about himself while condescendingly trashing the incumbents. That’s not my intent. This is about a book on personality types, not specific individuals, and the psychological issues raised in that book.

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  1. A local reader contacted me about this piece by email to pose another hypothetical situation:

    What if a man cheated on his wife by sleeping with his secretary in their family home? And then left his wife to live with and marry that secretary, ruining the family and leaving a young son without a father?

    Was he an a*hole before the adultery? Or did the act of cheating on his wife make him an a*hole? And, the reader asked somewhat rhetorically, would you want this person in a employed position where honesty and trust were required?

    Again, I think the result is the same regardless. Like with our previous scenario, whether one called this person an a*hole before, everyone would so label him later. But I suspect the a*holeness is inherent, not the result of a single, despicable act. Or a even, as suggested, a series of such infidelities.

    And while I am not an employer any longer, were I still one, I would not trust this person in any position in any business of mine. Nor would I want him in any role the public sector where one had to depend on his word for anything. Having employed a few of them, I’ve never found a*holes of any stripe dependable or trustworthy.

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