December 22nd, 2008
09:30 AM ET

The impact of meanness

By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer

I can't handle rude people. You know the ones I'm talking about: the pushy pedestrians who shove you as they pass you on the escalator, the speed demons who cut you off in traffic, the shoppers who try to jump in front of you in line. They never say "excuse me",  and they don't wait their turn.  No one matters but them. They care less about anyone else.

Yet you'd figure during the holidays, when COMFORT and JOY are the buzz words of the day, and "Peace on Earth, good will to men"  is echoing in every grocery store, these lads and ladies of the long faces and bad attitudes would cheer up a little bit.  Hardly. In fact, during stressful times of the season, these "Nasties" seem to thrive and what's worse, they can turn unsuspecting folks into "Nasties" as well.

That's because, it seems being inconsiderate and rude to people has a much bigger impact than being nice. A recent study, conducted at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, found feeling slighted can have a bigger impact on how a person treats another, than being the recipient of someone's generosity.

Working with college students who were tasked with exchanging money in an orchestrated test of taking and sharing, researchers found the young people were willing to share at beginning of the study. But when they felt they were being taken advantage of, or that their fellow students were cheating them, they became more aggressive and greedier, rather than stepping back and appreciating what they were given.

Psychologists say this is not unusual. The meaner deed has the greater impact. Give something to someone and they may appreciate it. Take it away and they'll fight you or at least object strongly.

One incident I witnessed a few years ago sprang to mind when I read this study. Picture a crowded shopping mall parking lot, two days before Christmas. The place is packed, and a young mother is waiting patiently for a soon-to-be open slot. It's obvious the parking spot is her "found treasure" and the rest of the drivers, including myself, are steering around her. Once the spot is vacated she begins to pull in, when POW, a Mini Cooper slips into the space. Without warning, the mild mannered mom with her child sleeping in the back seat, flies into a horrible rage. She jumps out of the vehicle and runs up to the driver of the Mini Cooper, who could care less that he has taken her parking spot. He begins to walk away. She attacks him, not physically, but verbally with a few single digits for good measure. And the rude gent decides he's going to one digit her one better and they proceed to scream at each other, till they are hoarse. Suddenly the woman's baby begins to cry from the idling car. She immediately runs back to her little one to comfort him and begins to cry herself in the front seat, with her car still in the parking lot aisle. All over a parking spot. In the meantime, Mini Cooper Meanie is in the mall. It was spectacle I will not soon forget. And it impacted not only her but the rest of us.

So what does this say to us? People should be good to one another. It's really that simple. All this anger and hostility not only leads to unhappy people, but can cause anxiety, which raises our blood pressure, and puts stress on our hearts. Maybe it's time we start practicing patience and understanding, instead of jumping in front of others and not caring how others feel.

Peace on Earth, good will toward people. What do you think?

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