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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soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. Paige

    Dear Val,

    I wasn't sure where you were going with this at first. I thought you were going to talk more about the Rock Group than those impacted by the Rock Group meanies. I like that you cited a study, because there are days I wonder what prompts people to do what they do.

    I usually give people the benefit of the doubt; however, here's an example that doesn't warrant it: Imagine it's 25 degrees below wind chill, you're waiting to cross the street, and people in warm cars who have no one barreling behind them, don't allow you to cross the street. I would give the benefit of the doubt to someone who had another driver behind them - thinking that they wouldn't want to cause a chain reaction crash. But, the situation I referred to was "one single car" that wouldn't let a pedestrian cross.

    Unlike the woman with the baby, I raised my arms in a "what gives" gesture - to myself (because the car was long gone) and went inside. In today's world, I wouldn't confront someone (because it's "today's world"). Inside, a kind person greeted me. I thought, should I carry the frustrated feeling with me, or the warmth generated by the kind greeter. I opted for the greeter.

    I'm glad to have had the greeter "on the other side." For those unkind drivers, though, shame on you. I'm sorry for the experience the woman with the baby had.

    Thanks for writing and citing the study. It probably won't change the meanies, but it may help those impacted by them . . . let them know there are kind people across the street.

    December 22, 2008 at 11:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Dina Zeckhausen

    As a psychologist who hears the inside scoop behind some of the "mean" behavior out in the world, I no longer assume that I have any clue what motivates people to act a certain way. Since all I can control is my interpretation of reality and my reaction to my interpretation, I try to give people the most forgiving of explanations for their behavior: maybe they are in a rush because their mother is sick and dying and they need to get to her... or maybe he is driving crazy because his wife just lost her job. I know it's all in my head, but it helps ME be more forgiving and keeps my own blood pressure from rising. It also makes me hopeful that someday when I am so stressed out or upset that I am rude or driving too fast that people will forgive me. We are all in this together.

    December 22, 2008 at 16:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Buddesatva

    This is a very important issue. Violence, meaness, hyperbolic reaction are undercutting society. Without civility and the assumption that people can disagree without demonizing one another we are spiraling down. It is not OK to talk to one another in hateful ways. Blogs seem to be for people who want to blow up. Purposeless !

    December 23, 2008 at 12:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Nina

    It seems the world we live in is evolving away from the "we" to enable the "me". When we hear of stories of random acts of kindness or selfless acts of compassion, they become headlines stories on local news stations because they are increasingly becoming the exception rather than the norm. We are surrounded with a rapidly growing 'greed' factor, and after witnessing endless accounts of people, organizations, and corrupt companies haphazardly steal our retirements, our security and our sense of hope, our communal bond begins to disintegrate.

    Consciously or not we begin to wonder if the human connection could be fruitless. When it begins to seem pointless, we feel alone and abandoned, thus igniting the dormant facets of our primal survival drive for self preservation.

    The days of "all for one, and one for all" have disappeared. Today, as can be seen on many children's t-shirts, the motto has evolved to "it's all about me".

    And, as I witness the same cruelties, and am victimized by the same corruptions, I will not allow myself to join the trend du jour. In my micro-spot on this planet, I will nurture a "we" place. I get frustrated just like everyone else, but I consciously do not let the "me" virus infect my world. I have been doing random acts of kindness for years and I believe they are creating a positive impact for someone, somewhere. I do not need to be aware of the details, I choose to live with a constructive notion that will benefit all.

    I have the power to choose how I live with and treat other people. I choose never to be a Mini-Cooper Meanie.

    December 23, 2008 at 14:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Lauren Conley

    Wow, I thought to myself, as I shifted from the story about facial transplantation to this one. Originally, I was thinking the meaning of meanness got a little lost in the translation. In one, a woman who had already lost most of her face (and who's to say it wasn't the result of someone else's deliberate handiwork) was made fun of by people as she walked won the street. In the other, a woman is brought to tears when her parking place was stolen. But when I thought about it again, I realized that in many ways the mean act was similiar. In both cases the mean person seems to be enjoying the act. They enjoy bringing another person to their knees, emotionally. And for that, all I can say is, good luck facing your karma, mean person. And to everyone else, congrats for hanging in there another year, and good will and peace on earth to all.

    December 23, 2008 at 20:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. bombchell

    what an absolute meanie! something funny i remembered, someone stole my friends dad's parking spot, and he kept complaining, then finally the guy apologized, and wanted to leave the spot, and her dad said he shouldn't worry, but he shouldn't do it again. It just seemed funny to me after all the arguing.

    lol wow no in line has ever cut in front of me, lol "line jumpers" exist?

    December 24, 2008 at 15:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Melissa, Los Angeles

    I have had two experiences the past week with Christmas shopping in dealing with rude people. The first were two pre-teen girls who cut in front of me while I was waiting to check out. I didn't say anything but the father who came up behind them did so I applaud him for that. The second incident involved a grown adult. I was waiting in line to use one of the scanners to check a price when this guy came up on the side and cut in front of me. Again I did not say anything but I did give him dirty looks which he noticed. Fact is people are rude and one day they will do it to the wrong person and may end up paying with their life for it.

    December 26, 2008 at 01:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Michael - Seattle

    Witnessed a double mean in a supermarket soon after we'd moved to the E Coast. Lady cut in front of a guy (and the rest of us) at self checkout and he castigated her, loudly. She was non-plussed , actually dismissive and made to leave so he grabbed her cart and jerked it, somewhat violently, out of her hands. Still unapologetic, actually defiant, she called for the store manager and insisted the guy owed her an apology. The manager tried to get them both to just let it go but neither would and so she threatened to call the cops unless she got an apology. So, the guy said to her, "Alright, I'm sorry I ever saw your ugly face." Everyone went their separate ways and my wife and I thought, ok, now we're on the E Coast! Both culpable, there were no winners here, not even those of us in the front row at the show who had thought we might need to get involved if things had escalated.

    December 31, 2008 at 01:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Pete, overseas

    A remarkable deeply-rooted trait in human beings is this "retribution" behaviour. Sort of "do unto others as they do unto you". Although it may have a harsh dark side it is also what underpins socialization and bonding into families, groups and tribes.

    "Natural justice" is a human instinct and fighting it is futile in the long run. The wronged young mother of previous posts acted exactly as a healthy, normal human being would: trying to bring "justice" upon the wrong-doing Mini thug.

    The point is not negating such human drives, but creating social mechanisms to avoid the need to act upon such drives. Law, police is an example. In the mall anecdote maybe the shops should refuse to serve the rude driver, or having his Mini towed away.


    January 3, 2009 at 06:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Jeannine

    I work with a really mean person, I can't believe how rotten she is. Her hostility is so shocking that many times I just stand there .... the venom in her voice is loud and clear to everyone in the room. I just try and avoid her as much as possible. I don't think she even knows how she sounds, once she asked me to go to lunch with her after one of her tirades, I said no ... she couldn't understand why not. Most people avoid her like the plague. I sort of feel bad for her. But .... only sort of.

    January 11, 2009 at 23:44 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.