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What a Jerk!


Everyone knows what a jerk is. And everyone knows someone who is a jerk.

But why? Why are some people jerks? Or rather, why do we think they are jerks? And why do we think there are so many jerks?


You might say it’s due to the so-called “fundamental attribution error” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_attribution_error), in which people tend to attribute their own actions to environment and situation, while they attribute the actions of others to inherent traits of the other person.


For example, if Alice is late for a meeting, it’s due to a last-minute emergency, or traffic, or some other external event. But if Bob is late for a meeting, it’s because Bob was irresponsible, or should have planned better.


Now, the fundamental attribution error is closely tied to the so-called “actor-observer asymmetry” bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Actor%E2%80%93observer_asymmetry), which refers to a tendency of people to make judgments based on whether they are an “actor” or an “observer”.

This all sounds quite plausible, and a reasonable explanation for why we might consider some people to be jerks, where they might not be behaving so differently from the way we would in the same situation. But there’s a little problem...

While these phenomena have been treated as robust and “proven”, the studies on which they are based may be far less robust than generally believed. In recent years, the scientific community has been dealing with the “replication crisis” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Replication_crisis), and has discovered numerous cases where effects thought to be well-demonstrated have turned out to be invalid.

This is, to understate things a bit, bad. It means that we need to re-evaluate a significant amount of the scientific work of the last few decades. And, while the severity of the issue varies by field, the issue has been detected across the board.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the scientific method is about processes and incremental improvement, so we can benefit from the replication crisis to improve the way we practice science, and increase the efficiency and effectiveness of future science. This is one of the key benefits of the scientific method, in fact. As we learn more, we test our previous conclusions and update them based on new information – which is exactly what is happening here.

In fact, the replication crisis has led to the growth of the discipline of “metascience”, which refers to how we study science in the metaverse – sorry, not even close, but see my post about the metaverse (https://www.til-technology.com/post/how-meta).

#TIL that metascience (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metascience) is a scientific discipline which uses a scientific methodology to study the way we “do” science. Also known as “research on research” and “the science of science”, metascience focuses on the processes around how experiments are designed, documented, reviewed, and replicated. By establishing processes and standards, and then testing their effectiveness, we can dramatically improve the efficiency and reliability of future work.


But back to jerks. Whatever the current science says about why they exist, they still do, and we need to figure out how to deal with them. This brings us to the idea of “emotional intelligence”, “EI”, or “EQ” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotional_intelligence).

The idea of emotional intelligence can be broken into three main areas: Academic, commercial, and practical.

Setting aside the replication crisis, academic criticism of emotional intelligence includes questions regarding whether it is a real “intelligence”, and whether it is distinct from other concepts such as IQ or the “big five” personality traits. There is also a lot of work to be done around whether it can be effectively measured, and how that might be done. These are all very interesting questions, but it will likely be decades before we have a robust consensus on the topic.

Sadly, that did not stop business from jumping on the idea of EQ and creating a whole industry for training people in a variety of techniques for “improving” their “emotional intelligence”. These techniques include a lot of unproven science, disproven science, and pseudoscience, but sometimes include practical advice based on experience or material taken from other areas of research.

Which brings us to the practical. Setting aside all of the academic and commercial interpretations, the basic idea is simply the acknowledgement that humans are emotional and that an understanding of that fact can help us better navigate our day-to-day life. I won’t go into the details of the different models, but found it interesting that the Wikipedia article noted a distinction between the “commercial” and “academic” discussions of emotional intelligence:

“According to Landy, the former makes expansive claims on the applied value of EI, while the latter is trying to warn users against these claims.”

Understanding and acknowledging that we are emotional beings, and increasing awareness of our feelings and how they influence our behaviour and decision-making is a very useful thing to do. And empathizing with our colleagues can lead us to better understanding, better relationships, and better outcomes. So, the general concept of emotional intelligence is useful, even if the science is not mature. And any decent instructor in leadership skills and interpersonal interaction will have useful material to help us.


In the end, we might just find that there are fewer jerks in the world than we realized.


Cheers!

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