There is a word reserved for a particular kind of person. That word is ‘asshole’.
‘Asshole’ in its most literal sense means anus, but in slang usage, when spoken as an insult, the term generally denotes a person considered to be annoying, foolish, unkind, or even detestable.
Of course, you already know this. You may have even on occasion used the vulgarity yourself. (That’s okay, we’re not here to judge.)
What’s less clear, however, is how the term ‘asshole’ overlaps with the kinds of personality traits recognized in psychological theory, such as the ‘Big Five’ categorization of openness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, agreeableness, and extraversion.
To explore this, scientists conducted an experiment, seeking to find out what the term ‘asshole’ communicates about an individual’s perceived personality, and to identify the kinds of behaviors people associate with the insult.
A research team, led by first author and clinical psychology researcher Brinkley Sharpe from the University of Georgia, surveyed almost 400 people, with participants being asked to describe the “biggest asshole” they personally knew, and to rate their perception of the individual’s personality, beliefs, and behaviors.
According to the results, participants found it relatively easy to identify the ‘biggest asshole’ in their personal experience, and generally considered that person to be well-described by the term.
“People didn’t really have very much trouble figuring out who the ‘biggest asshole’ in their life was,” says Sharpe.
What’s interesting is how basically anybody and everybody has the apparent potential to be an ‘asshole’, and if you aren’t one now, you might well become one later.
“Approximately one-third of [insult] targets (35.26 percent) were identified as romantic partners, co-workers, bosses, family members, or friends of participants while half (50.13 percent) formerly held such a role (e.g., ex-partners, estranged family members),” the researchers explain in their study.
While the field was broad, though, the ‘assholes’ identified in the study were mostly male, and typically middle-aged.
People perceived as ‘assholes’ were associated with 315 categories of offensive behavior across the participants’ responses, which the researchers categorized into 14 broad themes: aggression, anger, arrogance, bigotry, callousness, combativeness, domineering behavior, externalization of blame, immaturity, inconsiderateness, irresponsibility, manipulativeness, rudeness, and other (including hypocrisy and playing favorites).
“The behaviors people were keying in on sort of run the gamut,” Sharpe says.
“When we talk about behaviors, the asshole was not necessarily being antagonistic toward people, but they just didn’t really care about what others were thinking or how they were perceived by others.”
In terms of the Big Five personality traits, ‘asshole’ behaviors correspond the most with low agreeableness, low conscientiousness, high neuroticism, and low openness, the results suggest.
“Overall, the perceived Five-Factor Model profile for ‘asshole’ in the present study was similar to prototypes of psychopathic, antisocial, and narcissistic personality disorders,” the researchers write.
Which is not to say the people that the people we identify as ‘assholes’ when we use the insult are actually people with personality disorders.
Rather, the negative ‘asshole’ behaviors described in the study – ranging from trivial acts to some conduct that was violent and criminal – often have a perceived overlap with those attributes.
“There’s clearly a lot of variation in how people use this word,” Sharpe says.
“I think the implication of the study is that insults matter. We do mean certain things by using them or we associate them with certain characteristics.”
The findings are reported in Collabra: Psychology.