Why Are There so Many Mean People?

I was perusing Yahoo’s question engine. That’s a service where users submit questions, and then people at large answer them. Stephen Hawking posed a question recently, and I answered it as best I could. Afterwards I trolled for other questions to answer. One in particular caught my eye: “Why are there some many mean people?”

There wasn’t any context for the question, but it got me thinking. There are a lot of people that act selfishly or inconsiderately. I get cut off on the highway daily. People–even my children–leave their messes for me to clean up. I get calls from people that clearly don’t care how insulting they are in tone and/or language.

The question brought me up short, though. Are there so many mean people? What’s our gauge? After all, this site showcases a positive side to news on the planet. To act as a foil for all the negative news.

Bad news sells. Mean people are obvious. A customer support axiom says that if you help someone with a problem, that person will tell one other person about their great experience. But if you irritate or upset a person, that person will tell at least ten more people. Perhaps that’s why there’s a presumption that there are a lot of mean people.

Perhaps, however, there is another side to this. Our brains are wired for survival, to be wary of danger. Scientists know we can tell the difference in lighting of a single lumen. Movement spotted by a single rod or cone in the eye can trigger ‘catching’ our attention. On a lower rung of Maslow’s hierarchy, this is a survival factor.

I believe spotting the mean people around us is an equally important survival factor. Mean people, stories of meanness and the visual and aural cues to mean activity flag us. We want to know about these people, because They. Are. Trouble. In the Maslow structure, recognizing mean people is just a step above making sure you’ve got fresh water and shelter.

So, there may seem to be a lot of mean people out there, but that’s just your survival instinct looking out for you. The nice ones don’t catch your eye, and I’m betting they are in the majority!