the psychology of how terrible people get their way and how to stop them
The last time I went to a restaurant was in early January to indulge in some spicy ramen with my parents. With news of COVID still focused on China, no one knew was what was to come, but by March, with shutdowns starting to go into effects in states on the front lines of the pandemic, the Fish household settled into a steady rhythm of either cooking or getting takeout with a no contact delivery option. In our minds, we were being responsible by avoiding situations where risks of viral transmission were much higher and doing our part in helping to contain the now out of control pandemic.
However, in the minds of COVID deniers and anti-maskers, we were actually just leftist cucks falling for a hoax meant to enslave the world through child sacrifice, 5G, and microchips in the inevitable vaccines. And according to a new study, people who think that the pandemic is not a big deal, that anyone taking it seriously is a wimp, that they should be enjoying their life, that everyone who objects to their behavior is a dumb sheep, and that if anyone catches the virus and dies is acceptable collateral damage, are going out to restaurants and being predictably horrible, abusive customers according to a new study from researchers at UC Berkley.
Of course, you may be wondering why no one stops them from sexually harassing wait staff, mocking their attempts not to catch a potentially deadly virus, and then stiffing the people literally risking their lives to fetch them sustenance on tips. Why are they even allowed to be inside restaurants and bars anyway? Well, mostly it’s because restaurants are in a bind and many can’t afford to survive more than a few weeks without customers, and with occupancy restrictions, they’ll take whoever they can get as long as they can sell some food. Sociopaths have them over a barrel, and they know it.
how the bystander effect gets weaponized
And what about the terrible people in question? Do they not have a voice in their head telling them to stop doing what they’re doing and act like civilized human beings for once? In a word, no. In more words, they’re relying on the bystander effect to get compliance with their irate demands and to avoid consequences. You see, while normal, decent humans prize empathy, working with each other, and maintaining civility, sociopaths like the ones in question figured out that by making a scene and behaving badly enough they can get what they want as more civilized bystanders will want to avoid being involved in an ugly confrontation.
We’re hoping that someone with guts and authority will step in to confront the abusers, and when enough of us just assume that it will eventually be handled, no one does anything. The waiters are hoping rude guests will be escorted out by management. Managers, not willing to incur the owners’ ire and trying to keep their jobs hope the owners will get fed up with enough reports of awful behavior. Owners are thinking that if the behavior is bad enough, police will be called. In the end, waiters get stiffed and abused, management gets an earful, owners remain either oblivious or in denial, and nothing gets done.
Sadly, this isn’t limited to retail and hospitality settings. We’re seeing similar behavior at the highest levels of media, politics, and government. Brazen sociopaths simply bully their way into positions of power, capitalizing on the rage of their similarly afflicted supporters or antisocial attitudes of high-powered enablers, and start breaking rules and, daring anyone to stop them while more civilized bystanders ask which agency or watchdog will step in to put an end to this. Unfortunately, these watchdogs can also be paralyzed into inaction of the office is high enough, the offender is too famous and connected, or the whole thing blows up into a national scandal.
how to fight a sociopath and (hopefully) win
Yet, at some point, the backlash to brazen shamelessness does come, which is when the evil bastards have one more weapon up their sleeves. Turning on their critics, they call for civility, unity, and cooperation, the very values at which they loudly scoffed before as they trampled over those who tried to practice them. Duly earned consequences for acting like a heel now become “censorship,” “political prosecution,” and “cancel culture.” And the more, and uglier they whine and act out, the more we just want them to stop, so we either grouse and ease up, or worse yet, give them a pass.
We do it at the dinner table with “difficult” relatives, we do it with friends with whom we really shouldn’t be friends, and we do it with awful politicians and pundits who made careers out of being shameless shock jocks who get their kicks and profits from dividing and enraging people who listen to them. As tempting as it is to be assholes right back, that approach just creates a feedback loop of awful so while you need to have a firm hand, you can’t go overboard. The best strategy is to call attention to their open shamelessness, to shine a light on their underhanded tactics, and to compare them to spoiled, angry brats they’re emulating.
They will complain bitterly about being confronted. Your response should be “we refuse to tolerate your indecent behavior.” They will rail against consequences for their actions. “You should’ve thought about it before you did this,” you have to reply. They will claim you’re the uncivil one and that we all need to learn how to get along. “You’re lying, you don’t want to get along, you want us to cater to your ridiculous whims,” has to be said next. At this point, they may even have a complete conniption and breakdown, complete with screaming and crying while you tell them “get ahold of yourself and act like a civilized person for fuck’s sake.”
When confronted with malignant sociopathy, you cannot blink because it’s easier to let the awful people have their way than to confront them. No, you have to dig down and find the necessary intestinal fortitude and recruit others to help with specific directions, instructions, and questions. For sociopaths to stay strong, you have to remain weak. By calling them out on their bullshit, showing them you’re not afraid of them and refusing to blink no matter how much of a tantrum they throw, you’re taking away their advantage. Is it hard? Yes. But a key part of maintaining a civilized society is knowing when you have to stand up for it.