The Asshole Filter

Animals bark and meow because you trained them that way.

If you want someone to do something and then complain the whole time you’re creating an asshole filter.

Someone once told me a term for that, where you accidentally give a some customers a better experience by not using your product or being annoying. When you reward only customers who complain with a discount code you are creating an asshole filter.

This is a copy of an article originally somewhere on the internet that was then moved here:

If you find yourself wondering, or just feeling, “Why is everyone I wind up dealing with an asshole?” you might want to consider the possibility that you have set up an asshole filter. Asshole filters are an extremely common phenomenon, and an extremely common problem.

An asshole filter happens when one has set of norms which results in one primarily, or at least disproportionately, coming into contact with assholes.

It doesn’t occur to most people that filtering for assholes is even a possibility for what could be going on. The popular alternative is to just conclude that everyone or “all y’all” are assholes, since that is what the world looks like when one is inadvertently filtering for assholes. To the extent that the possibility occurs to people, the usual assumption is that assholes are being actively attracted. And while that can happen, it’s not as ubiquitous as the pattern of repelling non-assholes.

Assholes are abundant. Non-assholes are also abundant, maybe even more so than assholes, but there’s no shortage of assholes. Consequently, if you start repelling non-assholes, there will be plenty of people left, all of whom are assholes. You don’t have to actively attract assholes to have an asshole-rich experience; the baseline ambient level of assholes is high enough that draining away the non-assholes is sufficient to reveal it. If you unwittingly have been repelling non-assholes, you will get the impression that everyone is an asshole, because you’re still surrounded by plenty of people, but everyone left – that is everyone you come into contact with – is, in fact, an asshole.

Now, you may be thinking, “Oh, you mean repelling non-assholes by being an asshole?” While that certainly can happen, that’s not what I’m here to explain today, because that’s not particularly mysterious. Frankly, far more mysterious is how being an asshole doesn’t always, or maybe even often, drive away the non-assholes – something the phenomenon I’m describing goes some way to explaining. If you’ve been thinking that being a non-asshole should protect you from assholes, and that hasn’t been working for you, and you’re getting bitter about that, well, I have some news for you.

An asshole filter is a situation one creates that causes non-assholes to reduce contact with you at a disproportionate rate (like at all) than assholes.

The simplest way to do this is to ask politely.

An asshole filter happens when you publicly promulgate a straitened contact boundary and then don’t enforce it; or worse, reward the people who transgress it.

Here’s an example. Fred is a department head for a convention; he has a staff of people working directly under him, and they and he wrangle a huge number of convention attendees’ arrangements. Fred initially had his personal email address as the contact for his department, and started drowning in emails; he’d forward them to his team, but him having to do that manually was a big bottle neck. So he has a distribution address set up for his department, so his staff get all emails set to it. He promulgates the policy (on the website, on FB, in publications), “Please do not email my personal email account about convention business. Please send all convention correspondence to [email protected].” Sometimes, Fred’s staff doesn’t get back to emails to the department address all that fast. What happens?

Well, two things: some people use [email protected] and some people use Fred’s personal email.

Who uses the officially designated email address?

• People who feel strongly about following rules.
• People who feel following the rules is generally a good idea.
• People who respect Fred’s request because they’re generally respectful.
• People who respect Fred’s request because they like Fred personally.
• People who don’t want to antagonize Fred.
• People who realize the problem Fred is trying to solve and want to be cooperative to reduce the burden on Fred.
• People who feel it important to respect role boundaries.
• People who are concerned that overwhelming Fred will cause their request to get lost.

Who uses Fred’s personal email address?

• People who can’t be bothered to learn and follow procedures.
• People who feel rules are for other people.
• People who feel they should get to cut in line.
• People who don’t feel keeping track of what other people prefer is all that important.
• People who aren’t troubled by the thought of pissing off Fred, either because they don’t care whom they piss off or because they think Fred is of no account.
• People who feel entitled to get their way.
• People who feel satisfaction when they find an illicit “shortcut” to getting what they want, that “suckers” are too “chicken” to use.

In short, the decent, cooperative, law-abiding people all use the departmental email address, even though it doesn’t work a well as they might like, while the assholes continue emailing Fred directly.

What I have been using the word “asshole” to represent is the concept of transgressiveness. Perhaps a more accurate term would be willingness to transgress.

The concept of transgressiveness is one of the most powerful lenses I know with which to look at people’s behavior – possibly because it is is a perspective so absent from our culture. It is a phenomenon that is real, but for which we have no words – except “asshole”. When we call someone an asshole, pragmatically speaking what we’re usually trying to express is that that person transgresses others’ boundaries. We might also say, if asked to explain, that the person so described is selfish, in that they want to get their way even (or especially) at the expense of others; we might describe them as rude or disrespectful, meaning that their conduct shows contempt for others’ boundaries.

I call it a lens because it’s a concept that when it slides into place suddenly makes the leaves on the trees of human behavior become oh so much clearer.

I’ve been talking about “assholes” and “non-assholes” as if they were binary, exclusive fundamental traits, but of course they’re not. People’s emotional relationships with transgressiveness are complicated. At the very least transgressiveness can be considered on a spectrum; but it might be more sensible to consider it multidimensional: there may be multiple kinds of transgressivenesses, and multiple sorts of relationship to them.

But even with all that complexity, when you set up a situation in which other people’s choices are between, on the one hand, respecting your espoused wishes and being significantly disadvantaged, and, on the other hand, transgressing against your wishes to be effective, you have essentially posed a test that discriminates against those who are less willing to transgress against your espoused wishes: an asshole filter.

If you tell people “the only way to contact me is to break a rule” you will only be contacted by rule-breakers.

But wait, it can get worse. If, despite telling everyone to use the departmental email address, Fred personally handles – expedites – the requests of people who email him at his personal email account, he is now rewarding those who transgress.

So far, I’ve been talking about being an asshole (or not) – that is, transgressiveness – as a fixed trait. But that’s not how personality works, even assuming it is a personality trait. If it is a personality trait then it’s more like a “set point” for something that varies with circumstances.

Which means if you reward it, you will get more of it.

Here, Fred is reinforcing transgressive behavior (and reasoning). This is behaviorism’s operant conditioning, like the pigeon getting the pellet for pressing the lever. Each of the people who transgressed his boundary and got a goodie from him just “learned” – not just cognitively up in the neocortex, but deep in the lizard brain – that transgressing boundaries works out great.

When a person transgresses your boundaries and you reward them, you incline that person to transgress even more in the future.

But what happens when word gets out that the way to get things accomplished is to email Fred directly at his personal email address?

Because we are social monkeys who can communicate with one another, and also are bad at keeping secrets, when Fred reinforces the transgressive behavior of one of the garrulous hairless apes, to say nothing of several of them, he is in all likelihood eliciting transgressive behavior from the rest.

Now people who previously thought things like “Oh, I don’t want to bother Fred because he asked not to be bothered” might start thinking things like, “Well, I know he asked not to be bothered, but apparently he doesn’t mind all that much?” and “I don’t want to disrespect the rules, but if Fred isn’t going to follow his own rules…” and “Well, screw Fred. Here I am trying to be obliging, and I’m getting treated second class.”

When word gets out that Fred rewards the people who transgress his boundaries, he runs the risk of escalating the baseline transgressiveness of everyone who finds out. It may not be a lot, and it won’t be universally to the same degree. Some people will sigh or grumble but not email him personally. But everyone gets the message, “Fred’s preferences don’t much matter; when Fred says something, he doesn’t much mean it.”

(As a side note, quite aside from people’s level of transgressiveness, either as a personality trait or at a moment in time, when you set up a system whereby the honest, rule-following people get screwed and the transgressors are rewarded, you should expect that the honest, rule-following people with whom you ultimately deal, who didn’t cross over to transgressiveness, will be wicked pissed. Not only will you be dealing with transgressive people being transgressive, you will also be dealing with non-transgressive people being confrontational. Politely, circumspectly, firmly, icily confrontational.)

And here’s the thing. Fred may be the sweetest, mildest-mannered person. (You may know a Fred. You may be a Fred.) He is one of those non-assholes who grows in bitterness over the fact that even though he’s so respectful and kind to other people, his inbox is nonetheless full of emails from assholes. Not just people who are assholes because they emailed him directly despite his asking them not to do that. People who are, on average, that much less polite in how they speak to him, that much less reasonable in what they expect of him. The person who feels much too important to have to wait in the regular queue is also more likely to be the person who feels much too important to have anybody but the department head personally expedite his arrangements. The person who feels their impatience is more important that Fred’s comfort is more likely to be the person who feels expressing their displeasure is more important than how Fred feels about getting yelled at.

There may be an important sense in which it is Fred’s very agreeableness that set up the asshole filter. If the reason, as so often is the case, that Fred indulges the people who email him directly is because he is someone who, when confronted with another person clearly and firmly communicating their own wishes (such as strongly implying, “I want this dealt with, by you, immediately”) does not want to disappoint them, then it’s Fred’s very concern for the feelings of others that leaves him unable to insist upon his own boundaries. Fred experiences the insistence of others as a reciprocal of his own boundary assertions; he may even on an unconscious level (or consciously!) mistake the insistence of others for a boundary assertion even when it pretty clearly isn’t.

So here’s another way to look at Fred’s situation. Fred doesn’t want to have to disappoint anybody, especially anybody being really insistent. But he’s feeling overwhelmed by how many bids on his attention this project causes. So he has set up a system that delegates, say, half the work to other people – the easy, pleasant half. The law-abiding folks work with his staff as directed, while the transgressive people skip the line to work with him. He has relieved himself of dealing with half the work, but the half that’s left are the tough customers.

From that perspective, that looks almost reasonable. Fred is getting what Fred wished for: less work coming in to him, and he doesn’t have to refuse people what they want. We can even imagine a savvier Fred setting that up deliberately. “You guys are front-line; I’m your boss, so I’ll handle the problem clients.” The problems are (1) that Fred is getting something he didn’t realize came with that package, a more concentrated dose of entitlement and disrespect in the cases he does handle, causing him to feel like, “People Suck”, and (2) by rewarding transgression he is cultivating more of what he doesn’t want.

Fred doesn’t realize it, but his two wishes are effectively in conflict, at least the way he went about it. He has to give up one of them – or at least downgrade it as a priority. Either he needs to not promulgate a rule about not contacting him at his personal email, or he needs to make peace with refusing people what they want. He got into trouble when he issued an edict he was unwilling to enforce.

“Enforcement” is an idea with which plenty of agreeable people are uncomfortable because they have a certain vanity in their agreeableness: if they have to refuse somebody something, their self-concept as an agreeable person takes a ding. (The single best advice I have to give is never identify with your virtue because that way lies madness, or at least neurosis, but that’s a topic for another post.) If one can disentangle one’s ego from being agreeable even momentarily, one quickly sees there are many highly agreeable ways to refuse people things. This, indeed, is what diplomacy is for. And there’s less diplomatic responses, too, if one prefers.

Instead of taking the requests to his personal email immediately, Fred might:

• Solicitously offer to put the requester in touch with his staff, who will take good care of the requester.

• Sit on the request for a protracted period of time, wait and see if the requester contacts the officially designated channel, and if not, send the requester an email saying, “So sorry, I didn’t see this in my personal email. I’ll forward this to my staff at [email protected].”

• Set up a vacation autoresponder that is contingent on the name of the convention appearing in the email. “Fred will not be available at this address from $DATE to $DATE while he works on $CONFERENCE. To reach him about conference business, email him at [email protected].”

• Forward the requests in batches to his staff with a note that they are not to be handled until their queue through the designated channel is cleared.

• Let the requester in on the “secret” that the fastest way to get their request answered is by emailing [email protected].

• Forward (“resend”) the email to the [email protected] address, such that requester gets an email back from [email protected], “Thank you for contacting [email protected]! Your email will be answered in the order it was received.” (Not all email clients can do this. (And people wonder while I am so adamant about nmh.))

I’m sure you can think of others.

“But Siderea,” I hear someone thinking, “What if someone has a really, really good reason for contacting me– I mean ‘Fred’– at his personal email?”

Then you might want to make an exception to your policy in that case.

“But then I wouldn’t be enforcing it.”


“But… but… then wouldn’t that contribute to the encouraging people to break the rule and email me personally?”

Yes. It’s why people often get all in a tizzy about being asked to make exceptions. “I can’t do that for you, because then everybody will want me to make an exception for them, too.”

“So I shouldn’t make exceptions?”

No, you should use your judgment about whether to make an exception or not. That’s what it – your judgment – is for.

There are things you can do to mitigate the damage of making exceptions.

For one thing, you can build them in: “Henceforth, please email routine requests to [email protected], and please don’t email me directly, unless it’s really urgent.” Oh, look! Suddenly, it’s not against the rules to contact you directly, so not only rule-breakers will be contacting you. The rule-followers will no longer get so cranky.

For another, it is useful to filter on people who realize and explicitly acknowledge they’re asking for an exception, apologize for it, and trouble to make their case. “Fred, I’m sorry to bother you, but I emailed your department and haven’t heard anything back in two weeks and if I wait much longer to buy plane tickets I won’t be able to come.” They’re still going to get rewarded for emailing you directly, but hopefully their lizard brain will associate the reward with “asking politely and apologetically for a favor” rather than “disregarding people’s wishes.”

It also helps to make sure that you (Fred) indicate that this is an exception and you’d prefer not to make it (if that is indeed the case.) “That is a problem! Thank you for bringing it to my attention. While we generally prefer if people went through the departmental email, I’ll certainly make an exception in this case.”

If your exceptions are rare and well justified, and otherwise you firmly police the boundary, the word that will get out will be more like, “Emailing Fred directly is a long-shot that sometime works, but is usually useless.” Which is surely better than “Emailing Fred is the way to go.”

“Well-justified” here, by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean having a “good” reason. If Fred’s boss emails Fred directly to expedite Fred’s boss’s kid’s arrangements, Fred might decide that’s not the hill he wants to die on, and to make the exception.

It’s up to you what risks you want to run. The thing is, one’s judgment works on a GIGO basis, so it’s imperative that you don’t try to convince yourself that making exceptions when someone is transgressive has no negative consequences, just so you feel good about deciding to do that. If you reckon with the possible negative consequences of letting a transgression slide, and you feel it’s better than the alternative, and so that’s what you chose, then you’ve made a good decision, meaning one you will probably be able to live with.

I’m actually a big fan of making exceptions, and not being too rigid about rules. But then, I’m perhaps more willing than many to deal with people being transgressive.

Part of that is, clearly, because I perceive transgressiveness as a thing. When somebody demonstrates transgressiveness, I am not beset by a vague feeling or inchoate intuition. I’m like, “oh, hey, check out that person transgressing that boundary/rule/norm/etc. Let’s see what other lines they cross.” It’s the difference between hearing a buzzing in the room with you, and being able to see clearly for yourself whether it’s a mosquito, fly, or wasp.

Finally, one of the important things to note is that in Fred’s scenario, the strength of the asshole filter is going to be mediated by just how unsatisfactory users’ experience of the department email address is. After all, nobody is going to want to email Fred if it turns out that emailing the departmental email address is much more effective and pleasant than emailing him. He only has a problem when people have reason to think that emailing him might be more satisfactory than going through the designated channel. It is the differential between what people experience (or expect to experience) from the designated channel and what people anticipate experiencing by taking the illicit channel that drives the behavior.

If Fred can improve users’ experience of the department email address, he will drain some of his swamp. Of course, that may not be possible, for any a number of reasons, both in Fred’s specific scenario, and in any hypothetical asshole filter. It is in the cases where we can’t fix the underlying situation, due to, e.g., limited resources that we have to be most careful that our handling of boundaries doesn’t set up an asshole filter.

Some random loose change thoughts:

Asshole filters are not solely a phenomenon of organizational relationships. I’ve seen people manage to institute asshole filters in their dating lives. I am reminded of the immortal dialog from “Red Sonja” (1985) (h/t IMDB):

Red Sonja: No man may have me, unless he’s beaten me in a fair fight.
Kalidor: So, the only man that can have you, is one who’s trying to kill you. That’s logic.

I presume someone, somewhere has managed to institute one in hiring – possibly one where the only way to apply for the job is to do something it says in the ad not to do, e.g. call the office. Certainly, shooting the messenger sets up an asshole filter: if there’s no reprisal-free way of getting you bad news legitimately, the only way you’ll get bad news will be… illegitimately. If you don’t take feedback from people who are giving it to you in a mild-mannered way, you’ll only wind up getting feedback from people who are jerks about it.

Setting a boundary and failing to enforce it is not the only way to set up an asshole filter. One may also filter for assholes more directly. For instance, gangs through history have required aspirant members to be willing to commit crimes to earn membership.

The term “transgressiveness” is not, to my knowledge, a technical term in psychology. The closest technical term is actually “antisociality”, though that is usually only applied to pretty extreme cases (erroneously, in my opinion). Another term, not so much psychological but sociological, is “deviance”. These are all not quite the same thing; I’m proposing transgressiveness as a parent category which includes both of those.

“Agreeableness” however, is a technical term in psychology. As far as I know, the use to which I put “agreeableness” above is perfectly consonant with the “agreeableness” scale of the NEO-PI personality system, which kinda-sorta maps to the Myers-Briggs F-function.

I managed to write that whole thing without using the word “nice”. That was deliberate. I think the word “nice” is veeeeeery treacherous, the way it gets used, and throws more shadow than light. I may write a big post about niceness at some point.

I said above that our culture doesn’t have a concept of transgressiveness per se. What it does have is the concept of disobedience, which is different. When one is disobedient, one is is violating rules or direct orders from a superior. It doesn’t have to do with personal boundaries. It only refers to transgressiveness in a heirarchical power relation, not between peers. So disobedience is another form of transgressiveness, but not equal to it.

And then our culture has moral language for condemning people as bad, and those terms are typically applied to people for transgressing. But there’s a real question about whether transgressiveness is the same thing as wickedness, q.v. Obedience to Authority, Stanley Milgram.

As I alluded above, transgressiveness can be complicated and people’s relationship to it can be complicated. For instance, people who find the idea of sex “naughty” and like the idea of “naughty” sex are people who are sexually aroused by being transgressive. Maybe it’s a fetish for transgression. For another, the entire concepts of the “loveable rascal” and the “daring maverick” is predicated on an admiration of a certain kind of transgressiveness, in a certain context. There’s a phenomenon I call “The Designated Bastard”, where agreeable people keep around people known to be transgressive in certain ways, so that they have someone who will police their boundaries for them – or at least that’s the hope, though he who harbors the wolf may find his own sheep missing.

And transgressiveness has a role in all “Think Different” types. “Nevertheless, to be curious// is dangerous enough. To distrust// what is always said, what seems// to ask odd questions, interfere in dreams….” I think it is not an accident that MIT students’ favorite sport is Breaking and Entering.

We may not in our culture have a concept of transgressiveness, but we still know it when we encounter it. cvirtue pointed me at this article about a study into “creepiness”, that reports

They surveyed 1,341 people about what they found creepy and, among their findings, they found that people (1) find it creepy when they can’t predict how someone will behave and (2) are less creeped out if they think they understand a person’s intentions. Both are consistent with the hypothesis that being unsure about a threat is behind the the feeling of creepiness. […]

Generally, people who didn’t or maybe couldn’t follow social conventions were thought of as creepy: people who hadn’t washed their hair in a while, stood closer to other people than was normal, dressed oddly or in dirty clothes, or laughed at unpredictable times.

Likewise, people who had taboo hobbies or occupations, ones that spoke to a disregard for being normal, were seen as creepy: taxidermists and funeral directors (both of which handle the dead) and adults who collect dolls or dress up like a clown (both of which blur the lines between adulthood and childhood)

If people we interact with are willing to break one social rule, or perhaps can’t help themselves, then who’s to say they won’t break a more serious one?

Sounds like the researchers’ have found that “creepy” is our emotional experience of encountering transgressiveness we don’t know what to make of.

We are constantly unconsciously aware of transgressiveness, because it’s a matter of safety. De Becker’s The Gift of Fear is about making one’s unconscious awareness of transgressiveness conscious.

This is what makes cross-cultural contact fraught. When someone from another culture violates your culture’s norms, they are suddenly unpredictable. They are in a sense transgressing (if your culture’s norms are in force!) but it’s unclear what meaning to make of that.

It is actually pretty common – all yall are in a bubble on this one – for people to assume that others who look similar but act from a different norm set are without norms at all; this is the culturally conservative logic that if an adult collects dolls, they’re probably also an axe murderer. This is taking a crude awareness of transgressiveness and turning it into a cudgel.

There’s something here about abstraction and understanding the concept of culture, but it’s late and I’m tired so maybe some other time.