Gene Simmons doesn’t care if you call him an asshole. In fact, he considers it a compliment. “I don’t think ‘asshole’ is a bad word,” he says, with a smirk that rarely leaves his face. “It means you’re a leader. You’re out in the front of the line, making the big decisions. The followers are behind you, and when they look up, all they see is an asshole. Because that’s their only view. That’s not the life I want. I’d rather be the guy in front who sees no assholes.”
Simmons is an exceptional asshole in a world where assholes are hardly exceptions. They’re everywhere, and they seem to be having all the fun. Here’s a sentence you rarely hear: “Wow, that S.O.B. sure did end up alone, unloved and financially destitute.” What is it with the biggest pricks getting the biggest rewards and being forgiven in the end?
The problem with trying to follow in the footsteps of assholes is that it’s too easy to focus on their bad behaviour, like the lying and the bullying and the sadistic abuse they giddily inflict, and miss what they’re actually doing right. “Assholes don’t succeed because they’re assholes,” says Dr Aaron James, a professor of philosophy and the author of Assholes: A Theory. “The asshole tendencies make it easier for them to accept some basic strategies for getting ahead that nice guys might forget.”
A lot of conduct that may look like assholery isn’t, James says. And the theory isn’t that you should simply “play nice”. You have to assess what’s appropriate on a case- by-case basis and sometimes make unpopular decisions. What makes the difference is remaining aware of the consequences. Assholes aren’t so conscientious, James says. The moment you just say “Screw it, everyone else is looking out for number one,” is when you’re in danger. Or, put another way, you can prioritise yourself and be content with winning, but you don’t have to destroy the competition too. Here’s how assholes do it.
Be Overconfident Even If You’re Clueless
What do Gene Simmons and Muhammad Ali have in common? They both considered themselves extraordinary long before anyone else did. “I am the greatest,” Ali said. “I said that even before I knew I was.”
Why It Works Dr David Dunning, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan, helped come up with a theory to explain
this reality disconnect. The Dunning-Kruger Effect, as it’s called, is a cognitive bias where incompetent people don’t recognise their own incompetence, says Dunning. Lacking the skills or talent for a task but taking it on anyway can be a bad idea, like if you’re piloting a plane or leading the free world. But when the risks are lower, self- confidence can pay off.
Be Immune to Criticism
Assholes are strangely unfazed when confronted with their own assholery. Remember that time when Kanye West publicly admitted, “I’ve read the complaints about my embarrassingly narcissistic behaviour, and you raise some valid points”? Of course you don’t. Because it never happened.
It’s not just that they’re ignoring the critics; assholes might honestly not realise they’re being criticised at all. In a 2014 experiment with 338 MBA students at Columbia University, people took part in fierce negotiations and were later asked to assess how they thought others in the group perceived them. Sixty-four per cent of those who had behaved like assholes – pushy, loud, aggressive – believed their fellow group members probably thought they acted appropriately or even less assertively than they should have acted.
Be Your Biggest Fan
While accepting his Best Actor Oscar in 2014, Matthew McConaughey revealed the identity of his childhood hero. “It’s me in 10 years,” he said, with a big, shit-eating grin. Across the globe, in dozens of languages, millions of viewers muttered, “What an asshole”.
Why It Works McConaughey isn’t the first narcissist inspired by his own reflection. In a 2015 study from the University of Amsterdam, researchers concluded that powerful figures are more inspired by their own tales of glory than by the accomplishments of others. “They tend to inflate their own importance, and that just reinforces their feelings of self-worth,” says social psychologist Dr Gerben van Kleef, the lead researcher.
Be the Squeaky Wheel (Who Knows When to Shut Up)
If an asshole is upset, you’re de nitely going to hear about it. It’s hard not to cringe when you see an asshole scolding a waiter. Does the guy really need to be so unrelentingly rude about everything?
During Steve Jobs’s reign at Apple, a chip supplier said it couldn’t finish an order on the timetable promised, so Jobs burst into a meeting with its executives and called them “fucking dickless assholes”. Not exactly constructive criticism, but it did the trick. The order was delivered on time. The strategy also works outside of Silicon Valley. Many companies have a “squeaky-wheel system” of customer service, conceding to the loudest complainers just to make them go away. Also, complaining can be good for you: research shows that if you drop enough f-bombs while complaining, it can increase your tolerance for pain.
Eat and Exercise Like You’re Superior
It’s not that eating right and exercising makes you an insu erable jerk. (We hope not, anyway, because then we’d all be assholes
at this magazine!) It’s that some guys are so arrogant and self-absorbed that they can’t accept anything less than physical perfection. “Narcissism is positively related to self- esteem,” says psychologist Dr Erin Hill. Her research reveals that assholes tend to be fitter and experience fewer mental health problems, including anxiety and depression.
There’s something about healthy eating that justifies antisocial behaviour. In a 2012 study researchers concluded that exposure to organic foods “can lead to harsher moral judgments”. If participants viewed organic apples instead of, say, ice cream or mustard (their examples), they were significantly less likely to volunteer to help a needy stranger. The study authors think that organic foods may make you feel as though you’ve already done your good deed and are free to act unethically.
There’s No “I” in “Asshole”
Assholes are selfish. But sometimes they convince followers they’re acting like assholes to serve the greater good. It’s why some CEOs and political leaders get away with being such colossal dicks. As Republican congressman Duncan Hunter said about Trump, “He’s an asshole, but he’s our asshole”.
People are surprisingly forgiving of bad behaviour if they think it’ll benefit them. In a University of Amsterdam study, people were unimpressed with an asshole who stole coffee for himself. If, however, he swiped a cup for another guy, he was a hero and was rated as more powerful.
True assholes are rarely as sel ess as they claim to be and sooner or later their followers gure that out. When you promise to put others before yourself and then follow through, it can have life-extending bene ts, like lower blood pressure and reduced risk of depression.
But don’t be a pushover. The perfect balance is somewhere between asshole and saint. As a 2017 study revealed, being too generous without taking care of your own needs leads to burnout and poor health. “The goal is to find opportunities that allow you to be good to yourself and to others,” says psychologist Dr Jennifer Crocker. “A non-zero-sum.”