Why Are Some People Just Such Jerks?! How you can change anyone from an insensitive jackass to a kind saint

When someone acts like a jerk, we often reason that they are just bad people. This is a logical conclusion. But it also misses the full picture. It is not personality that explains most of human behavior but context

In a Stanford experiment, 100 students were categorized based on past behavior as either charitable or uncharitable, i.e. either as saints or jerks. All students then received a letter asking them to donate food at a charitable booth at the Tressider Plaza.

Two weeks later, 25% of one student group had donated food. Only 8% of the other group donated.

Based on these results alone, we would conclude that the 25%-group were the saints and the 8%-group were the jerks. A charitable person would also behave more charitable, right?

In fact, it was the other way around. 25% of the jerks donated while only 8% of the saints did.

What was the explanation for this surprising result? The researchers had sent out two different types of letters to both groups: one basic and one detailed letter.

The basic letter asked the receiver to bring canned food to the Tressider Plaza. The detailed letter included a map to the precise spot, a request for a can of beans, and also asked them to pick a time when they would be near the spot so they would not be inconvenienced.

When saints got the detailed letter, 42% of them donated. When jerks got the basic letter, none donated.

But when saints got the basic letter, only 8% donated. When jerks got the detailed letter, 25% of them donated.

Personality clearly influences behavior. But nothing influences human action as much as context. Put in the right context, a jerk has the capacity to be 3X as giving as a saint in the wrong context. And the difference between these two situations was minuscule. A few more sentences of instructions were all it took to change a jerk to a saint. What would the results have been if the jerks had been given additional incentives to donate while the saints had faced greater obstacles?

Since context is so much more powerful than personality, I have chosen to believe that every human is inherently good. Whenever someone does something selfish, I think to myself: “Oh, they were just in a challenging situation. They would have been more caring if only their context had been better.”

Perceiving everyone as inherently good gives one such a brighter outlook on life. Wherever I go, I am surrounded by kindhearted people! And because I perceive their intentions as good, I approach every person as a caring friend I have known for years. I want to listen to their story and offer them my help without expecting anything in return. Because that is what a friend would do.

And when someone acts insensitive, I am free to respond with kindness. Knowing that their actions were a reflection of their context and not their personality.

You will meet many people throughout your life. Some will tend to be giving and some will tend to be selfish. And you can’t change their personalities. But you can change their context by being kind to them first. You can get others to act like saints.

When the cashier greets you with a scowl, notice his nametag and smile and say “Hello [name]! How are you today?” 

When preparing a meeting with a demanding client, ask “How can I focus on helping them rather than talk about why they should hire us?”

When your child does her homework but ‘forgets’ to clean her room, say “That is great that you have finished your homework! I love how hard-working you are.”

Whose context will you change today?

Why Don’t I Stick To My Goals? How a small shift in mindset can lead to big results in achieving your goals

The dictionary defines ‘success’ as: ‘the achievement of a desired goal’. 

So if a person achieves their goals, they are successful. 

This logic works great for finite goals when the goal only has to be achieved once. If your goal is to save $20,000 for a new car and you do it, the goal is accomplished forever. But it works less well for infinite goals where you must keep working to keep the goal fulfilled. 

Take Mark’s story as an example. Weighing 232 lbs he was definitely obese. Fed up with his bulging waistline, he committed to a low-calorie diet of zero refined carbohydrates and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. His goal was to lose 40 lbs over the next 8 weeks.

Fast forward 8 weeks and Mark had managed to lose 47 lbs. He was feeling both ecstatic about his results and relieved to let go of his low-calorie diet. It had been painful, but worth it!

6 months later Mark had put his old weight back again. 

Every. Single. Pound. 

Mark’s story is a typical example of mistaking an infinite goal for a finite goal. Being in good shape is not something you achieve once. You need to keep achieving it every day.  

Conquering an infinite goal is done by adopting a new identity.

Imagine if Mark had said to himself: ‘I am a healthy person. I am someone who takes good care of their body.’ 

With this mindset, would Mark go on a diet as a temporary event only? No. He would change to a healthier diet with the intent of keeping it forever. Anything else would clash with his own identity. His new diet might be less strict than the one he did choose, but it would likely have been more sustainable in the long run. 

Adopting a new identity also makes the infinite journey more enjoyable. Imagine that you are eating out and the waiter asks you if you want to add french fries. If your goal is just to lose weight, your response would be: ‘I can’t do it, because I have to reach my weight goal.’ You reject the fries and feel a twinge of loss. It is almost as if the goal controls you and you have to obey. 

But if your goal is to be a healthy person, you would say: ‘I don’t do it, because it clashes with my identity.’ You reject the fries, but this time the twinge of loss is pushed aside by a swelling of pride in your chest. You feel proud of staying true to yourself. And you chose ‘no’ entirely from within. 

Finite goals are not bad or worse than infinite goals. They are just different. Finite goals can also exist either on their own – e.g tasks like ‘clean the garage’ – or they can exist within an infinite goal. Mark’s finite goal ‘I will lose 40 lbs!’ was actually a part of the infinite goal ‘I want to have a healthy body’. Mark gained back the weight because he didn’t realize he was really pursuing an infinite and not a finite goal. And he hadn’t committed to becoming the new person that infinite goal required. 

This is why most New Year’s resolutions fail. We don’t realize we are truly pursuing an infinite goal and we haven’t committed to changing our identity.

The goal is not to run a 10K once, but to become a runner. 

The goal is not to earn $1000 on a stock trade once, but to become an investor. 

The goal is not to go write a story once, but to become an author. 

What goals have you set for yourself? Are they separate finite goals, i.e you only need to achieve once? Or are they really infinite goals, and you must work on them regularly? 

For the goals that are infinite, have you committed yourself to becoming the new person which these goals require? 

If not, is that infinite goal something you want to pursue?