The Three Causes of Cruelty Why good-hearted people sometimes act as jackasses

When someone behaves in a way that hurts others, we naturally think: “Oh, they are just a cruel person who has no consideration for others.” 

But when we ourselves perform questionable actions, isn’t it funny how we often have a good excuse for doing so? 

Well, so does everyone else. There is always a good reason why people behave the way they do. 

I have found three causes for cruelty to be particularly common. They are:

  1. Feeling pressured
  2. Being emotionally spent
  3. Not realizing the logic behind others’ actions

1. Feeling pressured

If a soon-to-be priest sees someone lying on the pavement in obvious distress, they would stop and help them right? 

This is what a Princeton study aimed to find out. The researchers asked a group of priest students to prepare a brief talk on the bible story of the Good Samaritan – a tale of how a traveler stops to help a fellow human being in need. 

The students had to walk to a building on the other side of the campus where their talk would be held. Halfway along the way (unbeknownst to the students) the researchers had staged an actor to lie face down on the pavement and groan in obvious distress. Each participant was then either told that:

A: “You have plenty of time, there is no rush”,  or
B: “You are already late, they are waiting for you!”

When students were told that they had plenty of time, 63% of participants stopped to help. 

But when they were told they were late, only 10% of participants stopped to help.

When someone seems to act cruel, they may just be under pressure. 

Being emotionally spent

In high school, I served as treasurer for the school’s student association. This meant doing a lot of painstaking and boring bookkeeping. 

One afternoon, 21 Dec, I had a stack of 100+ transactions that had to be accounted before Christmas. Bookkeeping was the LAST thing I wanted to do at the time, but I had to plough through them now to meet the deadline. 

I was already so tired, but I can’t begin to describe how energy draining accounting these transactions was. 30 transactions in and became so irritable that I felt an itching sensation scratching inside my chest as if a hundred ants were running around and biting my insides. Every fiber in my body was in vehement protest and just wanted me to stop and do something – anything(!) – else. 

As I was just finishing, my mother came in and asked me for help with her computer. Normally, I’m happy to help others. But not this time. I was snappy. I gave short irritated answers. And the frustration in my tone made it clear that I just wanted her to go away. It ended with her leaving after 5 min, clearly upset with me for being so unhelpful, and me feeling just as upset with her (although I knew the fault was 100% with me). 

When we are emotionally spent, we have less resources left for being kind to others. It doesn’t mean that we are bad people. We just are so drained that we have nothing left to give. 

Not realizing the logic behind others’ actions

Back when I was training gymnastics, one of my trainers just seemed to have something against me. He always found fault with every performance I made. Nothing I did was ever good enough – and he would brusquely tell me so. 

One day we were practising a new difficult jump. Naturally, my trainer picked me to demonstrate the jump to the group so he could criticize me in front of everyone afterwards. 

I was fed up with his berating. So I decided I was going to give it my all this time. To show him what I was capable of. 

I sprinted, took off from the floor, turned through the air with focused precision, and nailed a straight landing. With smug pride, I turned around to face him, half-anticipating him to just stare back in silence in lack of anything to criticize. 

I was not expecting him to place a hand on my shoulder, meet my eyes with a proud smile, and say: “That’s how it’s supposed to be done!”. 

That was when I realized he wasn’t hard on me to make my life difficult. He was hard on me because he could see I was capable of much more than I myself knew. He was egging me on to draw out my inner talent. 

I started viewing my trainer very differently from that day. I may not totally agree with my trainer’s style of coaching. But I began training harder than ever because I knew he truly cared. 


The next time someone treats us cruelly, let’s pause and see if we can identify one of the three causes. Are they under pressure? Might they be emotionally spent? Or is there some logic behind their actions which we just don’t see? 

Nearly every time, we will discover them to be a good-hearted person whom we just misjudged.

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