It is a little-known fact that a life lived without enemies would be an extraordinarily dull affair. One person who understood this very clearly was the nineteenth century British essayist William Hazlitt, whose misanthropic-sounding On the Pleasure of Hating was in fact a gracefully written ode to this much maligned social emotion: “Without something to hate,” wrote Hazlitt, “we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions of men.” Suddenly the idea of a utopian society, where everyone is satisfied, equal and good, sounds like a rather drab and stultifying place. Heaven, according to this view, would be a special kind of Hell, a land filled with the souls of smiling, slumbering idiots intoxicated by unending love, understanding and pleasant company. (And an especially interminable ocean of boredom, since one couldn’t even escape through death.)
Or consider, where would Bill O’Reilly be without the “Liberal Left” that so angers him, Richard Dawkins without the “dyed-in-the-wool” believers who’ve become the bane of his existence, or prosecutorial talk show host Nancy Grace without the “scum” she abhors so passionately? (Writer Jean Genet, who spent the first half of his life as a cog in the French penal system, pointed out that criminals were just as important to society as were those who despised them. After all, said Genet, an entire industry of people—lawyers, judges, jailers, clerks, guards, legislators, psychiatrists, counselors and so on—were only able to pay their taxes, feed their children and furnish their homes through the tireless labors of criminals.) Without someone to hate, these pundits would be considerably poorer, no doubt, without a soapbox to stand on and void of any unique social function. With all this in mind, I suppose it was a very wise PR person who once told me that if ever I found myself universally liked, this would be a sign that I was doing something very wrong.
Yet the problem is that, although I can certainly appreciate the rationale behind this strategic advice and I’m all too happy to submit to our species’ natural taste for self-righteous animosity, I’ve unfortunately (and, I must say, embarrassingly) inherited a rather “sensitive” disposition. For most people, it’s relatively easy to hate—even, as Hazlitt reasoned, to find a hidden pleasure in such emotions. But, unless you’re a genuine sociopath, it’s a real feat to derive such pleasure from actually being the subject of others’ wrath. And that, of course, is the ugly flip side of Hazlitt’s glimmering coin of hatred.
According to Duke University psychologist Mark Leary, the feeling of being disliked, ostracized or rejected was specially designed by evolution to be particularly painful; subjectively speaking, being evaluated negatively by others can feel even worse than physical trauma. The reason that others’ negative evaluations affect us so deeply, Leary believes, has to do with our primate past.
Unlike virtually every other species, the hominids could not rely on speed, flight, strength, arboreal clambering, burrowing or ferocity to evade predators. Many theorists in psychology, anthropology and biology have noted that human beings and their hominid ancestors survived and prospered as species only because they lived in cooperative groups. Given the importance of group living, natural selection favored individuals who not only sought the company of others but also behaved in ways that led others to accept, support and help them.
In other words, for a human being, only death itself ensures a speedier genetic demise than stigma and exclusion. To ensure that our ancestors were ever wary of their tenuous dependence on others, Leary proposes that they evolved a sort of subjective, psychological gauge that served to continually monitor their fluctuating “relational value,” an affective index of where the self stood in the eyes of other ingroup members. Generally speaking, the higher one’s relational value, the greater one’s reproductive opportunities and genetic fitness. Just as it continues to do today, this hypothetical “sociometer” generated emotional states that, collectively, were translated into what’s popularly known as our “self-esteem.” Assuming our sociometer isn’t broken or impaired, negative self-esteem is a kind of warning, then, that one is at serious risk of social (and therefore genetic) exclusion.
One of the most significant contributions of the sociometer hypothesis is that, over a decade of conducting carefully designed experiments meant to test its central tenets, Leary and his colleagues have almost completely debunked the popular “doesn’t-matter-what-anyone-else-says” idea that self-esteem comes from the self. That is to say, if you’re prone to boasting that you don’t care what other people think about you, then you probably just haven’t given enough thought to the source of your self-esteem—that, or you genuinely have a diagnosable personality disorder. There are, of course, individual differences in this domain. For example, “high self-monitors” are people who are unusually preoccupied with the impressions they’re making on others. Such people—I tend to be one of these in real life—are overly agreeable chameleons who easily adopt the attitudes and beliefs of the prevailing social environment (at least on the surface). But wherever we fall along the self-monitoring scale, each of us presumably has an innate sociometer providing continual emotional feedback and encouraging us to boost our relational value.
The trouble, of course, is that each of us is also vulnerable to flubbing up the occasional social norm. If we were perfectly angelic specimens, we wouldn’t need the sociometer to begin with; rather, the sociometer is as much a preemptive device for disarming our selfish desires and preventing dips in our relational value as it is a corrective one that prompts us to repair the reputation-related damage we’ve already done. One quick-and-dirty damage control tactic is apologizing to those we’ve wronged. And you might be surprised to learn just how effective a simple apology can be. In fact, a recent series of studies showed that, to a large extent, it doesn’t even matter if the apology is patently insincere—at least for the target of the original wrongdoing. In this 2007 article by Cornell University psychologists Jane Risen and Thomas Gilovich and published in Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes, unsuspecting students were confronted with a surprisingly obnoxious person (ostensibly another student, but actually someone who was in on the experiment and acting out a script to test the researchers’ hypotheses) during testing.