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Why are there so many horrible people in the world?

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

Over the past several months, so many people I know and work with have complained bitterly about horrible people in their lives: friends, relatives, bosses, you name it. I don’t think this is new, but I know it’s very real. So let’s talk about it.

Here’s what makes someone NOT be a horrible person:

  • The wellbeing of others is as important to them as their own, and they act on this.

  • They believe in basic fairness, have the capacity to judge what’s fair, and they act on this.

Everyone else is horrible.

And if you’re thinking, “Wow!, no wonder there are so many horrible people in the world,” you’ve nailed it.

But if you’re thinking, “No, wait, most people are nice!!!,” I urge you to think a moment. Your perception is accurate; it’s just a misinterpretation of what you’re seeing. Yes, you’re seeing niceness in action. BUT! Evidence of non-horribility? You're missing something. Let’s think this through...

A ton of the people who are nice to you are paid to be nice to you, and often they’re paid by you. So there’s no telling, really, how nice they are.

Also, a ton—a fast dwindling ton but a ton nonetheless—of people have been brought up to be polite on the principle that things are just easier that way. Now it’s lovely to deal with polite people, but please don’t think that gives you the right to conclude they’re not horrible people. There are loads of polite but horrible people.

And also, horrible people don’t run around being totally horrible everywhere and in every possible way. Even Hitler was nice to dogs and always ate all his vegetables. There are horrible bosses who are nice to their wives. Horrible wives who are nice to their girlfriends. Horrible friends who are nice to their bosses. So lots of horrible people just haven’t shown themselves to you in the context where they’re horrible.

Now at this point, dazed and overwhelmed, you’re probably wondering how in world we’ve gotten to the point where there are so many horrible people running around. And not just running around, but running the show. This is not a hard question to answer. It turns out that if you want to build a society filled with horrible people, it ain’t hard to do. We're doing it right now.

For one thing, controlling parents (and most parents are too controlling) do more than their share of the damage. Controlling parents turn out adults either who see being controlling as their role model (and what’s more likely to make a person horrible than for them to be controlling?) or who can’t stand any kind of control, who just want to run free as the wind, and so won’t adhere to any reasonable norms, also making them horrible.

Next up, stress. We live stressful lives in a stressful world, right? Well, duh! But here’s what stress actually does to us, all of us. It creates the stress implosion. Which works like this. The more stressed out I am—from being late for work to wondering how I’m going to make the next mortgage payment—the less I can focus on anyone else and the more I’m only able to focus on myself. Everyone else is just an obstacle. That’s what stress does to us. But what do we call someone who sees others as nothing more than obstacles to be knocked over? Horrible people.

Next, work. Ah, work. A place where love, talent, and cooperation flourish in the attempt to make the world a better place. . . . Okay, you can stop laughing now. Most people who’ve had most jobs from barista to President know how much work is NOT like that. Work is more like this. Some boss somewhere, in order to survive, has to give orders for how things will be done. Orders driven by the need to save money and maximize efficiency. These orders are put in the hands of other bosses who supervise sub-bosses who supervise workers.

Now very few people have actual talent for getting the best out of other people. And a lot of people do jobs where—given the pay and the nature of the work—they’re not all that interested in anyone squeezing the best out of them. So managers without a talent for managing try to get quality work out of people with less stake in doing quality work than the manager wants. To get them to do better, the manager bears down harder. Meaning, he or she grows progressively more horrible.

So work is managers being horrible to employees that the managers feel are being horrible to them.

And this doesn’t just go up and down the ladder. People on the same level are horrible to each other because in our fear-driven lives they are afraid of competition or being upstaged.

So, yeah, want to find horrible people? Get a job!

Or you could come home from work! No, I’m not saying your partner is a horrible person. That’s for you to say. I’m just saying that in the day-to-day of life too many of us experience our partners as horrible people. Why? Because when we’re with each other we’re tired and stressed out, and our resentments and unmet needs rise to our emotional surface. Our ability to make our partner’s wellbeing as important to us as our own is severely challenged. Even just being fair challenges our bandwidth. Needy, raw, and with little to offer, we become, for our partners, too often, horrible people.

At a minimum, we just don’t have the tools to stay afloat without sinking into horribleness.

And finally, there’s no mirror available to us that will show us how horrible we are. Any real mirror will show us if there’s dirt on our face. Which we’ll promptly wash off. But how in the world do any of us get credible, convincing feedback we can act on that we’re horrible people. On the contrary. Most horrible people go along think they’re just fine. Better than fine!

And THAT’S how you get a world with so many horrible people in it. The question really should be, Isn’t it amazing that there aren't more horrible people in the world, given what we’re up against?

So what about you? What do you think of this portrait I’ve just painted? I know it resonates with a lot of people. Does it resonate with you? If not, why not?


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Michael Motta
Michael Motta
Jun 14, 2023

Interesting take but one that leaves a bitter taste. Based on your hypothesis, how in the world can we be happy in a world filled with all these horrible people?

Mira Kirshenbaum
Mira Kirshenbaum
Jun 15, 2023
Replying to

This post is based on the premise--for which there much sad evidence--that there are incredibly many of us who are made unhappy in all kinds of ways by all the horrible people in the world. Few things cause more misery than horrible people--mean, cruel, insensitive, selfish, and self-absorbed--and the things they do, on the grand scale and in everyday life. I'm sorry if my report on what is actually going on and causing so much suffering left a bitter taste. Hearing the truth behind the fairy tale often has that effect.

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