Rudeness is on the rise — why?

It's not just you, and it's not just in healthcare: Poor behavior ranging from the impolite to the violent is having a moment in society right now. 

The Atlantic's ​​Olga Khazan spoke with more than a dozen experts on crime, psychology and social norms to suss out contributing factors to the spike in poor behavior, which she details in her piece, "Why People Are Acting So Weird," published March 30. 

Stress is one likely explanation for the bad behavior. Keith Humphreys, PhD, a psychiatry professor at Stanford, told Ms. Khazan the pandemic has created a lot of "high-stress, low-reward" situations, in which someone who has experienced a lot of loss due to the pandemic may be pushed over the edge by an inoffensive request. 

Not only are people encountering more provocations — like staff shortages or mask mandates — but their mood is worse when provoked.

"Americans don't really like each other very much right now," Ryan Martin, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay who studies expressions of anger, told Ms. Khazan. 

It doesn't help that rudeness can be contagious. At work, people can spread negative emotions to colleagues, bosses and clients regardless of whether those people were the source of the negativity.

"People who witness rudeness are three times less likely to help someone else," Christine Porath, PhD, a business professor at Georgetown University, said in the report. 

Just as the pandemic has reaped high-stress, low-reward moments, it has brought on a level of isolation that has affected how people behave.

"We're more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened," Robert Sampson, PhD, a Harvard sociologist, told Ms. Khazan. "When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public." 

Richard Rosenfeld, PhD, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, went one step further to describe society operating with "a generalized sense that the rules simply don't apply." 

Ms. Khazan makes a point to distinguish mental health in the broader conversation about poor behavior.

"People with severe mental illness are only a tiny percentage of the population, and past research shows that they commit only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts, so they couldn't possibly be responsible for the huge surge in misbehavior," she said. 

For a quantified look at how problematic behavior — including crime,  dangerous driving, unruly passenger incidents and student disciplinary problems — has spiked, turn to journalist Matthew Yglesias' deep dive, born from his observation that "the extent to which we seem to be living through a pretty broad rise in aggressive and antisocial behavior" is underdiscussed. 



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