Are we born mean or does it just happen?
September 5, 2009 6:19 PM   Subscribe

Is there a psychological classification for a person that is just plain "mean?"

My octogenarian relative is just the nastiest person I ever met. I've known her for 30 years and she has never paid me a compliment or said a nice thing to me yet I've always tried to be nice to her. When she worked she was known to report fellow workers she didn't approve of to get them fired.

When her mother was on her deathbed she refused to look at her and wanted to talk about the latest movies, etc. When the mom (90+) lived in a nursing home she would make her cry by telling her she was "stupid" and "senile." This person I'm writing about is very intelligent, was a career woman and highly independent.

My husband says she has been a nasty person since the day he met her - like 50 years ago. Any ideas? Is she a plain old narcissist or does it go deeper? Background: she is pretty well penniless, worked as a secretary for many years, never married and has always lived alone until recently when she had a health reversal and 'had to go into a retirement hotel (which she hates and for which she blames us.) I once saw a documentary by Dr Barry Brazlelton (famous pediatrician) who said he couid go up and down the rows of newborns in a hospital and pick out the type of lives the babies would have by their demeaner - pouty, happy, sourpuss, whiny, placid, etc. Can this be true - our personalities are cast when we are just babies?
posted by Tullyogallaghan to Human Relations (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Short answer - no, but she sounds like a psychological clusterfuck.
posted by kldickson at 6:23 PM on September 5, 2009

Mean's a behavior that could have any one of several dozen psychological or organic causative factors-- past abuse, traumatic brain injury, personality disorders, you name it.

So, no, it's not quite that reductive.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 6:39 PM on September 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

I once saw a documentary by Dr Barry Brazlelton (famous pediatrician) who said he couid go up and down the rows of newborns in a hospital and pick out the type of lives the babies would have by their demeaner - pouty, happy, sourpuss, whiny, placid, etc.

If he was a pediatrician, how would he know what they were like as adults?
posted by Afroblanco at 6:40 PM on September 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Any psychological classification would be to identify the cause of her meanness. People can be mean - even over time - for different reasons.

As I understand it, some personality tendencies are biological, some come from parents, some (more than was previously thought) from other environmental factors (school, culture, events that happen to a person).

It's possible - logical, to a certain extent - to view someone's personality as entirely resulting from factors outside the "person" herself, whether you're looking from a scientific perspective or even certain religious ones (predestination, anyone? God as omnipotent and omnipresent), although my limited knowledge suggests that most religions probably incorporate more concept of free will than most "pure" scientific approaches would, taken to their logical conclusions.

Thinking along those lines, though, eventually leads to the realization that it doesn't really matter whose fault it is that your relative is mean. Blaming her, her parents, some dude who broke her heart, or even your own inability (and mine) to see her sympathetically doesn't really matter unless it would somehow help get past whatever the problem is -- which seems unlikely at this point (although I'd never say it's impossible).
posted by amtho at 6:42 PM on September 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

No, I really don't think so because psychology specializes in finding deeper motivations and causes for external human behavior (well at least if you're not a behaviorist but that's a whole different kettle).

If you're looking for a word to describe her, I would honestly just go with "miserable" or "depressed". I honestly can't think of a single mean person I know who hasn't gone through some pretty extreme suffering. I doubt your octogenarian relative's mold was cast at birth.
posted by twins named Lugubrious and Salubrious at 6:44 PM on September 5, 2009

not really a psychological term but if you want something fancier than "jerk", "misanthrope" means hater of people.
posted by kylej at 6:46 PM on September 5, 2009

Since she's in her eighties, that means that even fifty years ago she was already in her thirties.

That's enough time to have seen or suffered enough bad shit to make a person bitter and angry toward the rest of humanity. Plenty of time.
posted by rokusan at 6:48 PM on September 5, 2009 [4 favorites]

Can this be true - our personalities are cast when we are just babies?

Can it? Sure, it's a coherent idea. I think you'd be hard pressed to justify that belief though - ever meet a drug addict or religious convert?

Is there a psychological classification for a person that is just plain "mean?"

Yeah, "mean". It's just a classification like any other. Are you looking for something with the ring of scientific legitimacy to it? Why? What would the label do for you, or for her? Those labels exist only as shorthand for certain commonplace issues that crop up in the messy and inexact business of therapy/psychiatry - and even then they're (usually) recognized by their proponents to be roughly hewn and provisional tools for the job.
posted by phrontist at 6:49 PM on September 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Can this be true - our personalities are cast when we are just babies?

From working with kids in kindergarden, it seems possible that personalities arise very early in life, it really doesnt mean that you are set for life on your ways but if you a disposition to be funny at 5 it would probably be much easier for that person to become a comedian than the local bully.......

However from my own experience I have worked very hard at being a person totally different than i was when I was younger (for example I was diagnosed as having social anxiety, now I am a singer and work as a business analyst organizing people during my day job).......

However as i said before I had to work for it...and it wasnt natural...

so yes it is possible that she is just naturally mean and she likes it that way...
posted by The1andonly at 7:20 PM on September 5, 2009

Narcissism is "deeper" if you're talking about narcissistic personality disorder, but it's really tough even to give an amateur armchair diagnosis from the information given.

What I recall of the studies on the heritability of personality traits is that they vary in heritability but they're all partially heritable, meaning that you can have more or less of a chance of being very disagreeable based on your genes.

There are different theoretical approaches to the interaction of genes and the environment on personality.

My best guess is that babies are definitely born with different temperaments, but to completely discount the effect of their environment on their personality is pretty silly. Besides, my understanding is that personality traits tend to gel somewhere around 30...that's a long time from infancy. So saying that every cranky infant will turn into a certain kind of adult is ridiculous.

Those labels exist only as shorthand for certain commonplace issues that crop up in the messy and inexact business of therapy/psychiatry - and even then they're (usually) recognized by their proponents to be roughly hewn and provisional tools for the job.

They have relevance in research (more or less so depending on the label).
posted by kathrineg at 7:22 PM on September 5, 2009

Exact diagnosis impossible with the amount of information provided. Perhaps lack of oxygen at birth, maybe Asperger's disorder (with related inability to make friends, sympathize with others, etc.), antisocial personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, etc., etc.

Sure seems strange, though, how some people think they don't need the help of others to get along and they act as if they can be mean to anyone they want and it will not come back to harm them.

We tend to confirm our hypotheses of others and of the world around us by what we remember and perhaps this octogenerian remembers every single time should could have been slighted by others (even exaggerating such times).

Too bad for her and for those trying to help her. She certainly has been self-centered, selfish, shrewish, etc.

One of my favorite quotes is that of Molly Ivins, the humorist who died about four years ago of cancer: "We are born into this world naked and hungry and many of us leave it the same way. Between those two points we rely on the kindness of strangers." [Not her exact quote but close.]


posted by Kalepa at 7:59 PM on September 5, 2009

We've chosen not to pathologize "meanness", so no, there's no psychological classification for it, nor research into its etiology.
posted by unknowncommand at 9:04 PM on September 5, 2009 [3 favorites]

How about negative affectivity? Not a disorder so much as a trait that everyone has to a lesser or greater extent.
posted by txvtchick at 9:21 PM on September 5, 2009

This guy believes a scan of your brain activity can reveal what your personality is and why. One of the brain inefficiencies is believed to make you disagree with what others say automatically and get bent out of shape when things don't go your way. It may or may not be possible that your aunt's brain works this way. However, this is just one of a million reasons why a person might be mean, so if she doesn't seem to have a problem with it, I would just keep rolling your eyes and biting your lip.
posted by itsonreserve at 10:22 PM on September 5, 2009

I have an aunt sort of like that, who gets off on starting feuds between two people. She'll pretend she's on A's side and talk to A about it, then go to B and twist what A said and pretend to be on B's side, and hear B's side and go back to A, twisting what B said, and so on. I just call her evil.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:16 PM on September 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

To answer your question, I do think we have some tendencies when we are born, but whether we thwart or encourage such tendencies will depend on so very many things: most importantly the ever-changing culture into which we are born, and the mindset of the people around us. It's such a strange and tenuous change of events that led me to become the person I am today. The greatest factors have been the influence of those people I've accidentally stumbled across in the course of my life--had I been anywhere five minutes earlier or five minutes later in some instances, certain encounters and relationships would never have happened, and I would have never felt the need to try and change my personality or character in the way I chose.

But why would some people turn out to have meaner personalities than others? Just my own experience: I have a grandparent who is like the relative you are describing. She went through a lot of shit in her childhood (wars, starvation, etc.) In fact, the meanest old people I know had to endure a lot of trauma in their lives, long before I was born.

On top of that: a lot of the psychological stuff--things that would be identified as depression or manic depression now--back then had no discernable treatment back then other than someone telling them, "tough shit, now stop whining." Or a smack to the head, etc. Much of her generation did not come from a culture that promotes kindness or giving people a benefit of a doubt.

Then there's just the contrast that comes from my own perspective. I sometimes think it's because that _I_ am so soft that they seem so mean. As in, to them, hurtful words are no big deal. They've been through hell and back again, why are the people around them so easily offended/insulted/hurt? I feel like I've had the luxury of a comparatively peaceful childhood/adulthood to reflect on things, calm the fuck down, and basically relax. They're still in what I like to think of as "survival mode." In their eyes, I (and the rest of my generation) are probably immature, or fanciful, naive, or just plain dumb.

I can empathize: it's hard to deal with such people. On the other hand, it's instructive to see just how far apart people can be even when they're related and speak the same language.

Maybe one day she will tell you a bit about her life, and though you will never ever love her as a person, you'll have a fuller understanding of her as a human being who has lived a complex life.
posted by thisperon at 1:29 AM on September 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

An analyst would look at how it feels to be this person rather than how it looks from the outside--i.e. that she's mean. Is she angry? Does she enjoy hurting others? Or does she do it out of duty? Competitiveness? Revenge? Need for control? Power? Does she want to avoid closeness? If she's penniless, is she (perhaps secretly) ashamed of it and need to feel independent of others?
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:41 AM on September 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yep, I have a mean relative – my mother's sister. Mom was kind, with a bit of a temper. Her sister is just nasty: she says mean things, insults your appearance when she first sees you and then settles down into a stream of unpleasant observations and accusations. She had a loving husband and four decent kids, no chronic illnesses I've ever heard of – certainly no psychiatric involvement – yet none of her kids' spouses will voluntarily spend any time with her. Nor will I. She's 93 and looks good to make her century – so much for good attitude keeping us alive, no?
posted by zadcat at 5:53 AM on September 6, 2009

Like unknowncommand says, the shrinks I know are against judgy categories so you're not going to find anything there.

However, Johnny Cash has view that his can be a lifeling thing. Perhaps you can just sing this song in your head when you have to deal with the aunt.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:46 AM on September 6, 2009

-----"has always lived alone until recently when she had a health reversal and 'had to go into a retirement hotel (which she hates and for which she blames us.)"

Many people don't relish leaving their home and completely losing control of their environment. Your relative is someone who lived on her own and made her own way...and now she is being told when she can watch television or dine. That is a loss and a major adjustment that is extremely difficult on even the "sunny deposition-ed" octogenarians. Not to mention, if there is any transfer of her estate/money to others prior to her death she may feel suspicious of people's motives. It is understandable.

My own Mother was definitely personality disordered, though never formally diagnosed. I researched Borderline Personality Disorder and it fit her perfectly. Through a fair amount of clues and reflection I have been able to determine that my Mom was most certainly molested by her own father, my grandfather...and that set the wheels in motion for her life-long embitterment and "meanness". She was never able to share these dark secrets with me or others. She only felt in control when she barked orders...and though she had to understand that her meanness isolated her, she was powerless to break the cycle and she was mean to the very end. My Mother (now deceased) also had some wonderful qualities that I now can see clearly with perspective.

Thich Nhat Hanh's book on anger describes all angry people as babies who are crying for help. In the book he asked us to consider that each one of us when (over-the-top) angry are actually tiny helpless creatures just wailing in order to get nurtured and loved. It is next to impossible to think this and embrace this idea when someone like your relative is being mean to you and others--but it is doubtlessly true that in her heart of hearts she is wailing: love me!! take care of my pain and my broken heart!! Hold me as you would a baby who needs attention.

Despite Thich Nhat Hanh's brilliant ideas about understanding anger..I was never really able to see the tiny person in my Mother..the one who was so damaged--until she died.

Personally....I don't think anyone is "born to be mean". People either acquire skills to cope with the unspeakable pain they've endured...or, like your relative and my Mom...they don't.

Try your very best to have some understanding. The same understanding, perhaps, that you may have for a dog that has been chained up and barks..... because of the chain.
posted by naplesyellow at 8:59 AM on September 6, 2009

If he was a pediatrician, how would he know what they were like as adults?

Re: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. and Afroblanco's comment above... Dr. Brazelton was my pediatrician from 0 to about 18 when I left for college. He specialized in examining how babies' behaviors affected their parents treatment (attachment, etc.) of them and then how this feedback loop influenced personality development. Part of that was a scale he developed to assess newborn behaviors and the companion long range study (conducted by others) to refine it, in which I participated. As a side note, when I was about 35 and Dr. Brazelton was about 75 I attended a graduation ceremony where he delivered the commencement address. I sat on the aisle and as Dr. Brazelton came though during the recessional, he smiled at me and, addressing me by name, asked how I was doing. At that point he probably hadn't seen me in at least 15 years and I was way out of context. Pretty good.
posted by carmicha at 9:58 AM on September 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

The Australian temperament project examined babies and followed them longitudinally into adolescence, but not adulthood.

In a nutshell, the crankier babies generally became the more unstable adolescents because of negative adjustment styles developed by age 3-4, but it's in no way a clear trajectory.
posted by namesarehard at 2:30 PM on September 6, 2009

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