Is there power in knowing you’re an arsehole?

Is knowing you’re an arsehole a secret super-power?

No, we’re not talking about the growing pile of merch that tells us it is. We’re talking about Succession’s Kendall Roy.

Kendall Roy, of Succession, exemplifies the “temporary” arsehole, which is the most “effective” kind, according to Stanford University professor Dr Robert Sutton, an expert on the subject.

Yes, all the Roy family siblings (except perhaps for Connor) have turned sibling rivalry into a blood sport in an attempt to topple their father and become the head of his colossal media and entertainment empire, Raystar Royco. Kendall is a former cocaine addict who invited his family and friends to walk through a tunnel replica of his mother’s vagina at his 40th birthday party. But whereas Kendall’s sister Shiv (Sarah Snook) is willing to intimidate a sexual assault victim to prevent her from testifying before Congress (doing so will damage the company), and his brother Roman ignores safety concerns over an impending rocket launch and doesn’t care when it inevitably explodes, Kendall Roy knows that he’s an arsehole – and that his family are a pack of back-stabbing bastards, too.

“I’m not a good person,” says Kendall in the season three finale, which aired on December 12, after admitting he once killed a caterer after, high on Ketamine, he drove the two of them off a cliff and then left the kid for dead after he scrambled to safety. “I’m bad.” His siblings lack any such insight. (“Who hasn’t killed the odd kid with a Porsche?” says Roman, in an attempt to make Kendall feel better.)

In the process, Kendall has become the secret fantasy crush of countless women. Much of this has to do with the perception that his insight is evidence of a soul. And many women, in particular, want to save that poor lost soul.

So, does this play out in the real world? Do people who know they’re out for themselves and are vicious to others have a social, emotional, and financial leg up on the those of us who expend a lot of energy trying to be agreeable while we go about the tricky business of living?

Roy dynasty patriarch Logan Roy, centre, with his back-stabbing children, (from left): Kendall Roy, Roman Roy, Shiv Roy and Connor Roy.Credit:Foxtel/HBO

Well, yes and no, says Dr Robert Sutton, who wrote the book – well actually, two – on arseholes.

Take Steve Jobs – one of the world’s most infamous jerks – for instance, he says.

“He had all sorts of deals fall apart because he was an asshole,” says Sutton, a Stanford University organisational behaviour professor of Jobs, who was famously pushed out of his own start-up, Apple, by the mentor he’d brought on board in 1985. “And he almost sold what became Pixar” – the company that created Toy Story and Cars – “to, it was supposed to be a medical imaging company to Phillips and they just decided they couldn’t start working with him anymore because he was such an asshole. So they had to go back making movies.”

Just how much of an arsehole was Jobs? (Sutton defines one as someone who leaves others feeling demoralised, demeaned, de-energised, and generally screwed over.)

“I still remember going to dinner with a friend of mine, this guy was head of manufacturing at NeXT” – the computer company Jobs founded after being booted from Apple – “and [he told me] Steve had a temper tantrum, crying, screaming, yelling [because] the colour of the Ford trucks that this guy had ordered to deliver the NeXT computers did not match the white in the factory,” says Sutton, who knew Jobs socially – their children attended the same nursery school – and interviewed numerous people who worked with Jobs for his books, The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt and The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.

“There’s even some evidence from Harvard Business School… that if you sit near an asshole, you’re more likely to become one.”

It’s but one example from the many of Jobs’ temper tantrums and incidents of cruelty that have long become industry lore: the time he cheated close friend (and eventual Apple co-founder) Steve Wozniak out of money, denied a long-time friend and Apple colleague out of company stock options, told a Xerox designer, “Everything you’ve ever done in your life is shit” and asked a potential employee, “How old were you when you lost your virginity?”

But, says Sutton, Jobs’ fortunes changed when he was mentored by Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, which Jobs bought in 1986 (when the company went under a different name), after he got booted by Apple in 1985.

“The thing that made him [Jobs] a billionaire for the first time was his investment into Pixar,” says Sutton. “Pixar is kind of a no-asshole culture… And it was Ed’s culture, not Steve’s. [Ed says] that it was the more civilised version – or the less uncivilised version of Steve Jobs – that brought you the modern Pixar, and made Apple great.” (It was only after Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 with a greater awareness of what an arsehole he had been and could be, says Sutton, that he was able to parlay his genius into taking the company from near-bankruptcy to making billions with products including the iMac, iPod and iPhone.)

This is because, says Sutton, those who have some awareness that they’re arseholes have a leg up on those who don’t. “There’s temporary assholes and there’s certified assholes, people who are assholes across times and places,” he says. The “most effective assholes”, says Sutton, are the former which, he adds, is what Jobs arguably became in the last 10 or 15 years of his life. (Jobs died of pancreatic cancer in 2011.)

Temporary arseholes know, says Sutton, “when to turn it on and off”. “There are times when displays of anger, disrespect, I think that’s sometimes called for,” says Sutton, referring to a study that showed that periodic displays of anger by a basketball coach were linked to better team performance. The theory is that if someone yells at you all the time, you think it’s their problem, and nothing to do with you. “But when the coach yells at me but doesn’t usually, then [you think] ‘Maybe it’s something about me.’”

But there’s a caveat. Though there’s evidence that “disagreeable” people make more money than those who are agreeable – one study has shown that more agreeable men are perceived as passive, and not able to “get the job done” – arseholes are still losers as human beings, says Sutton.

“First of all, it’s very contagious,” says Sutton. “There’s even some evidence from Harvard Business School, in open offices, that if you sit near an asshole, you’re more likely to become one…. [And] if you look at the families’ spouses, children, the physical and mental health, there’s even evidence that if you work for an asshole boss, you don’t live as long, in [Scandinavian studies]. It’s just like living in abusive families: heart problems, substance abuse problems.”

Indeed, though Jobs will likely long be remembered as one of the great technological innovators, his name has also become synonymous with his jaw-dropping acts of cruelty towards his daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, who he long claimed wasn’t his. (“You smell like a toilet,” were Jobs’ last words to his daughter, on his deathbed, as she recalled in her recent memoir.)

And we are, arguably, in the greatest age of the arsehole.

“When you’re an asshole online, everybody can see you, so it’s more visible… But if it’s more visible because it’s online, and it’s contagious, then there might actually be more of us, or we all might be nastier a higher percentage of the time,” says Sutton.

But, if this piece has made you realise you’re more of an arsehole than you’d like – or perhaps someone else in your life is – you might take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone in your suffering.

“I picked up my office phone about three months ago, and one of the only messages was from a guy who trained Jesuits, and he wants ideas of how to train Jesuits how to not be assholes,” says Sutton, whose second book on the topic was inspired by the 8000 odd emails he received from people from all walks of life – from Jewish cantors to airline pilots and grocery store cashiers –wondering how they could survive the arseholes in their lives.

But, says clinical psychologist Dr James Collett, it’s possible that we have just the right number of arseholes in society.

“On an evolutionary level, if we were all arseholes, we probably wouldn’t be getting on, and probably wouldn’t survive as a species; humans are social animals, we need to cooperate,” says Collett, a psychology lecturer at RMIT. “Alternatively, if too many people were assholes, we would have evolved ways to spot that, and in other ways, we’d have a better arsehole-detection and punishment system.”

This is the argument of an evolutionary theory called Alternative Niche Picking, which accounts for why our society is made up of people with such different personalities, who occupy such different roles. According to the theory, “there’s enough people being an arsehole, that’s their strategy for getting through life that works for them, so they’re probably going to keep at it”.

So, is this putting us on notice, then? That our society can only take so many arseholes and perhaps each of us – or someone we know – might want to think long and hard about how we behave, before we tip our civilisation over the edge, into global dysfunction?

“It’s probably a pretty broad range,” says Collett. “It’s not going to be, like, one day we get one more arsehole, and suddenly the social order collapses.”

But just having an awareness of your arsehole tendencies comes with its own benefits, he says. It might not lead you to international sex symbol status, like Kendall Roy. “[But] if you know you’re behaving a certain way, you can work to moderate it, change it,” says Collett, noting that some clients who come to confront, in therapy that their behaviour has been upsetting for those around them have been “quite surprised”. “Many people who might be thought of as arseholes, they probably don’t enjoy being thought of as that.”

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