14 December, 2020

7 Basic Personality Ingredients of Difficult People

  • By Team SP
Everyone knows someone who is high in the unpleasant quality of antagonism. Perhaps you have a relative who you dread having to interact with at family gatherings, even if that interaction is occurring virtually due to COVID-19. You’re afraid to say anything that will set this person off, so you try to hide in the woodwork. However, despite your best efforts, this person starts to pick a fight with you, and even though you know there’s no basis for the nasty things being said, it’s still unnerving to be insulted and challenged.

Turning to the research that could help explain this behavior, you might find it surprising to learn that studies of personality traits have paid little attention to antagonism as a quality separate from other traits such as psychopathy or narcissism. It’s safe to say that antagonism is far more common than the extreme ruthlessness or self-centeredness of those other more well-studied dimensions of personality. Your relative’s behavior is annoying and upsetting, but you wouldn’t go so far as to apply a label involving some type of personality pathology.

According to University of Georgia’s Chelsea Sleep and colleagues (2020), antagonism actually fits quite well into the widely-accepted Five Factor Model (FFM) of personality traits. The FFM defines personality as a set of the five traits of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (an easy way to remember these is that they spell “OCEAN”).

Antagonistic people, within the FFM, would be considered low on the trait of agreeableness. To fit into this end of the continuum, people have to show such qualities as callousness, dishonesty, and manipulativeness. As the authors point out, there are well-established relationships between antagonism and the so-called externalizing behaviors of criminality, aggressiveness, and substance use. At an extreme, then, people high in antagonism could potentially be diagnosable as having antisocial or narcissistic personality disorder. Unpacking the set of qualities that make up antagonism would have value, then, for diagnostic purposes if its levels become high and maladaptive. In terms of dealing with the antagonistic people in your life, this approach could also help you figure out how to negate their effect on you when you’re forced to deal with them.

Previous research on antagonism has provided a divergent understanding of its qualities. As the researchers point out, this work suffers from what’s called the “jingle” and “jangle” problem in the personality literature, terms coined some time ago by Block (1995). A well-known personality researcher, Block pointed out in his “contrarian” view of the FFM that similarly labeled traits could be referring to different qualities (“jingle”) and that traits with different names could actually refer to the same quality (“jangle”). To get around this theoretical problem, the U of Georgia authors collected data on a set of seven well-known personality trait measures from a college sample of 532 participants (57% female, average age of 19 years old). Additionally, the research team administered what they call “criterion” measures intended to reflect the consequences of high antagonism scores. These included scales assessing the FFM, criminal behavior, aggressiveness, anxiety, and depression.

Additionally, the authors presented participants with a laboratory task intended to measure “social discounting.” In this task, participants decide whether to share a hypothetical amount of money to people at various levels of closeness to them. People high in altruism will share with others, and those high in selfishness will keep the money for themselves, regardless of the closeness of their potential recipients. To analyze all of this data, Sleep et al. used a method developed by the personality researcher Goldberg (2006) referred to as “bass-ackward.” Rather than conduct a single crunching of the questionnaire data, in this method researchers keep examining the structure of their data through a series of progressive steps until they get closer and closer to a clear set of factors.

Sleep and her colleagues performed that sequential crunching of the data until a stable statistical picture emerged. The final model breaks antagonism down into seven factors. As you read through them, ask yourself whether you'd consider these in your own personal model for understanding difficult people.

Callousness: Lacking empathy or concern for others.

Grandiosity: Feeling that one is better than other people.

Aggressiveness: Being hostile and rude toward others.

Suspiciousness: Feeling strong and unreasonable distrust of others.

Manipulation: Exploiting others to benefit oneself.

Domineering: Desire for authority over others and a sense of combativeness.

Risk-taking: Looking for ways to experience thrills through risky behavior.

How well does this research-based picture of the antagonistic person fit with your own notions of the difficult people you know? Had you thought about the domineering and manipulative elements of their personalities? Perhaps you never realized how much their antagonism led them to make life so difficult for you through their controlling tendencies. Indeed, maybe they are hoping to get you to retreat into yourself during that family gathering so that they can take over the conversation.

Perhaps you also never realized that so much of what makes them annoying is that they put on airs of superiority around everyone else, especially you. Maybe you thought they were simply narcissistic but now you can see that this self-aggrandizing behavior actually fits into the “jangle” of antagonism. Their risky and aggressive behaviors can also put you off. It's not simply that they're impulsive, but that they get pleasure out of shocking you by flaunting the ordinary conventions of common sense. With an understanding of antagonism as a comprehensive factor that pulls all of this together, you can now perhaps figure out a strategy to reduce the impact of antagonistic people on you.

First, it’s safe to assume that the discomfort you feel comes from these people, not from your own weaknesses or deficiencies. For whatever reason, these people are programmed to dig into the self-esteem and well-being of others.

Second, recognize that their antagonism puts them at risk to themselves. If you care about them, you might try gently to help them modulate their risk-taking. When they brag about their latest outlandish adventure, see if you can prod them into finding safer outlets for their desire to experience thrills.

The final piece of the equation relates to callousness. People high in antagonism aren’t necessarily psychopaths, but they do seem to have trouble understanding how other people feel. Chipping into that lack of empathy by sharing their effect on you can potentially help mitigate their high callousness. They may mock you or give you a hard time, but if you patiently persist, they may eventually come to see things from your point of view.

To sum up, people high in antagonism can take away from your own sense of well-being. Knowing how to work your way around their unpleasant behavior can help you overcome their efforts to lower your own sense of fulfillment.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D.

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