Why 'jerks' get ahead

GOP leaders distance themselves from Ted Cruz
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Story highlights

  • Ted Cruz is widely disliked by those who have worked with him, yet he is one of the leading candidates for the GOP nomination, writes Peggy Drexler
  • Studies show that people perceived as disagreeable can be viewed as more powerful and are good at getting their ideas heard, she says

Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Is Ted Cruz the most popular jerk in America? He very well could be: The brash Texas senator's star is on the rise, with on-again, off-again predictions for domination in the upcoming Iowa caucuses, and yet it's becoming clearer by the day that this is a guy about whom few have nice things to say—if they can even tolerate him at all.

Mother Jones lists all of the many derogatory expressions used to describe Cruz throughout his career—"pompous a**hole," "carnival barker," "hyper arrogant," and "widely despised" among them—to answer the question of whether Cruz is "Really an Awful, Terrible Jerk?" (Conclusion: yes.) In April, Wonkette went even further back, chronicling Cruz's Princeton and Harvard years in a post entitled "Portrait of a Young A**hole," a tale of a younger Cruz's classroom misogyny, belligerence at pizza shops, and refusal to associate with anyone at "lesser Ivies." (That would be anything besides Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.)
Peggy Drexler
So how to explain Cruz's success in a business as people-oriented as politics? Even members of his own party, from George W. Bush to Bob Dole to John McCain, describe him as someone that people "cannot stand" -- a "counterfeit" with "no qualifications."
People like Cruz are all around us, of course -- at work, in our communities, coaching our children's sports teams, running our schools. Typically, though, the impulse is to avoid them, or learn to tolerate them. Not to reward them with re-election, never mind the hope of running an entire country.
Or is it? Turns out there's actually a scientific explanation for the Cruz paradox, and that behavior like his, among people at the top, is not all that uncommon. Though likability can play a role in workplace success -- typically, though certainly not always, with female bosses -- studies show that the unlikable often find great success in their fields. There are famous examples of this: Steve Jobs, as has been widely reported, was someone who could be really cruel towards his employees. Larry Ellison has been referred to as "the billionaire jerk."
What's more, the success these men have found is less about individuals learning to overcome their unsavory personality type and more about how and why we the public might respond favorably to such otherwise off-putting behavior.
Studies, including one published last month in the Journal of Business and Psychology, have found that disagreeable people -- those described as argumentative, aggressive, egotistical, and hostile -- are quite excellent at getting their ideas heard. That study found subjects who worked on a project as part of a team were far more likely to have their ideas used in the final product if those subjects were described as "disagreeable."
When it comes to politics, of course, being heard is more than half the battle. That's one way to explain Trump's meteoric rise, at least. And as it has been with Trump, even if people seem outraged by what they hear from and about Ted Cruz, they keep listening, perhaps responding less to the words than to the confidence with which those words are delivered: Studies have also shown that overconfident jerks are perceived as having more social status, which appeals to people, and also that the ruder someone acts, the more convinced most of the rest of us become that he/she is powerful.
Cruz isn't the only politician to have benefited from the public's tendency to respond favorably to the unpleasant: When Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders announced his presidential candidacy back in April, this site noted that Sanders "is sometimes gruff and blunt, dispensing with social niceties and usually getting right to the point." And, well, look at him now.
No one, not even his opponents, puts Sanders in the same category as Cruz. And yet their similarities, and the studies -- not to mention the polls -- show that Cruz's odds for success may be favorable not only despite his being so detestable but, in fact, because of it. Do jerks come out on top? In this case, let's hope not. But it certainly wouldn't be the first time.