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Misanthropy refers to the tendency in people to focus on others’ negative rather than positive characteristics and qualities. In social psychology, the tendency is reflected in people’s inclinations to regard the positive behaviors of others as being caused by the circumstances a person is in (e.g., abiding by prosocial norms or as a result of ulterior motives), but to see others’ negative behaviors as being caused by an individual’s own personality. Thus, when one is misanthropic, one credits others for their bad behavior but explains away and does not credit others for their good behavior. This also has implications for how much information one is willing to take in before judging others (more for supposed positive qualities).
The word misanthropy has also been used to refer to a belief that people in general are not to be trusted because they are driven by selfish motives with little concern for the group or the greater society. The misanthropic theme can be seen in related constructs, such as anomie and alienation, in the sociology literature, and it is also reflected in social science research that deals with the study of negative attitudes, such as prejudice toward people from different cultural groups. However, misanthropy is generally used to refer to a dislike of all humans, not just those who are members of groups to which one does not belong.
The concept of misanthropy is also reflected in many classics in political and social philosophy—for example, Machiavelli (1469–1527) and Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)—and in literature. A widely recognized example is the character Alceste from the comedic play Le Misanthrope (1666) by the French writer Molière (1622–1673). In the play, which takes place in seventeenth-century Paris, Alceste is disgusted by the corrupt and socially manipulative nature of human life. The play provides many details as to how Alceste has arrived at such attitudes and beliefs—namely, by being embroiled in lawsuits that are not judged in unbiased fashion and by his romantic interest, Célimène, a young widow who entices various suitors in addition to Alceste.
In Molière’s play, Alceste’s misanthropic attitude is the result of his negative life circumstances. In addition to such precipitating factors, a misanthropic attitude is usually thought to result from a person’s inadequacies or insecurities or his or her negative mood or outlook. For example, research has shown that people who are temporarily led to feel good about themselves before learning about a person they do not know, remember more positive and less negative things about the person. However, control participants nevertheless display a misanthropic outlook in their perceptions of others.
Thus, based on recent scientific research in social cognition, it can be said that misanthropes are not necessarily unusual or rare. In a sense, most people have the capacity for negative and ungenerous perceptions about others. What may distinguish this general sense of misanthropy from that ascribed to specific, individual misanthropes is that misanthropes become known for their misanthropy. Most people, though, may not want to be known for having such thoughts or feelings about their fellow human beings. The question then is, why should most people have a tendency to be misanthropic?
Social cognition research has provided an answer to this perplexing question. In modern times, most societies and the smaller social systems within them are relatively stable, in that most of the behavior people enact tends to be neutral or of a prosocial nature. Given that there is a norm for behavior that supports the group or society, most people when trying to make sense of others around them cannot assume that others behave prosocially because of the type of people they are. Other people might be behaving as they are because they are conforming to the established prosocial norm. Consequently, this leaves people, as social perceivers, with a sense of social uncertainty about others’ motives, thus laying the foundation for social vigilance and misanthropy. Thus, misanthropy may be taken to reflect a basic mental framework people use to make sense of others, with an eye to reducing interpersonal costs (i.e., assuming others are good and they turn out not to be). However, it is not impossible to change such views toward any one individual. People’s suspicions of another’s motives can be assuaged through more extended and positive social contact with that person. It might be that part of the basis for friendship rests in this process through which suspicions eventually give way to greater trust in others.
- Ybarra, Oscar, Misanthropic Person Memory When the Need to Self-enhance Is Absent. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 25 (2): 261–269.
- Ybarra, Oscar. Naive Causal Understanding of Valenced Behaviors and Its Implications for Social Information Processing. Psychological Bulletin 128 (3): 421–441.
- Ybarra, Oscar, and Walter Stephan. 1996. Misanthropic Person Memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 70 (4): 691–700.
- Ybarra, Oscar, and Walter Stephan. 1999. Attributional Orientations and the Prediction of Behavior: The Attribution-Prediction Bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76 (5): 718–727.
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