Delia Ephron, a best-selling American author, screenwriter, and playwright, published an essay in the New York Times entitled “Ouch, My Personality, Reviewed” that is a superb example of what Freud called “the psychopathology of everyday life.” She starts the essay by noting that she recently used Uber, and the driver told her that if she received one more bad review, “…no driver will pick you up.” She reports that this feedback triggered some “obsessive” soul searching: she wondered how she could have created such a bad score as an Uber passenger when she had only used the service six times. She then reviewed her trips, noting that, although she had often behaved badly (“I do get short tempered when I am anxious”), in each case extenuating circumstances caused her behavior. She even got a bad review after a trip during which she said very little: “Perhaps I simply am not a nice person and an Uber driver sensed it.”
The essay is interesting because it is prototypical of people who can’t learn from experience. For example, when Ms. Ephron reviewed the situations in which she mistreated Uber drivers, she spun each incident to show that her behavior should be understood in terms of the circumstances—the driver’s poor performance—and not in terms of her personality. Perhaps situational explanations are the last refuge of both neurotics and social psychologists?
In addition, although the situations changed, she behaved the same way in each of them: she complained, she nagged and micro-managed the drivers, she lost her temper, and she broadcast her unhappiness to the world. Positive behavior may or may not be consistent across situations, but negative behavior certainly is. And the types of negative behaviors she displayed fit the typology defined by the Hogan Development Survey (HDS), an inventory of the maladaptive behaviors that occur when people are dealing with others with less power and think no one important is watching them.
All her actions had a manipulative intent—Ms. Ephron wanted to compel a fractious driver to obey her. Her behaviors were tactical in that they gave her short-term, one-off wins—she got her way; but the behaviors become counterproductive when she has to deal with the same people repeatedly—or when she is dealing with NYC Uber drivers. Strategic players carefully control what Irving Goffman called “their leaky channels”, the behavioral displays that provide information regarding a player’s character or real self. The tactical Ms. Ephron seems unable to control her leaky channels.
It was also interesting to learn that, although Ms. Ephron has been in psychotherapy for years, the way she mistreats “little people” seemingly never came up. This highlights the difference between intrapsychic and interpersonal theories of personality. From an intrapsychic perspective, emotional distress creates problems in relationships; fix the emotional problems and the relationships will take care of themselves. From an interpersonal perspective, problems in relationships create emotional distress—fix the relationships (behave better) and the emotional problems will take care of themselves. In the first model, intrapsychic issues disrupt relationships; in the second model, disrupted relationships cause intrapsychic issues.
As further evidence that Ms. Ephron lacks a strategic understanding of social behavior, she is surprised to learn that other people keep score of her behavior. This means that she pays no attention to her reputation. But her reputation is the best source of data other people have concerning how to deal with her. She might not care about her reputation, but those who deal with her do. All the data suggest that she will have the same reputation with hair dressers, psychotherapists, and purse repair people as she does with the Uber drivers of New York.
Finally, people flunk Uber the same way as they become unemployable and then flunk life—they flunk one interaction at a time. After every interaction there is an accounting process, after which something is added to or subtracted from peoples’ reputations. The score accumulates over time and at some point, the Uber drivers refuse to pick them up. Ms. Ephron is a successful artist, and her success buys her a degree of idiosyncratic credit—she is allowed to misbehave in the artistic community—but there are consequences when she misbehaves in the larger community of ordinary actors.