Does it pay to be a jerk?


Ann Coulter recently managed to remind us that she's still around by saying yet another stupid thing.

Now, I'm not going to defend or attack Coulter. I think what she said was a dumb attempt at a bad joke, but I'm not interested in what Ann believes. I'm interested in how she manages to survive by doing little more than upset people.

Of course, the press eats it up for fear of appearing biased and liberal. Fox News let Alan Colmes "talk tough" to Coulter before letting all the other commentators talk about just how great she is. This is how Coulter remains relevant. Even she seems to be aware of just how boring the whole routine has become. As she said to Alan Colmes on Hannity & Colmes:

I mean, this is the same thing we go through every six months. I say something, the same people become hysterical, and that's the end of it.

And I think she's right. Even though some more conservative people have jumped up to condemn her comments, this doesn't hurt her. As Fox News Pat Caddell said:

It was very funny. They were raising money with it. So at least you raised money for them, Ann, but I'm sure it won't hurt any of your book sales either.

Ah. There's the rub. It won't hurt any of her book sales. No, quite the contrary, it will actually help them. It doesn't matter that some people think that Ann went too far or that some companies pulled their ads off of her website. What matters is that we are talking about her. A lot.

Offending people is Coulter's job, her schtick. Like a lot of other political commentators, Coulter exists mainly to stir up people's emotions. And her usual method is to be offensive. Bullying people is how she makes her living, and it doesn't seem to hurt her. Ever. But I wonder if it applies in the real world. Is Coulter a bully hyperbole, an extreme example of bad behavior getting good results?

Is being a bully financially savvy? Does it pay to be a jerk?

I know I'm showing my liberal colors (pass the tofu, please) by linking to This American Life, but ruminating on Coulter's book sales reminded me of an episode of that show called Mean Friends. It's a great show, one of my favorites, and in Act 2, the shows producers put together a little experiment (to listen to the show for free, go to This American Life and search for show 245; the date is 9/5/03).

Does Niceness Pay? In which we conduct a little scientific experiment – on tape – with hidden microphones - about whether niceness pays. We wire two waitresses with hidden microphones. They're superfriendly to half their tables; and aloof to the other half. They examine their tips to see which generates more profits.

I'm going to go ahead and spoil it: niceness, in this experiment, does not pay. The aloof tables pay more in tips. Why is this? I can't imagine a time in which I tipped someone well for not-so-hot service, but apparently it works for some people.

We already know that beautiful people make more money, on average, than not-so-beautiful people. People who drink more earn more than people who don't imbibe (is that because only beautiful people can get into the good bars and clubs?). We've all seen this in action, so it's no surprise. But what about mean people? Can you earn more by being a bully? Or is it such a niche market that only a select few can manage it?

I don't see much in the way of research in this area, possibly because "mean" is pretty hard to quantify. Are the people that we often perceive of as bullies really just extremely aggressive, outspoken people who ruffle feathers but tell it like it is?

What about Wise Breaders? Think of the most successful people that you know, even if they aren't close to you - are they jerks? Have you ever done better in your job or career by bullying someone?

Disclaimer: The links and mentions on this site may be affiliate links. But they do not affect the actual opinions and recommendations of the authors.

Wise Bread is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to

Lynn Truong's picture

jonathan gold was on this american life talking about this big bully at his school who constantly picked on him. the bully pushed him down the stairs.  he was the type of bully that would walk across the street just to be mean to someone.  jonathan gold grew up to be a popular newspaper writer.  the bully grew up to become Jack Abramoff.

Tannaz Sassooni's picture

first of all, i love that episode of this american life.. but, another place this occurs, and i hate to mention it, is dating. that whole 'nice guys finish last' business. much to my amazement and deep deep frustration, i've brought that line to life on more than one occasion. girls, why do we do this? (yikes, am i revealing too much?)

Guest's picture

The Ann Coulter stuff is boring, but at least there is a pony somewhere under all that manure with the interesting example of the waitresses.

I would be interested in which people tended to tip more for bad attitudes, and what approach they took to spending. Personally, I wield my tips as a cudgel, and poor or unfriendly service never yields a tip of any kind--and I do tip generously for good, friendly service.

Is it because we prize frugality, that is we appreciate costs more? Whereas someone who is more of a spendthrift may just robotically tip because they want to be seen by their companions as the sort of person who can't be bothered to evaluate the attitudes of the staff. (This also touches on the psychology behind tipping, for it seems to be as much to impress those we are with as to reward good service. Would anyone paying for his date's meal be caught stiffing the waitress?)

The paradoxical thing is that people would not tip friendly waitresses at least as much as unfriendly ones. Maybe they just think the unfriendly ones are overworked, so they are increasing their tips out of pity. I can't fathom that logic myself but it could be a factor.

Guest's picture

I'm pretty sure that Stephen Colbert, John Stewart, and especially Bill Maher ALSO get increased sales by things that may not seem offensive to you as a liberal, but conservatives are not exactly ROTFL over.

Why not highlight *them* in this post?

And if I'm not mistaken, John Edwards is "not commenting" by making money off of her comments. So maybe it's a win win for all

Andrea Karim's picture

You're totally missing the point of the post. I'm wondering if we reward meanness, and if so, why? The point isn't that Coulter's a conservative and thus a cruel person. It's that she's a great big bully and she's applauded for it. She's not alone in this, she's just a prominent example.


Guest's picture

IMO, I think she needs some good luvins. Maybe she has been slighted by too many men, and this is her way of getting back at the world.

Perhaps something happened in her life that has made her the way she is, and once she confronts it and lets it go, she will stop using her uncouth tactics and actually become a respected commentator.

Guest's picture

I think maybe aloof waiters scare people into giving them more money. They seem to think that they are better than you and so you tip them as if they are.

Guest's picture

The local paper that actually carried her column has dumped it and will no longer carry it after this latest comment, but Ann has created controversy with her comments that is what her column did was strive to shock. So I am not sure why the paper responded the way they did, except maybe because of the famous group here in Topeka that often uses the same term. A group the rest of the city (including me) and the world condemns.

Guest's picture

I work in a bar. I've got two female bartenders, both very attractive girls, one is sweet to just about everybody and the other loves yelling things like "shut the F#$% up and order!"... shes a super nice girl, but she knows that with a lot of guys (especially rich, older, white businessmen), being this aloof bitch really increases her tips. One guy comes back week after week and almost always throws her a hundred dollar bill, and she's nothing but mean to the guy. The girls have a pretty great good cop/bad cop routine worked out whenever they figure out if a guy wants the nice treatment or the bitchy treatment... more often they respond to the bitchy treatment with bigger tips...
Unfortunately this almost never works with women... thats when I step in to get the ladies to tip (-;

Guest's picture

Coulter used to provide actual (good) commentary, but yes: now her shtick is merely to anger people by being provocative. I used to really like her, but she's totally crossed the line a couple of times now, and does not appear to actually care anymore about presenting a case.

Guest's picture

Tips give regular wage slaves a chance to be boss for a brief span. If their "table employee" is a little snotty, they leave a bigger tip to show that they want to be friends - the nice one is already their friend so they don't have to impress, in my opinion.

Andrea Karim's picture

So, on my Violent Acres post from ages ago, I just saw the following ad:


Can you imagine?

Hey, she offers free email! Yeesh.