A Long Journey Through the Badlands

Bad People and EPM — The Emotional Pain Model of behavior

by F. Elliot Siemon

Mid 2013 the psychology site, UrbanMonk, posted a question: Why People Are Mean and What Can We Do. A topic occupying my attention as well, it was coming together in article form when noticing the question. UrbanMonk and another site picking up the article are no longer with us, but the good thing: an opportunity for an update here on one of my favorite sites.

Hostile, mean, nasty, back stabbing people seem so common we would expect it to be a Psy 101 issue. Though strangely off the radar, it has been an armchair study issue of mine for quite some time. If the EPM theory is correct there may be an explanation both as to the research deficit and why problematic personalities seem so common. There also is a relatively simple solution, but would take at least one generation to begin having any effect.

EUREKA MOMENTS- The Emotional Pain Model, developed from three main eureka moments, interwoven, intertwined by seemingly divergent and disconnected issues and experiences. The first indication was in high school; after school activities attracted none of the cool, or in crowd, instead, mostly those somewhat socially insecure- the out crowd. Ironically, fortuitously, in those years the self improvement emphasis was on “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (D. Carnegie). The main point, and that of its predecessor, “Think and Grow Rich” (N. Hill), is that if you are positive, uplifting, empathetic, friendly and helpful, you will attract the good graces of society’s shaker and movers — and prosper. Very simply, the theory goes, regardless of how mean a person might be, they are generally less likely to trash someone who holds them in high esteem, instead, more inclined to elevate them. But intending no disrespect to Carnegie or Hill, success of that approach depends on a number of critical factors: the percentage of mean people, degree of inclination to be bad or mean, their positions of power and/or responsibility, and whether they can accept someone’s compliment without regarding it as‘sucking up to them’, or ‘brown nosing’.

The first and most important eureka moment was reading a reference to the self explanatory sociological principal: Society’s Control of Excellence. It rang a lot of bells, because, at that time, though reserved in demeanor, the more experienced I became, the pickier, more contrived the issues, the shorter and shorter my stints of employment (Industrial Design). Much later, when an interviewer said that my portfolio “… is about the best I have seen”, it was clear from the total lack of response to my resume, my design career had reached its finale.

EUREKA MOMENT #2a & #2b- The second phase came midway in my design career. The pattern was similar to that of Society’s Control of Excellence, but there it seemed that my rage-a-holic employer was trying to keep the staff as unhappy as she was. Then, reading a line in a psych book that schizophrenics seemed in a constant state of emotional pain, it started me mulling the issues more closely.

Going back to college the third time, I switched from Bus/Mgt to Criminal Justice-pre Law with an extra heavy elective emphasis on behavioral science. (Some experiences had turned my interest toward the criminal justice, criminal psy and law, but that is another story…)

Following the turbulent termination of my marriage (my ex became increasingly delusional and combative), I began exploring various social groups, where some critical issues fell into place. From one sizable social circle there were two ladies I ran across around the city and asked why they don’t come by anymore. They both said essentially the same thing, that “people don’t go there to socialize”. That got my attention.

Then just as I was becoming known and had attracted the attention of a couple of better looking ladies, suddenly, even good friends and couples I have known for a while began avoiding me. There was the queasy, uneasy feeling that something was going around, but what? Was it my imagination.. was it paranoia, or… real? Apparently my limited social success had been noticed… It took a couple of years of hanging in there, but I happened to turn back to a lady I had been talking to. Coming up behind him, a big fellow known as “Crazy Eddy” had leaned over to her and said, “Don’t ya know y’ suppose’ t’ associate with MEN?”.

THE MODEL BEGINS TO TAKE FORM- Any of the emotional pain causing problems are rarely as bad as imagined. More of a delusion than reality, the deeper, more frequent they are, the more frequent the displacement defense reactions, projecting, and the more problematic a person can be. No matter what the problem, many studies indicate, emotional distress/pain demands a more immediate response than pleasure. We are even taught that delayed gratification provides a greater gain or pleasure than taking immediate gratification. Enduring the pain of abstinence is associated with thrift, virtue and has become socially acceptable: no pain — no gain.

EUREKA #3- While looking over the book case of a med-student friend, a psych test prep’ book caught my attention. Magically, it happened to open to a question, something about the percentage of population that was, something… whatever. Not knowing the answer I checked the answer in the back. It said, according to the Midtown Manhattan Study (fn-1, a-c), 81% of those surveyed had some level of behavioral dysfunction, 23% were markedly psychologically impaired and 19% were relatively free of psychological problems.

Suddenly, the reason Carnegie and Hill’s premise didn’t seem to work, became clear. It was the reason why a cheery “Good morning” too often made office enemies, why becoming better in your field can get you fired, and why social success caused Crazy Eddy’s heinous backlash — not only the issue of excellence, just being above the crowd in some way, for those with various behavioral problems, or just insecure- the majority — it heightens their emotional pain; they desperately want to be happy, the only way they can, is by acting out.

THE EPM BOTTOM LINE- Emotional and/or physical problems, whatever the cause, results in varying degrees of emotional pain, and those afflicted, like Crazy Eddie, displace and project, revealing their problem(s); — they are the majority and…

.. tend to bring those around them down below their level of unhappiness and pain.

If this observer’s conclusions are correct, emotional pain is the primary engine, the device driver of society and even world history. Becoming tuned to it’s nuances is perhaps the most valuable psychological position because it explains more of general social behavior than anything I have read so far. As distinguished from schadenfreude, pleasure at someone else’s misfortune (more on this below), this might better be described as relief, or pleasure, that when one can cause or heighten the emotional pain of another (though some might describe their feelings as pleasure or delight). But like a fix it is only temporary because the underlying cause, unless treated via analysis and/or therapy, is pervasive- it does not go away. Example: the reason criminal behavior is repetitive.

Finally it became clear what was going on regarding the sabotage, from social groups to employment. Those socially insecure and/or with relationship problems are more attracted to the social aspects of society, and even in employment, they respond to seeing relationships or some form of excellence with a displacement defense, acting out their emotional pain. If they can’t have productive relationships or come up with killer ideas like Elliot, no one can. We commonly call it jealousy, but it is their response to anything that spikes their emotional pain, playing out via sabotage.

You are already aware that people also try to spread their misery and have refined their radar for similar people (misery loves company — misery needs company) and that is what social situations and employment provides. If they can convince others that their irrational ruminations, fears or point of view is real, then it supports their reality, and they feel better, at least for the moment. A psychiatrist friend, musing aloud, once said, “hmmm… reality is what people believe it is”. Several other observers are attributed with the observation that “reality is nothing more than a collective hunch”. Differentiating between the nebulous, contrived or delusional realm and reality, is largely the function of the scientific method and psychoanalysis, but that doesn’t help much if the problem is someone nefariously telling you, your spouse you’ve been seen around town with someone else.

And, we’re all aware that what one says about another person — that projecting says more about the orator than they are saying about the subject. But I have yet to see any reference to what people believe, which to me, follows the same principal. Like, if on someone’s word, your spouse believes that you are unfaithful — they may not have acted upon it, but the thought of cheating likely has crossed their mind as well.

Rumor mongers, perfecting their craft of spreading emotional pain, develop ‘radar’ to identify who would buy into their game as well as what a person’s hot button might be. Those confidants become buddies of subterfuge with part of their game being, not telling the subject what it is that is going around. It works because those who know, being in the majority, are sufficiently in the emotional pain loop they are not motivated to ruin the joke by blowing the cover.

WHY, AND WHAT CAN BE DONE- Where does all this come from, and why so prevalent? Perhaps the answer can largely be explained by certain studies regarding schizophrenia. The first that I noticed was a British study on why people with deeper skin tone (to me we are all the same color, just a different tone) seemed to be more prone to schizophrenia. The conclusion implicated pregnancy, vitamin D and sunlight: the deeper the skin tone the more filtered the sunlight, complicated in norther latitudes by the increased amount of clothing, especially in the winter. There has also been a backlash so to speak against sun exposure because of it’s aging affect and increased possibility of melanoma. (fn2). And where else do we find increased clothing, even in warm climates? The interesting thing is that we find the problem in the same place as tyrannic militancy has arisen one generation following a certain religious revival and its extremely modest female dress code, some holding to full, head, hands to toe clothing. Within the framework of the EPM, the indiscriminate violence, often against their own people — you can imagine the level of emotional pain driving such behavior.

Viewed another way, the problem with problematic, violent and terroristic behavior, regardless of origin, has a silver lining, either more sun for pregnant women, more vitamin D, or a bit more of both. Nevertheless, becoming tuned to and sensing emotional pain can either help interpersonal navigation or if not, explains the difficulties one runs into. Among the dead give-aways is a short fuse — anyone experiencing emotional pain is closer to losing it. A person who seems always to be acting is struggling for control. Also, what bothers a person, whether they indicate any frivolous issues, projection and/or delusion. Other give-aways are upmanship and put-downs. Those that slip by your observations are likely those with a more refined masking behavior. With masking behaviors, the person not only knows they have a problem, but fairly clearly what that problem is (how else could they effectively mask it).

This brings us to why the scant research on bad, mean people — because the behavioral science field is not immune. Likely there is a larger percentage of potentially problematic practitioners in the field than we’d guess. Either they feel OK about themselves (after all, they are in the majority — the eye can not see itself) and/or have entered the field as part of their masking behavior.

There is a fine article touching on the EPM issue, The Secret to Having Happy Employees (fn 3). Relating to the old adage about one bad apple in a barrel, he author observes that: “Bad management can make a good employee dysfunctional. On the other hand, good management will not always make a dysfunctional employee good.” and he weeds out unhappy staff members. But because even one bad employee can bring a good business down, a peremptory psyche test for employment candidates always seemed to make good business sense. Sadly there is no magic bullet, no super hero to make it all better. Those who recognize themselves as pain driven, should seek therapy — there are constructive solutions. Societies with extra modest dress codes for women should adopt something like pregnant women only sun sessions along with appropriate diet and supplements. The issue is gaining more and more attention. Hopefully, in 20+ years there will be reports of lower reliance on therapy, a drop off in crime and terrorism, and hopefully increasing world peace and understanding.

Getting back to schadenfreude, The distinction is that the EPM involves a first person actor while, with schadenfreude one is not the cause of the misfortune, just an observer. In a social situation there can be both at play, an actor obviously ‘puts someone down’ and those seeing the interaction, are pleased. But there is another set of mechanisms that often come into play, that of thought contagion and emotional contagion. People can deduce that, for example, there is a reason no one is talking to a certain individual and conclude that there is a reason for it.

And so it goes, at work, play, social gatherings and events, a production of pleasure and pain playing out as if on a stage.

ADDENDUM- Recently a friend asked, why do psychopaths act the way they do. Without thinking, my reaction was that is not a question of why- that is what they do. Mulling the rather subconscious reaction, a story came to mind, that of a fellow who jumped off of the tram and into the tiger area of a naturalized zoo: the tigers killed him.. not why.. because.. that is what tigers do. There was the realization that psychopaths with their inflated sense of self worth, superiority, and lacking any semblance of empathy are like the tigers, they are animalistic, doing what animals do. Like animals, they lack the mental faculties, sensitivities, empathy and forethought of well adjusted humans. The psychopath’s emotional pain is not being able to, or being in a position to vanquish an opponent, like get someone fired, so they charm their way into positions where they can do damage because that is the only ting that gives them pleasure and what they do.

There is also the recollection of something that happened back in college. A gal I ended up working with on a student paper said, that at a Rutgers Newark dance, she happened to be by the table of those organizing the event. Noticing me, she ask them, “Who is that guy?” One replied, “Oh, that’s Elliot. He’s sooo intent on getting… ma-RRRRied..” My school was in New York; how Rutgers, NJ people knew me, I can’t figure. And obviously, what the Rutgers girl said indicated her emotional pain in sabotaging the NY girl’s interest, and that, I perked her thought of marriage- projecting.

There was also the realization that narcissists, those with borderline personality disorder, sociopaths and psychopaths, because of heightened sense of self worth and lacking empathy are the types that require group involvement because they can not exercise their predatory inclinations in a vacuum- they need you.


(1a) Mental Health in the Metropolis: The Midtown Manhattan Study, (1962) http://bit.ly/2ejYk5d

(1b) “Prevalence of DSM-IV Disorder in a Representative, Healthy Birth Cohort at School Entry: Sociodemographic Risks and Social Adaptation”: As children transition from day care to formal schooling, 21.6% will have a psychiatric disorder with impairment. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; July, ‘10.

(1c) DSM-1V: 28% or 29% of the population in managed care plans, adjudged to need mental health treatment per year. (This stat has been criticized as seeming a bit high.)

(2) Schizophrenia, Immigrants, and Vitamin D, by Marie-José Dealberto, MD, PhD, http://bit.ly/2e6J7ot . The article covers a broad range including what is covered here, but on the issue of high schizophrenia among immigrants, I have an explanation for that which might be another article.

(3) The Secret to Having Happy Employees, by Jay Goltz, NYT., http://nyti.ms/2ejCNFn