Are you an asshole?
For decades, this was the kind of question you had to ponder alone, eyes wide open in the middle of the night as memories of "insisting on a solo rap at the work Christmas karaoke" nudged at the perimeters of your brain. Thankfully, everything changed in June of 2013 with the creation of the subreddit "Am I the Asshole" – or "AITA" to fans.
By now – after a viral tweet by Chrissy Teigen, multiple online articles and a spin-off podcast – you're probably familiar with AITA. To recap: users recount real-life conflicts and ask the subreddit's subscribers whether they behaved like an asshole. Judgment then rains down in the form of acronyms: YTA (you're the asshole); NTA (not the asshole); ESH (everyone sucks here); and NAH (no a-holes here).
There are now 1.2 million AITA subscribers who peruse over 800 new posts every day. In the last few months alone they've judged a boss who fired their employee after his parents died (asshole!), a person who told their friend "his art sucks and he won't amount to much in life" (not an asshole!) and a man who cancelled his wedding because his fiancé accidentally fed his dog drugs (everyone sucks here!). But who exactly are the people making these judgment calls? Who are the internet's arbiters of right and wrong, and how do we know they're not all giant assholes themselves?
With the help of the sub's moderators, I undertook a survey of AITA users in August of 2019. Over 15,000 people completed the survey – a significant response, but still only a modest 1.5 percent of the sub's total users. A small number of responses from obvious bots and trolls were deleted from the sample (apologies to the widowed teen Satanist living in Antarctica; if your data has been removed in error, call me).
Unsurprisingly, the survey found that the demographics of AITA are largely in line with the demographics of Reddit itself. Over 68 percent of the internet's asshole-arbiters are in North America and 22 percent are in Europe, while over 80 percent are white. The survey also found that 77 percent of AITA subscribers are aged between 18 to 34 years old, with over 10 percent aged under 18 and only 3.4 percent aged 45 and over.
While this isn't unusual for Reddit, it is interesting for AITA when we consider the ages of people who Western society traditionally turns to for guidance and judgment: the average American Catholic priest is 63, more than 80 percent of magistrates in the UK are over 50, and the average age of a marriage and family therapist in California is 56.4 years old.
Speaking of marriage, the majority of the sub's users (just under 70 percent) have never been married – again, unsurprising when you consider both AITA's age demographics and Reddit's overall propensity to insist you divorce your wife after one argument. More surprisingly, the survey found that 63 percent of AITA subscribers identify as female, in contrast to popular stereotypes of Reddit as an overwhelmingly male space.
It is worth noting here, however, that some studies have found that women are typically more likely to complete surveys than men. One of AITA's moderators, Marc Beaulac, a 42-year-old photographer from Rhode Island, says he frequently deals with disruptive behaviour from "angry, disaffected teen boys looking for a forum to be cruel to strangers or spread the beliefs of their radicalising male fringe groups", and believes these users may have been less likely to take the survey.
Finally, it almost goes without saying that the "other" box on the survey's gender question became a playground for Reddit's budding comedians: multiple users identified as an attack helicopter, a few took the opportunity to declare "THERE ARE ONLY TWO GENDERS", and one user claimed to be a washing machine. It is possible, then, that the sub doesn't actually significantly skew female.
But what about the political and religious beliefs of the sub's users, the things that arguably most effect the judgments they pass on their peers? The sub is overwhelmingly left-leaning, with 40 percent of users calling themselves left-wing, 22 percent identifying as centre-left and 12.6 percent considering themselves far left.
Asked how liberal they are regarding social issues, 83 percent of the sub placed themselves between very liberal and slightly liberal, with only a minority identifying as socially conservative. Regarding economic issues, 60 percent of the sub consider themselves liberal and 13 percent consider themselves middle-of-the-road moderates, with conservative beliefs once again being in the minority.
Remarkably, over a quarter of the sub were raised Catholic – arguably no explanation is needed for why a subreddit about moral judgments appeals to those raised on the concept of mortal sin. Most of the Catholics on AITA are lapsed, however, as only 4.1 percent of the sub consider themselves Catholic today. When it comes to users' present-day religion, 2 percent are Jewish, 1 percent are Muslim, less than 1 percent are Hindu and under 15 percent are Christian. Over 35 percent of the sub say they are atheist and 30 percent claim to be agnostic, while 65 percent say they "never" attend religious services.
Yet all of this is a little vague when it comes to really understanding the belief systems behind the subreddit that calls itself "a catharsis for the frustrated moral philosopher in all of us". What are the sub's moral beliefs, and how do you go about measuring something like that?
In the early-2000s, University of Southern California psychologist Jesse Graham and New York University business ethics professor Jonathan Haidt developed a concept called "moral foundations theory". The academics argued that our moral judgments are based upon our intuitive emotions when confronted with a scenario, and that there are five moral foundations that influence our reactions: harm, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity.
Though all of us vary in how much we value the different foundations, there are some patterns. Using a 30-question survey they developed with University of Virginia psychologist Brian Nosek, Graham and Haidt began measuring morality in 2008. Over the last decade, results from their Moral Foundations Questionnaire (MFQ) have shown that self-identified liberals are more sensitive to the harm and fairness moral foundations, and care less about loyalty, authority and purity.
"We found that, over hundreds of thousands of people taking surveys all across the world, you get that pattern: liberals have a two-factor morality, and conservatives have a five-factor morality," says Peter Ditto, a psychology professor at the University of California Irvine, who helps run yourmorals.org, a website where you can take the MFQ. While liberal morality is grounded in how much harm an action causes someone, and whether it's fair, conservatives are additionally sensitive to group loyalty and authority (and thus tend to care more about patriotism), and are also concerned with ideas about bodily purity regarding sex and drugs.
As part of my survey, I set the MFQ for AITA's Redditors, who had to rank how much they agreed with statements like "Chastity is an important and valuable virtue", "It's morally wrong that rich children inherit a lot of money while poor children inherit nothing", "People should not do things that are disgusting, even if no one is harmed" and "Compassion for those who are suffering is the most crucial virtue".
The survey’s results were analysed by Daniel Relihan, a Ph.D. student in psychological science at the University of California Irvine, and a researcher at the university's Hot Cognition Lab with Ditto. Relihan converted the survey's text responses into numeric responses using the MFQ's scoring guide, and calculated the means and standard deviations for each moral foundation: the results are in the table below (due to an error in the survey, three questions were missing, so three of the foundations are scored out of 25, and two out of 30; Relihan included percentages to aid comparison).
The sub's results were in line with its self-declared left-wing politics: the foundations they value most are harm and fairness, while they value purity the least.
Yet not everyone who uses AITA does so in the same way. Some turn to the sub to genuinely ask for advice, others prefer to offer their opinions, while still more tend to lurk silently, judging posts from afar. In the survey, the mods and I asked subscribers how and why they use the sub. Just over half of the survey's respondents identified as lurkers – people who have never posted or commented on AITA – while 32 percent had commented in the past, 14 percent commented "sometimes" and 3.6 percent "frequently" left comments.
When asked to choose one primary reason for visiting AITA, 43 percent said they "enjoy the opportunity to privately consider moral scenarios", while 39 percent simply "enjoy reading the posts because they are entertaining". Just over 7 percent said they primarily enjoy passing judgment on others either privately or publicly in a comment. Only 2.7 percent said their primary reason for using the sub was to help the original poster with their dilemma, while a further 0.2 percent admitted using the sub to shitpost.
By comparing these results with the MFQ results, Relihan uncovered some interesting patterns. "Participants who scored higher on the binding foundations [loyalty, authority, and purity] were more likely to say they use the subreddit because they enjoy the opportunity to publicly pass judgment on others," Relihan explains – although he notes that, because there is no control factor, these are what's known as "zero-order correlations", and other confounding variables could influence results. As such, no causality can be claimed.
With that caveat, Relihan also found that participants who scored higher on the binding foundations were more likely to say they use the subreddit because they enjoy shitposting, while participants who scored higher on individualising foundations (harm and fairness) were more likely to say they use AITA because they enjoy the opportunity to help others with real dilemmas.
There were also a number of interesting written-in responses. A handful of subscribers, some of who said they have autism, claimed they use the sub to learn about interpersonal relationships and improve their own behaviour. "The past has made me worry a lot about being an asshole, and I wanna make sure I understand how not to be an ass," wrote one user. A handful of others said they use the posts to generate discussions with family, friends and partners in real life. A social worker said they "enjoy the opportunity to openly refer to someone as an asshole with no repercussions", while one individual wrote: "other people's problems distract me from my own".
In a sentiment that may be familiar to frequent visitors of the sub, one user writes that they "enjoy watching other people try to bend a story to make them appear to not be an asshole". More often than not, post titles on AITA will be shocking and seem like completely cut-and-dry cases – "AITA for despising my mentally handicap sister?", "AITA for purposely stopping my classmate from winning an award and subsequently making her cry?", "AITA for spraying the neighbourhood kids with my garden hose?" – yet the post itself will offer unexpected twists and turns that justify the original poster's behaviour (all three of the above users were designated NTAs).
"There's no question that people are self-serving – they tend to give themselves the benefit of the doubt," says Ditto. "But what's interesting is that they seem to convince a lot of people [on the sub]."
Ditto explains that there's a phenomenon in psychology known as "actor-observer asymmetry". In essence, when we are the actor, we judge our own behaviour by situational factors, whereas when we are the observer we attribute other people's behaviour to an overall aspect of their personality. For example: if you push past a stranger to get on the tube, it's because you're late and having a bad day, whereas, if they do it, it's because they're an ass.
"What people are doing in this Reddit is providing observers with the same information that they as actors have," Ditto says. "Once you give an outside observer that same kind of information, they tend to think like you."
Arguably, then, AITA could teach us to be more understanding and empathetic – and actually allow us to break away from our own moral biases and begin to consider other perspectives. As such, perhaps the survey's results are irrelevant and AITA's users continually alter their own moral beliefs. Yet the sub's mods say its users still have some way to go in being more empathetic with their moral judgments.
"People get really angry at the 'assholes' here. I think it's because people see times they were wronged reflected in these stories and react as though the 'asshole' in the story has done harm to them personally," says a moderator who goes by the username TheOutrageousClaire. "I wish that people were better at having empathy for everyone involved. Everyone is the asshole at one time or another."
So are the users of AITA assholes themselves? Certainly, some of them can be from time to time. Overall, the survey found that they are largely a group of young, left-wing individuals who value harm and fairness above loyalty, authority, and purity. And one of them is a washing machine.