Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

What Makes a Personality Scary?

I’ve noticed recently that I sometimes find myself a little afraid of people’s personalities. It’s kind of a weird experience: it makes sense to be afraid of people and other things that can hurt you, but being afraid of a personality? It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Personalities can seem quirky or interesting, but scary?

At first, I thought this was simply an odd personal tic, since you don’t exactly hear anyone else talking about it. But on reflection, you sometimes do. Imagine a movie, the heroine character learning about some shocking evil deed the brave male lead has committed. “I don’t even know who you are anymore,” she sobs. “You’re starting to scare me.”

What’s frightening, it would seem, is that people aren’t the way we expected. They seemed to be brave and kind-hearted, but when the moment was right they were capable of being crafty and manipulative. We’re shocked, at first, because it’s not what we expected. “But he seemed so nice… How could he do that?” Then we’re upset, because at some level it seems like dishonesty. “He made me think he was a good person, yet he’s capable of so much bad.” And finally, we’re scared, because if we were wrong about him, then our view of the world seems a little bit off.1

Having the world be off is frightening. I remember once I found myself at Caltrain’s Milbrae station late at night. Milbrae is a huge new station, a sprawling complex complete with a subway, 10 bus stops, a train, and a huge parking garage. There’s nothing really around it for quite a bit and it’s all open-air, with the cold night air chilling me in my shirt, as I was transferring between the subway and the train. On the way to the train tracks, I checked the schedule. The next train was at 10:47 it said; it was 10:40, so I hurried downstairs to wait for the train. I sat down and got out my book, waiting, and waiting, while the train never came. I checked the clock — it was past 10:47, well past. So I checked the downstairs schedule. There was no 10:47 train. I ran upstairs to see if the schedule I’d read was simply out-of-date. It had no 10:47 train either, nothing even close. I was certain I had read it saying 10:47 — the memory was clear in my mind, and I’d followed the line with my finger to make sure I had the right station.

I suddenly got quite scared. What was going on? Was I in a dream? Was someone sneaking around the schedules on me? Was I the victim of some practical joke? The fabric of my reality was being torn — something clearly impossible had happened: a time had disappeared off a train schedule. Things weren’t working the way I expected.

I later figured out, of course, that nothing so devious had happened. In my hurry to catch the subway, I’d read the wrong side of the schedule — the train was at 10:47am, not 10:47pm, and when I went back to look for the time I looked at the right side of the schedule and, naturally, the train wasn’t there. But my larger point is that tears in the way we think things work are scary. If things are this bad when a piece of paper doesn’t say what we expect, it’s not surprising that it’s worse when people we know don’t behave the way we thought.

I say we here, but as I mentioned at the start, I seem to be a bit alone on this. One possibility is that I’m hypersensitive to such emotions. Other people might simply feel a prick at such a scheduling anomaly, but I feel it as full-blown fear. Another (more flattering) possibility is that I’m more perceptive about people than others; since others don’t notice the duplicity, they don’t feel the associated fear.

The latter makes some sense to me, as the things that make me scared of people are often very subtle, and others don’t seem to recognize them at all, even when I ask them about it specifically. Even I can’t quite put my finger on what it is sometime, it’s just a subtle signal that the person isn’t being straight with you, that what they’re saying sounds honest and friendly, but is actually manipulative. It’s not a pleasant feeling.

  1. In talking about this sequence of emotions (shocked, upset, scared), I’m referring to a logical progression, not an actual one. I don’t really feel all of these things in order upon seeing someone scary, just the last. But the other emotions are what gets you to the last. 

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July 17, 2006


People have different emotional reactions when experiencing their view of the world being broken. Me, i love it. I used to switch the orientation (head to foot) of my sleeping in bed so that when i awoke i would be disoriented and have one view in my mind that might be at odds with reality. I did that so that i could get that “Oh my god, i’m wrong” feeling again when the world suddenly twisted around me. If you experience fright, it may be that you are too accustomed to the security of being right.

posted by Seth Russell on July 17, 2006 #

The feeling? It’s called “charisma”. :-B :-B :-B

Yes, when you’re talking with someone full of charisma, be afraid. Be very afraid.

posted by bi on July 17, 2006 #

Hmm, Seth’s got a point — I do enjoy stuff seeing my worldview put crazy like that. I wonder where the line gets drawn.

posted by Aaron Swartz on July 17, 2006 #

Well i think some of us enjoy teasing that line … maybe the world needs more of that. Can you see the world from the point of view of the Hezbollah ? I mean really see it from that view? Can you see it clear enought that you could talk some sense into them … or is that a contradiction ? Can you see from an Israeli eye ? Can you convince him that terror on terror = more terror and that you cannot wipe it out? Is America to go on a holy war against radical Islam as William F Buckley suggests [1]? Will that help the equation? Seeing from others eyes is a high art … we need more of it … being secure that one is right is, when things get hard, just more emotional static.
[1] http://fastblogit.com/permalink/?item=3944

posted by Seth Russell on July 17, 2006 #

Occasionally I catch myself in a conversation in which I’m making sure math still works. This often results in people thinking I’m upset with them for doing math incorrectly, but I’m really just upset that they might be doing math correctly, and math itself is broken. I think you can see some similar reactions here to the assertion that 0.999… is equal to 1:


People get downright pissed off when you violate their expectations of something so seemingly basic as two numbers being equal.

posted by Scott Reynen on July 17, 2006 #

I enjoyed your story about the Millbrae BART station. It’s easy to get lost; waiting for a car to pick you up on the east side, for example, when the car is already waiting for you on the west side. Cell phones help in that case.

The reason for this note: you might find that graphology is a useful tool for personality analysis.

posted by Graph O. Logy on July 18, 2006 #

I don’t really know what prompted this post, but I get the impression you’re not being realistic in dealing with people, either holding preconceptions about how virtuous they ought to be, or mistaking the personas they project for their less wholesome personalities. The reason the heroine sobs is because she’s in love, which often makes you blind. But if you routinely delude yourself about people you’re not in love with, you have a different problem.

posted by Mike Sierra on July 19, 2006 #

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