I came across this post by Digby about the narcissism of CEOs, which is worth a read. One of the things I think a lot of academics have a hard time understanding is how common antisocial personality disorders can be in positions of power outside of academia. In my experience, sociopaths and narcissists–and I use those terms in their clinical sense, not as synonyms for asshole–are really infrequent in academia. This isn’t because scientists are better people (Intelligent Designer knows that’s not the case). Instead, academia has a lot of objective (relatively speaking) criteria for judgment, which hurts people who lie frequently. Having worked for a full-blown narcissist (outside of academia), in order to maintain the illusion that the earth’s axis of rotation passes through their feet at all times, the narcissist constantly deceives others and himself. But in academia, there’s usually too much double-checking and crosschecking in academia. The narcissists and sociopaths eventually fall, or, at least, stumble really hard. That’s why many academic fields, including economics, have difficultly of incorporating dreadful behavior into their interpretations and models: they so rarely encounter these individuals on a regular basis.
Like I mentioned, I’ve worked for someone like this (and if you don’t have time to watch the video, I’ve also posted a list below):
For the videologically challenged, here’s a list of the attributes of the narcissist from Stanley Bing’s Crazy Bosses:
- Default emotion: emptiness. Think of a vast, blank wall that can be temporarily sprayed with any available can of paint, the prevailing color being the one most recently employed.
- Incapable of viewing others as real creatures with needs discrete from his or her own, consequently has no problem using others for any purpose that furthers his or her desires, up to and including their destruction, for which he or she will feel no remorse. Remorse in general not a strong suit.
- Bipolar internal landscape, vacillates between delusions of grandeur, during which time he or she may be quite pleasant, even “happy,” and abject depression brought about by feelings of inadequacy and unimportance. At such times, may appear paranoid or mutate into hard-to-handle bully. Prone to terrible rage or suicidal self-pity when this artificial cosmic construct (with his or her self at the center) is contradicted by ample evidence to the contrary.
- Bold and heedless in the face of danger; highly imaginative, given to flights of fancy fueled by lack of any instinct for self-doubt, during which any and all ideas will be perceived as brilliant, even inevitable, no matter how lame.
- Capable of great generosity and random acts of kindness, because they make him feel good about himself and justify his egocentric worldview.
- Zero attention span, concentration of a small child.
- Most used word: “I.” Second most used word: “Me.”
This is not self-absorption or intense focus. To clarify further, these aren’t occasional behaviors. Ordinary people, some of the time, under the appropriate circumstances, like to be the center of attention. Sometimes, we focus on ourselves a little too much and ignore others’ needs. That’s human. But if you’ve encountered colleagues or superiors (so to speak) who are like this, you know these are ongoing, constant behaviors. But you can’t constantly lie about your achievements, belittle others, and take credit for others’ work in academia. Either you were lead author, or you weren’t. Either you got the grant, or you didn’t. Eventually, you get caught out–and it’s often a career-ender. If you have never personally encountered this kind of person, it’s hard to realize that some people will behave badly, not because they are ideologically blinkered yet sincere, but because they are just screwed up. They really don’t care about you, and don’t see you as a flesh and blood human being. Sadly, it’s that simple.
I’m sure most people outside of academia have encountered this sort of boss quite frequently. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, argues that four percent of the U.S. are sociopaths and a comparable percentage are narcissists*. But my experience has been that this phenomenon is really rare in academia (although other disorders are not).
But maybe your mileage differs? Discuss.
*In Japan, the same tests indicate that sociopathy occurs at a forty-fold lower rate. We are one seriously fucked up country.