Mike the Mad Biologist

Narcissism, CEOs, and Academia

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Joshua
    April 22, 2010

    Cue wingnut in the comments ranting about Obama’s use of the “imperial I” or whatever those idiots call it.

  2. #2 Mike Crichton
    April 22, 2010

    I met a few guys like that when I was in the Army. Every unit seems to have one or two, but fortunately they never seem to get above E-4 (Maybe E-5, if their unit is desperate), and everyone else catches on to their BS fairly quickly. Unfortunately, they can still get their colleagues killed before they themselves get weeded out.

    I’ve met a lot more of them in science-fiction fandom. More of them than in the general population, but a lot fewer than geek stereotypes might lead you to believe.

  3. #3 Mike Crichton
    April 22, 2010

    I met a few guys like that when I was in the Army. Every unit seems to have one or two, but fortunately they never seem to get above E-4 (Maybe E-5, if their unit is desperate), and everyone else catches on to their BS fairly quickly. Unfortunately, they can still get their colleagues killed before they themselves get weeded out.

    I’ve met a lot of them in science-fiction fandom, though. More than in the general population, but a lot fewer than geek stereotypes might lead you to believe.

  4. #4 ProfessorX
    April 22, 2010

    Try working at an Osteopathic med school…different breed of academia…they are run more like businesses and are chock full of liars, narcissists and sociopaths

  5. #5 Comrade PhysioProf
    April 22, 2010

    The only context in which I’ve seen people like this in academia are the fuck-up white-d00d tenured shitheels who obtained their faculty positions in the 1960s and 1970s, when all you had to do was be a white d00d and show up in grad school and you’d get your PhD and then a faculty position.

  6. #6 george.w
    April 23, 2010

    Sounds like a good description of George W. Bush. Especially the short attention span part, and the “lack of any instinct for self-doubt”. Actually just about all the points.

    Might be a good description of Sarah Palin too.

  7. #7 Eamon
    April 23, 2010

    *In Japan, the same tests indicate that sociopathy occurs at a forty-fold lower rate. We are one seriously fucked up country.

    But in Japan the last government was able to ask the question:

    “Should foreigners have the same human rights protections as Japanese?”

    Eamon, whose son is officially called “Halfu” because he’s only half-Japanese – and who is not officially recognised as the father of his son, as non-Japanese are not allowed to be classified as fathers on the Japanese Family Register (Koseki).

    So which is the more fucked up country is debatable!

  8. #8 wagdog
    May 10, 2010

    lie about your achievements, belittle others, and take credit for others’ work in academia. …. Eventually, you get caught out

    Not unless you do it right. I have first hand experience of narcissists who end up running departments without any such accountability. It could be argued that one needs a fearless grandiose vision to attain such a position, which highly favours the narcissist, but that doesn’t prevent them from still belittling those beneath them, and bullying and overworking their postgrads. Narcissism might also be a bonus for getting grants since selling oneself even with some exaggeration confers some advantages in the eyes of funding bodies. What they do suck at is mentoring and coaching — they can only get their supervisees to accomplish stuff by intimidating them into becoming people pleasers. Essentially they tend to hire and target doormats. The Devil Wears Prada can apply equally as well in academia too.

  9. #9 Twangtown
    September 2, 2010

    Text book Narcissists ARE in the halls of academia. They WANT accolades from their work, so they DO publish, Do get the grants, etc… The REST of their lives are a narcissistic nightmare for the people around them on a personal level. Having first hand experience with a highly narcissistic anthropology prof at a major university, it was interesting to observe how it was well hidden when it served him to do so. Stumbling does occur on a personal level- ex-wives, ex-girlfriends who figure it out (multiples that do not know of one another), “friends” you never see but that are on the periphery more as interactions than friendships, ocassional research “assistants” going above and beyond the call of “duty” unknown by fellow faculty members, cycling mania / depression, etc… Professors have alot of free time on their hands to rest their need for supply from non-academic sources, thus bolstering themselves up enough in order to publish, get grants, and remind themselves how much more incredible they are than the rest of humanity, all in the name of “education.” I’d like to see a study conducted on the percentage of narcissists that inhabit the higher halls of “learning.” Problem is, it would most likely be conducted by narcissists, and of course, would skew the results unless the narcissist could benefit from it from some other angle that could be manipulated like so much data in academia already is…

  10. #10 Emily
    March 16, 2011

    All the narcissists I know in academia are in community colleges. One of the hallmarks I’ve noticed is constant complaining how their lab needs improvement, or their (insert whatever equipment here) is out of date, or how “hard it is to find a good assistant.” Why the hell would a community college professor need an assistant anyway?

    If you listen closely you’ll realize they’re not happy where they are and wish they were “up there” at a four year university, but in general departments “up there” have good B.S. detectors and so the narcissistic academic is forever slated to work in the mini-mall-cum college.

    A good way to spot a narcissist: look in their office at how the pictures of them and a significant other are CONSTANTLY revolving every two years or so, when said partner gets tired of their B.S.

    I’m an admin at a community college. I just fired one of these guys. Grounds: Making fun of his students on the phone with someone. I could hear him clearly as I walked by.

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