‘Narcissism in Science’ Part 1: Defining the Problem

(December 8th, 2016) Bruno Lemaitre, Professor of Genetics at EPFL, recently published a book about narcissism in science. In this 3-part interview, LT reporter, Jeremy Garwood, talked with him about his findings and how they might improve our scientific outlook.

Why did you decide to write a book about narcissism?

Like most students, I started in science with a certain naivety seeing the academic environment as a solid and somewhat immutable temple governed by objectivity. Over the years, I have come to realise how much of science practice is tainted by personality. Having being involved in what could be called a ‘discovery’ (i.e. that the receptor protein, Toll, mediated innate immunity), it was somewhat fascinating to see how allocation of credit goes to the most visible members of the community and not to those who have actually done the work or to those who might be considered the most creative.

At my provincial university in France, I saw the often disastrous consequences from political battles and clashes of ego. As a result, I am always receptive to the problems of research students and post-docs, who have quietly left science having been ‘burnt’ by a charismatic professor. Because behind their charismatic façade, many great scientists are actually displaying behaviour that is simply related to their search for situations of power.

I realised that many of these issues relate to narcissism, and that you need to include this personality dimension in order to better understand the scientific process. Studies from the fields of social-personality and evolutionary psychology provide a better understanding of the interactions that regulate scientists within a scientific community. My book is an attempt to share this knowledge with colleagues in the hope of going further than the usual discussions we have on these topics. The rapid transformation of the academic environment, with its extreme emphasis on communication and short-term expectations, has also made us more sensitive to this issue. Although these changes are a real source of worry, they are also interesting because they reveal an important underlying component of the scientific process. My intuition is that a better understanding of narcissism and social dominance hierarchies can help us to better comprehend the current crisis of values observable in life science.

Your central thesis is that scientific ‘narcissists’ act in certain ways in their daily lives in the research environment. What are the main characteristics of the narcissistic personality?

Narcissists are individuals with a strong need for power. They prefer to get ahead rather than get along, even at the risk of being disliked socially. They are usually charming upon first acquaintance, or when they think they can get something from you, but they can easily forget you if you are no longer useful, or become aggressive should they see you as an obstacle to their success. Globally, narcissists have a strong sense of self-importance and behave less cooperatively in the absence of personal benefits. They can perform generous actions, but only if these acts are sufficiently public to increase their reputation. Psychological studies show that narcissistic individuals tend to use human relationships to attain positions of authority or to improve their own visibility. However, there is not a black and white separation between narcissists and non-narcissists, but rather a spectrum of individuals with differing degrees of narcissism.

In your book, you suggest that many problems in science arise from the fact that too many scientists are narcissists. In the academic world, you point to symptoms like egocentrism, elitism, strategic media occupation and self-enhancement strategies? 

Narcissists seek attention because ‘visibility’ in the human species is associated with higher status. They seek to attend the ‘political’ meetings where you should be seen if you want to get ahead. They are good at establishing contacts with journal editors and politically-minded scientists. Being more dependent on the admiration of others, they orient their research to please the short-term expectations of the community. Scientists high on the narcissism scale are often better at networking, contacting colleagues who are most likely to provide them with a direct benefit. Sometimes, narcissism is associated with a state of perpetual agitation: this is a way of keeping the attention on themselves while preventing the triviality of their work from being debunked.

While they are not necessarily better than other more reasonable scientists, the present organisation of science favours the emergence of narcissists in leadership positions. Although, it would be too simplistic to see narcissism as only bad, the strong form of this personality has been associated with unethical behaviours and reduced participation in communal activities. Scientists form a community and most of the rules regulating this community are tacit. There are unethical things that we could do, but don’t, because we have a sense of the community. Narcissists tend to breach these barriers and take a personal advantage. When their action is below a threshold, it is not perceived as a problem, and narcissists win. But when their behaviours stimulate others to do the same kind of thing, then the whole system collapses due to over-predation. The community experiences a strong decrease in trust, and this is a symptom of the current crisis.

Are narcissists more attracted to science than other professional careers?

Narcissists are attracted to domains that provide them with strong public exposure and positions of power. Instead of entering science, they might be more appropriate in fashion, art, TV, sport, politics, and high finance. Narcissistic males are also drawn to places with attractive women. However, science can attract narcissists drawn by hopes of fame. When young, many scientists were timid and a bit clumsy socially, not the most popular in their class. They took refuge in dreams of splendour. Later in life, science can offer them another way to shine and to become attractive! This is actually not such a problem, but this need for recognition needs to be counterbalanced by ethical values. However, in academia you will find scientists who seem to be more driven by the search for situations of power than the pursuit of pure knowledge.

One easily recognisable character is the ‘grandiose narcissist’ – hyper-self-confident, an ‘over-seller’ and networker, who is good at burning-up large amounts of shared resources. Yet science can accommodate other types of personality, including delicate introverts and deep thinkers. Another interesting type is the ‘vulnerable narcissist’, who has great expectations and feels ‘special’, but at the same time experiences shame and a strong need for recognition. These individuals have a fragile self-esteem with up and down mood swings. They are usually much less dangerous than their grandiose (hyper-self-confident) counterparts.

Nevertheless, the influence of narcissism on science may be more subtle, influencing career choice and strategies for achieving success. For example, scientists hungry for power are more likely to follow a clinical career path, to be attracted by jobs at elite institutions, or to gravitate to a fashionable field of research that is already in the spotlight. I suspect that the strong investments in Life Science and its connections with the medical world have made this field more attractive to individuals in need of power. For instance, engineering and informatics ought to be less attractive to narcissists because the individual’s contribution is largely masked by the collective effort. Just look at how little individual recognition there has been for bio-informaticians in Life Sciences. More evidence that Life Science is under the influence of narcissism comes from the extreme importance of “trophy” journals (e.g. Nature, Cell, Science), which regulate career paths in Life Science more than in other scientific fields.

Interview: Jeremy Garwood

To be continued next week.

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