‘Narcissism in Science’ Part 2: Bad Behaviour

(December 13th, 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.

In your chapter, ‘Detecting narcissism in science with real-life examples’, you present several prominent (now dead) scientists who were narcissists according to your criteria (e.g. the Nobel prizewinners, Niels Jerne and Jacques Monod).
Reading biographies from the past shows that many legendary scientists had a strong ego. I speculated in my book that this prevalence is in part due to a cognitive bias that favours the retention of their names in textbooks over other, more reasonable scientists. Narcissists seek attention and find the appropriate behaviour necessary to stand out from the rest of the community. They are clearly more fascinating!

As a Frenchman, I have to admit that many of the great professors from my country’s past were highly narcissistic, arrogant and elitist. They often used their labs as ‘mating gardens’. At that time, many laboratories were transmitted by heritage, usually to the most narcissistic member of the laboratory. This was part of the big professor’s self-enhancement strategy. With his extreme self-confidence, domineering nature, and attention-seeking behaviour, Monod might be described as a narcissist. The Monod case suggests that it would be naive to see scientists as simply seekers of truth. It is likely that the Nobel laureate enjoyed the position of power that science afforded him, and that it suited his personality. After all, a scientist is someone with expert knowledge who can reveal complex secrets to the public.

Much of your essay discusses the negative effects that narcissists have on science – stealing credit, publishing excessive claims to gain prominence then evading responsibility when those claims are shown to be wrong, making unjustified demands for research funds, filling their labs with students and postdocs but not taking responsibility for their correct supervision, etc. Do you think the proportion of narcissists increases as we rise in the hierarchy of scientific power (group leaders, university professors, directors of research institutes)?

There is no doubt about this. Students entering into scientific research tend to score high in ‘agreeableness’, a dimension associated with altruistic behaviours. They are clearly less agency-driven than students who start advanced studies in medicine, law or business. Despite this, the scientific research system ends up retaining those who are best at selling themselves early in their careers - it strongly favours narcissists. Look at the advantages that networking provides in the scientific context. Narcissists use others as part of a self-enhancement strategy: they are natural networkers.

However, there is also a second important factor; which explains the prevalence of narcissists in higher positions. When you start to receive more social attention (i.e. you become more visible), your personality somewhat changes. You become more ‘dominant’. In short, you are energised, display a happier mood, are stimulated cognitively; but you have also become better at exploiting others and are more inclined to display inappropriate behaviours. As you know, a situation of power can corrupt individuals who were ‘nice’ when they were in a subordinate position.

Do you think narcissists are immoral or amoral when they display unethical behaviour?

Narcissism is a personality trait associated with unethical behaviours. Sexual harassment, absorbing and re-appropriating the results of others, embellishing datasets, deliberately obstructing a competitor’s publications. These are all symptoms of unhealthy narcissism. But not all narcissists behave unethically, and some of them become more ethical once they have reached the high position that they feel they deserve. Narcissism, like other personality traits, is influenced by genetics and early childhood experiences. We do not all have the good fortune to mature in a happy family with reliable and warm caregivers and a great sense of community.

Having said that, many highly narcissistic scientists are toxic, and we need to react more severely against them. In the academic environment, most of these individuals are still protected at the highest levels. My combat is directed more at changing the scientific ‘framework’ than fighting against individuals. A better understanding of the narcissistic personality might allow us to find better strategies that could restore a better community spirit.

You point to researchers who make a big ‘show’ about their work even if it is not so good scientifically. For example, you note that young scientists who want to become more visible often produce what the French call ‘casseroles’ - flashy papers that make a lot of noise (like the cooking pots attached to the cars of newly-weds) and attract attention at a key point in a career, but “generally tell a big story without any real follow-up”. Particularly effective are the “sexy three-quarter-right papers because they are almost impossible to debunk”.

Narcissistic researchers also tend to excel at using verbiage that resonates with the short-term expectations of their community or politicians. Even as they pursue a career that prizes objectivity, narcissistic scientists may unconsciously distort reality to maintain a positive illusion about themselves. A trait associated with narcissism is the ‘inflated self’, which reflects a trend to oversize their accomplishments. The growing trend of irreproducibility and overexaggeration in science could be explained by the need of narcissistic personalities to reach the status they believe they deserve.
In the book, I speculate that narcissism is also associated with misconducts in science (biased reviewing, exaggerated scientific claims, fraud). Self-centered, unethical individuals can easily take advantage within the scientific community since most activities (e.g. reviewing, data production) hinge on the assumption that scientists behave ethically. In addition, there is little sanction against fraud and no control at all of the evaluation process. Scientists and heads of universities have mostly chosen to hide misconduct problems to protect their institutions. It seems to me that scientific institutions have lost their connection with truth in their pursuit of money and public recognition. It is clear that universities are not prepared to deal with fraud and scientists prefer to hide under an image of modesty and honesty. In general, more transparency in processes, including retrospective reviewing, could have very positive consequences.

Interview: Jeremy Garwood

Read the third part of this interview here on Thursday.

Last Changes: 01.19.2017