Saturday, June 4, 2016

Nuances of Narcissism

From an American novelist,  keen observer of the social scene:

He had seen enough of music and the stage  to know that, as a matter of course, the people connected with them  reached heights of conceit and pretentiousness,  that painters and writers, for instance, hardly dared dream of.
-- James Gould Cozzens,  Ask Me Tomorrow (1940)

People outside the arts will be surprised.  Tiens -- Are musicians actually more self-involved than are painters?  One had not known.

But such occupational psychological fault-lines  exist indeed.   As:  To anyone on the “Marketing” side of the Dilbert Divide,  or in the arts scene,  tech guys are simply a vague gray mass of computer-nerds, whether they be in software or hardware.   Yet my own observations  working in the R&D half of Franklin Computer  revealed such a subtle scission.   While as a group overall, engineers are generally more relaxing and enjoyable to work with  than are academics,  hardware engineers are notably straightforward and devoid of drama-queenery;  while software engineers, though sometimes more interesting intellectually and with a better sense of humor, include a certain number of cranks and unclubbables  within their ranks.

My present place of employment has a huge range of specialties -- soldiers and civilians, mathematicians and cyberneticians, pen-pushers and policy-wonks.  Most are splendid, a few do bad things.  But when it comes specifically to preening and whining -- alas! -- thát you find among my own tribe -- the linguists.

There are likewise a spectrum of stereotypical personality patterns among chemists versus physicists -- nay, experimental physicists versus theoreticians -- and many others.   When shrewdly observed, these lead to the best of all genres of jokes based on disciplines.   As,

“A soldier, a sailor, an airman and a marine  walk into a pet-store…”


(for some reason, both of those crucially involve cows).

[Update:  Scientists and Cows ]  This just in!  -- Well, just-in to my ken;  the joke actually dates back to the Sputnik days, back in the ‘fifties.  First, those pesky Ruskies put up a satellite.  And then:

The next satellite had a dog.  And there was a joke:  the next one’s going to be a cow, and then they’re going to put up several cows, and the joke was, it’ll be the first herd shot round the world.

[Photo credit:  NASA]

[Quoted from Ann Finkelbeiner, The Jasons, 2006.]


There have been some memorable journalistic portraits of the relatively healthy and bracing atmosphere in engineering start-ups (e.g. Soul of a New Machine).   A more recent, low-key but rewarding study is by Tom Wolfe, “Two Young Men Who Went West”, printed (reprinted?) in Hooking Up (2000).

For a still more recent account of what happens when an engineering firm is handed over to a narcissist, try this:

[Appendix]   Hey cows turn out to look really cool in outer space, here's another one:

Cow in its natural element


Back to the correlation to narcissism, of various scientific disciplines.  
It is beyond contest, that (say) chemists and civil engineers have a reputation for very low doses of Drama, compared with (say) physicists.   But what are the traits that gave physicists such a rep?
It is seldom really narcissism, for that is a matter of individual, personal psychology.  If there is self-regard, that among physicist is more that of the guild -- a corporative trait, which might strike outsiders as arrogant. 

Ann Finkelbeiner, in her fine history of the elite advisory group known as the Jasons (who were overwhelmingly physicists), gives an anecdote from an oceanographer (p. 138), recalling an uncharacteristic foray into oceanography by the Jasons:

I did resent this “the ocean is a wonderful summer playground for smart physicists who can do it in their spare time”.  You may know this thing called physics arrogance.  It’s real.

Indeed, Finkelbeiner reveals (p. xvii) that at one point “I wanted to call this book The Arrogance of Physicists.”

Now, arrogance can co-exist with narcissism, and flavor it;   but they by no means need be co-present.  Thus, the eponym, Narcissus himself, was not arrogant in the least:  he was dreamily, solipsistically folded-in on himself.

Consider the humble confession of quantum wizard Wolfgang Pauli in 1925:

At the moment, physics is again terribly confused.  In any case, it is difficult for me, and I wish I had been a movie comedian or something of the sort, and had never heard of physics.

Yet many anecdotes are told about Pauli’s arrogance -- within physics : e.g. “What Professor Einstein says” (he concedes) “is not so stupid”.  Or the damning phrase “Not even wrong” (recently the title of a book attacking the very integrity of String Theory).   Or consider this joke (quoted by Ann Finkelbein in The Jasons, 2006):

A physicist gets to heaven  and God asks him if there’s anything he’d like to know, and the physicist says, “Yes, please.  Why is the Fine Structure Constant 1/137?”  God gives him the explanation, and the physicist says, “No, that’s wrong.”

Ironic note:   Any such explanation from God  would in fact have been wrong -- since (as we now know) the value of the Fine Structure Constant, though close to 1/137, is not exactly that, and thus is not a ratio of (small) integers at all:  it’s just one of those boring physical parameters that drone on and on, and could (for all we know) just as well have been somewhat different.  The conjecture that it might actually be a pure integer ratio  caused a certain amount of numerological excitement back in the day, but that turned out to be a false alarm.


We have frequently written about the related but distinct notions of depth  versus difficulty (in math and science).   This comparison/contrast of narcissism versus arrogance (the former being key to our American culture, the latter to our politics) may likewise prove fruitful.


  1. With "Narcissist" in the title, I thought you were going to talk about Trump! Sorry to hear that your coworkers are getting you down with their "preening and whining".

    I remember one marketer in particular at Franklin, who was certain that engineers had no idea what customers wanted and marketers knew exactly what customers wanted. She tried to avoid talking to engineers so they wouldn't corrupt her with their incorrect views on things. Sort of like Hillary, I guess.

    According to our old friends at Merriam-Webster, the word "unclubbable" was probably invented by Samuel Johnson, who used it to refer to people who were unsuited for the specific "Literary Club" of which he was a member. Well, I'm not a "joiner" type of person so I guess I'm an "unclubbable" software engineer. For symmetry, I should mention Bernie here, who refuses to accept membership in the Wall St bribery club.

    I agree that "Franklin Computer" is what the company should always have been named, although it spent most of its time being called "F.E.P."

    1. Trump's narcissism has gone nuclear, and is beyond the scope of this note.
      Trump he don't DO nuance ...

    2. As a father with a 22 year-old daughter trying out her luck as a thespian in New York City, I understand the Cozzens remark. The nature of the stage is to show up utterly confident and superior, no matter the toll on one's psyche. Beneath it all, if one reads autobiographies of actors, is the same (or worse) self-doubt that haunts anyone trying to create Art for a public. So I disagree. If you want to see a profession that suffers from what I call "high pretension" (no beta blockers for that disease), look no further than your favorite so-called "French" restaurant.

    3. Hiya Mike.
      I had you much in mind, writing this, since (uniquely among those I have been close to) you straddle the divide -- a (gifted amateur) artist (painter), and a (gifted amateur) (violist) musician. And you are utterly untainted with narcissism.
      As for your daughter … and as for my son … it is a huge burden we assume, helping to bring forth life. Yet the Lord God enjoins it; amen.