Are Geeks Narcissists? PLOS ONE asks . . .

In a recent PLOS ONE journal article, researchers Jessica McCain, Brittany Gentile, W. Keith Campbell posit that perhaps geek culture is a way of sustaining a narcissistic self-view.

Geeks with Swords (c) JE Robison
While I agree that it might look that way on the surface, I think their conclusion is wrong; founded upon an incorrect or incomplete understanding of geeks and geek culture. With all due respect, I suggest that perhaps the authors made an all-too-common mistake. They interpreted observations of self-focused behavior as narcissism, when they were actually seeing autistic traits; either autism or the much more common "broader autism phenotype."  As a result, the article as it stands is harmful to autistic culture, and geek culture, because it perpetuates a wrong stereotype.

The article focuses on the geek community’s outsized interest in online gaming, massive multiplayer games, role playing games, and science fiction, or comics or fantasy.  Games and conferences have grown so large that they’ve become major cultural events.  And people naturally draw conclusions about those who attend, and how they may be different from others in the community.

It’s well known that we geeks get lost in our own worlds, and in fantasy worlds of various sorts. The question here is, why does that happen?  If a person is fully aware of the wider world, but chooses to ignore outside signals and focuses on himself that is narcissistic.  If we do that because we are oblivious to much of what goes on around us, and we are blind to the signals of others, that is an autistic spectrum trait.

Most autistic children experience bullying and mistreatment, growing up.  That is an unfortunately consequence of acting differently, and being insensitive to other kids.  As they get older, autistic kids often withdraw from social contact, even as they desire it.  They may gravitate to online communities, where they are less likely to appear different or disabled, and in fact may seem exceptional due to their intense focus.

To a large extent, that explains the path autistics follow into gaming and fantasy.  It’s founded on isolation and social disability, and narcissism has no part of that picture.  Yet narcissism is often assumed by observers, incorrectly.   That is a natural reaction for a person who is not autistic. They see various signals from other people, and it never occurs to them that an autistic person next to them might be oblivious to the same signals.  So when the autistic person fails to respond as they do, they assume his lack of response is deliberate and informed, when in fact it’s not.

In comparison, narcissism is saying “I see you, but I love myself more than you or anyone else.”  That is seldom the situation for autistic people, who tend to suffer from the opposite – chronic self-loathing and poor self-esteem.  When it comes to self-focus, autistic people do so because they are not fully aware of the people around them, because they have a communication disability.  That is the essence of autism. 

After reading this essay in original form, BU Psychology Professor Catherine Caldwell-Harris pointed out that geeks (or nerds as others say) are also drawn into online worlds and gaming in part because they have strong systemizing tendencies, which are traits of the broader autism phenotype. Cambridge researcher Simon Baron Cohen has written a lot about systematizers and that kind of thinking.

My experience as an autistic adult informs my interpretation of geek cultural observations.  As an autistic person I know all too well what it’s like to miss the signals others around me see, and suffer as a result.  Am I suggesting every geek is autistic? Of course not.  What I am suggesting is that a great many geeks have some autistic traits and a considerable number are on the spectrum.  And I’m sure a few are narcissistic too, but I believe autism is the best explainer of the behaviors described in the paper.

We should be very careful about applying labels like narcissist to large swaths of the population. It’s particularly noteworthy that the approaches one would take to deal with narcissism are fundamentally different from what one would use to address autism. Treating autistics as narcissists will not only be counterproductive, it will be harmful.

Thanks to my wife, Maripat Robison, author of the forthcoming memoir I Married A Geek for bringing the PLOS ONE article and its fundamental errors to my attention, and inspiring this response.  As for the scientists - I bear you no ill will but I urge you to think how the targets of your future articles will feel about your words. 

John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and the forthcoming Switched On. He's served on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. 

The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay may give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick.


Jean Sunell said…
I totally agree with you John. Thank you for educating the ignorant.
HumanProject said…
HI John,
It is a complex topic. Regarding this:

"They interpreted observations of self-focused behavior as narcissism, when they were actually seeing autism."

Maybe it would be more precise to say, the traits they observed are traits that are part of the broader autism phenotype. Or: those are traits which reflect preference for systemizing and lack of interest in some aspects of social life, such as social chit-chat and superficial social friendliness.

I agree that The PLOS ONE authors erred by using the word narcissism. Narcissists are preoccupied with themselves, but they also have a self-entitled, exploitative attitude towards others. Narcissists are also usually intensely concerned about how others regard them, and thus may have top-notch social skills and social awareness. Geeks the negative aspects of social skills, such as social machiavellianism, which narcissists have.

Geeks can be individualistic and have low interest in social rewards for their own sake (such as social rewards from chit-chat). Some geeks also lack social skills and have narrow, deep interests that allow them to systematize the world (rather than interests that are vehicles for socializing, such as sports and leisure activities). But geeks do not have the entitled, "the world owes" me attitude of classic narcissists.

I agree that there is an important topic to examine and wish the PLOS ONE authors had a more nuanced approach. I, personally, do not like equating Geek with people who are obsessed with on-line gaming or fantasy role play games. I prefer the older meaning of geeks as people who are socially non mainstream, not interested in chit-chat and interested in nerdy topics like science and computer programming.

I have a paper about the broader autism phenotype and special interests, see link. My co-author and I didn't ask about interests in online games or role play games or sic fi (I wish we had).
Catherine thanks for these very useful insights
forsythia said…
No, they are not. They might be clueless, but that does not make them narcissists.
tlpg said…
Off topic, John, I should tell you for what it's worth that Mitchell devotee Yuval Levental has been attacking your article on Wikipedia and the article on Look me in the Eye. He claims that the book wasn't published in the Netherlands, Spain or Taiwan. Can you provide some links to stop his reversions, or were the reversions right? He also removed Brazil, but that's covered for with the Portuguese publication.

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