Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Two Anecdotes about Narcissists

1.

Yesterday, a quite hep guy crashed his expensive automobile (a Skoda Superb) close to my place. At the speed he was going, he could have killed someone (including himself). He badly misjudged the turn and crashed against an electricity pole. He had a flat tire, and the front of his bonnet was smashed and badly damaged. However, the engine was fine. A group of people naturally gathered around the damaged vehicle and helped remove some rather large rocks from beneath the car so that it could move again.

Also, the flat tire was all ripped from the wheel and the rubber had to be pulled out to enable the car to move. As soon as the car was able to move, however, the hep guy drove off, with the flat tire still taking the weight of the car, without so much as a word spoken to the people who had helped get his car moving. It should be noted that people were being uniformly concerned, nobody was angry at the guy.

However, he looked ashamed. Not guilty for damaging what must be his dad's car, not apologetic at having potentially endangered someone's life, not thankful for the help he received, but ashamed. He was willing to get his car damaged further (driving with a flat tire) than to be present for a moment longer amongst people who saw his ineptitude and the hollowness of his "hepness".

2.

To understand this anecdote, this contextual quote from an article about Narcissism is required:
The psychopath is utilitarian: I needed a burger, you had it, so I stabbed you in the throat. Whatever.

As bad as that sounds, here's the narcissist's discourse on the same crime: I needed a burger, you had it, so I stabbed you in the throat. But wait, that's not the whole story, listen, what I did was justified because...
A narcissist is so concerned about his/her noble persona that he cannot simply admit that he/she is callous or cruel or selfish or a smoker who is harming his own body or a net junkie or a... He/she has to endlessly defend himself to himself and to others in order to maintain his self image.

Now the "anecdote"...

Exhibit A:

RESPONDENT: There is something I am curious about Richard. You say that you are a flesh and blood body only which I agree with. I was wondering why you smoke when you know the facts about the harm that smoking does to the flesh and blood body?

Richard: And just what are the ‘facts’ that you are referring to? As far as I can ascertain there has never been a scientific study done – random sampling, control group, double-blind testing and so on – and that all the furore (sometimes reminiscent of a witch-hunt) depends upon somewhat skewed statistical evidence. I say ‘skewed’ because if I were to die tomorrow my death would be added to the statistics irregardless of the actual cause (in case you have not noticed that people no longer die of ‘old age’ anymore). Neither am I saying that smoking is good thing ... just that it is not as bad as it is made out to be. Incidentally, when tobacco was first introduced into Europe the Church demonised it (calling it the Devil’s Weed) just as the early coffee-houses were vilified.

I mention this because some 12-13 years ago I availed myself of the statistics published by various anti-smoking groups and did the necessary sums. The result showed that 1.2% of all smokers in any given year (at that time) died of what is called ‘smoking-related diseases’ ... which means that 98.8% did not. There is also some preliminary indications that only certain people are genetically prone to developing carcinomas from smoke inhalation ... rather than it be a blanket death warrant per se. For an example, Mr. Pablo Picasso (who smoked most of his life) died at a similar age to Mr. Jiddu Krishnamurti (who did not smoke at all).

I also say ‘witch-hunt’ (as in ‘scape-goat’) because there is some evidence that the internal combustion engine could very well be causing far more illnesses among people – estimates vary between 42-48% of what is called ‘green houses gases’ are coming from exhaust fumes – and yet car ownership is on the increase and I am yet to see obligatory ‘driving kills’ warnings affixed to all vehicles. Curiously enough, in the last hundred years or so the average life expectancy in the West has risen from 50-55 years of age to 75-80 years of age (speaking from memory).

I could go on and bring in examples of factoids masquerading as facts in other areas (the HIV-AIDS controversy, the cholesterol dispute, the monosodium glutamate debacle, the on again off again eggs/butter/sugar/etc. furphies) but maybe it will suffice to say that (a) I do not own or drive a car by choice ... and (b) I live in the country and not the city for obvious health reasons ... and (c) I am a teetotaller in all other respects (not even caffeine these days) ... and (d) I do not experience any stress or tension whatsoever (and I would hazard a guess that the last point is the most relevant point of all when it comes to a resilient immune-system).

Most of what I have written here is opinion-only, of course. (Richard, circa 2002)

Exhibit B:

Although I often not just jokingly say I would like to out-live the oldest-on-record human being ... a woman in France who died at 122 after a lifetime of wine, cigarettes and chocolate (Richard, circa 2009)

Exhibit C:

From Wikipedia:

Similarly, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes tobacco use as "the single most important preventable risk to human health in developed countries and an important cause of premature death worldwide."

21 comments:

Modern Man said...

Harman,

It's been a pleasure reading your critique of actualism.

This post brought up a couple of questions that I'm interested in hearing your answers to:

If one is a narcissist, does that presuppose that he/she has a 'self'? If so, can one have a 'self' yet be free of narcissism?

-MM

srid said...

For the reader's benefit, I am linking to the smoking-related discussions between Richard and his correspondents: here, here, here, here and here.

[offtopic]
Interestingly by way of those discussions I came across www.lcolby.com -- just in time for exercising my mind while/after reading Steven Milloy's Junk Science Judo.
[/offtopic]

rich said...

Hey Harman. I'd say it's hard to conclude anything "dirty" about Richard just because he says smoking isn't as bad as current wisdom makes it out to be.

There's plenty of room for reasonable doubt and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have to contend with a couple of facts that don't sit well with what they are claiming when they say tobacco use is "an important cause of premature death worldwide."

Namely, that the oldest person in recorded history smoked cigarettes until she died at 122 and that the population of Japan, which holds claim to one of the highest (if not the highest) life expectancy as well as one of the lowest rates of lung cancer in the world, has also one of the highest rate of smokers.

There is nothing of "premature death" in those two facts ... quite the opposite really.

Also read for more info: http://www.lcolby.com/b-chap3.htm

At least for me, it's not such an open and shut case that it is an unequivical fact that smoking will kill you prematurely (despite the massive hoopla).

Harmanjit Singh said...

@MM: The interesting question, according to me, is this: why can a man not simply admit that he likes to smoke given that it /is/ harmful to health?

Because that would mean he is driven by something other than harmlessness (at least to his own body) or rationality.

And that, in this case, would be a body blow to the claims of infinitely superiority.

Now whether that means he has a "self" or not is more of an abstract debate.

Harmanjit Singh said...

@srid: thanks.

@rich: there is overwhelming evidence that smoking causes a range of diseases. I really refer you to the wikipedia page.

the japan smoking/cancer "paradox" has been scholarly discussed in many medical journals.

e.g.

http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/10/11/1193.full

http://www.journals.elsevierhealth.com/periodicals/puhe/article/PIIS0033350607003290/abstract

Veteran Enlightenment Chaser said...

I am surprised that it took you so long to recognize what Richard is i.e.: a narcissistic jerk, while it would be clear to most just by reading the material on the AF website.

In fact if people pointed this out to you, you would have said that on the contrary R. is perfectly clear and rational, it is you who is projecting your affective self onto him. It is the affective self that feels offended by Richard's straight talk

srid said...

Harman to rich: there is overwhelming evidence that smoking causes a range of diseases

Do you accept the evidence because they are linked to in Wikipedia, or that they are scholarly discussed? Or did you actually do the math, and verify the reasoning behind those scholarly works that supposedly establish a possible causation between smoking and lung cancer (if so, where did Richard's reasoning go wrong)? I ask because normal people, like me at least, don't do all that .. and simply go by word-of-mouth, or popular opinion.

Harman to MM: The interesting question, according to me, is this: why can a man not simply admit that he likes to smoke given that it /is/ harmful to health?

Apparently you missed the part where he explains why it is not harmful to health? Secondly, where do you see the denial of the fact that he smokes - among various activities of pleasure - because he likes it?

Harmanjit Singh said...

@srid:

Do you accept the evidence because they are linked to in Wikipedia, or that they are scholarly discussed? Or did you actually do the math, and verify the reasoning behind those scholarly works that supposedly establish a possible causation between smoking and lung cancer (if so, where did Richard's reasoning go wrong)? I ask because normal people, like me at least, don't do all that .. and simply go by word-of-mouth, or popular opinion.

Wikipedia, in this case, is a compendium of scholarly opinion on the matter, hence my reference. You might have missed the following:

"The health effects of tobacco have been significant for the development of the science of epidemiology. As the mechanism of carcinogenicity is radiomimetic or radiological, the effects are stochastic. Definite statements can be made only on the relative increased or decreased probabilities of contracting a given disease; Philosophically and theoretically speaking, it is impossible to definitively prove a direct causative link between exposure to a radiomimetic poison such as tobacco smoke and the cancer that follows. Tobacco companies have capitalized on this philosophical objection and exploited the doubts of clinicians, who consider only individual cases, on the causal link in the stochastic expression of the toxicity as actual disease."

Apparently you missed the part where he explains why it is not harmful to health? Secondly, where do you see the denial of the fact that he smokes - among various activities of pleasure - because he likes it?

He does not explain why it is not harmful to health. He prevaricates: "Neither am I saying that smoking is good thing ... just that it is not as bad as it is made out to be." He instead defends his not-good but not-as-bad lifestyle choice of smoking (that is why the reference to narcissism) because of /other/ good things that he does (see the last paragraph).

He admits that he likes it, but instead of acknowledging that this habit/lifestyle-choice is harmful to his body, digs up dubious references and, intelligent that he is, questions the very epistemology of cancer studies.

A non-narcissistic response could be:

"I like to smoke, and I know it is considered harmful, but I enjoy it and don't want to stop."

Now of course that would put a question mark on the sway non-rational forces have on such a person, which would be a very bad thing for an actually free person.

Sriram said...

Endless defending alone doesn't make a narcissist. Even the article you quoted says "The narcissist does them because he's "actually a good person, this stuff is just an aberration, if I can just get away I'll be back to being a valuable person again..."" The burger example in the article should be seen in this context.

If you can establish that Richard defended smoking while 1. Acknowledging that its harmful and 2. But still gives justification that it will not affect him, then it is narcissism. Richard doesn't even acknowledge, so its not. He's probably just naive (as opposed to being rational) in not reading into the evidence that smoking is harmful.

Harmanjit Singh said...

@sriram:

If you can establish that Richard defended smoking while 1. Acknowledging that its harmful and 2. But still gives justification that it will not affect him, then it is narcissism. Richard doesn't even acknowledge, so its not. He's probably just naive (as opposed to being rational) in not reading into the evidence that smoking is harmful.

The reason I called Richard a narcissist in this context is:

1. He admits that smoking is a bad thing. "Neither am I saying that smoking is good thing ... just that it is not as bad as it is made out to be." If it is not "as bad", it is less bad, but bad nevertheless.

2. He justifies his smoking by

a) Questioning the evidence wholesale (on epistemological grounds, no less)

b) Pointing to exceptional cases where smokers lived very long

c) Describing his other good habits (to bring these into the picture is strongly suggestive of: "i am after all such a healthy and rational person who has made good choices. don't just focus on smoking")

A non-narcissistic response could be:

"I like to smoke, and I know it is considered harmful, and I agree somewhat, but I enjoy it and don't want to stop."

Now of course that would put a question mark on the sway non-rational forces have on such a person, which would be a very bad thing for an actually free person.

In essence, to say something like the above would be damaging to the identity of "first actually free person", hence this is an anecdote about narcissism.

Sriram said...

In essence, to say something like the above would be damaging to the identity of "first actually free person", hence this is an anecdote about narcissism.
You don't know whether he had said that to protect that image. It could be that he was just not open to an argument on this, he did not want to reveal the actual reason so instead chose to defend. Also the diagnostic guidelines for narcissism have implicit assumption of a presence of self and therefore may not apply to one who claims not to have a self.

Richard does start with a position of infinite superiority and he can explain in the way he sees fit. In my opinion, its better to leave it at that and bringing narcissist claims weaken the argument.

Harmanjit Singh said...

@sriram:

You don't know whether he had said that to protect that image. It could be that he was just not open to an argument on this, he did not want to reveal the actual reason so instead chose to defend.

What could be an actual reason which was worth keeping secret?

Also the diagnostic guidelines for narcissism have implicit assumption of a presence of self and therefore may not apply to one who claims not to have a self.

In order to critically evaluate someone's claims, it is first essential to consider those claims as simply claims, and not facts... wouldn't you say?

tazmic said...

Sriram:
"He's probably just naive (as opposed to being rational) in not reading into the evidence that smoking is harmful."

So the one actually harmless person on earth is being harmful out of naivety? And he considers peace on earth in his lifetime a possibility, based soley on his method to being free from harm? This does not make a lot of sense.

"Also the diagnostic guidelines for narcissism have implicit assumption of a presence of self and therefore may not apply to one who claims not to have a self."

Despite Harman's far superior answer, I'd like to add, from theLastPsychiatrist.com:

"A narcissist can't feel guilt because, while he admits to external rules (religion, ethics, etc) those rules are always secondary to his identity. As long as the identity is intact, you didn't do anything really wrong. There's no internal conflict with your sense of self because your identity has one superseding rule: self preservation. You will sacrifice anything, including your life, to preserve that identity."

In my experience not having a sense of self has very little to do with the absense of a self.

Sriram said...

These are the diagnostic guidelines for narcissism, from wiki:

A recommended diagnostic checklist similar to that found in the DSM-IV would consist of:

1. Feels overly grandiose, an exaggerated sense of self importance.
2. Fantasizes about unlimited success, bodily beauty, unequalled brilliance, or ideal and everlasting love.
3. Feels unique, and believes that he/she can only be understood/should associate with others of equal brilliance or importance.
4. Requires excessive admiration or notoriety.
5. Feels entitled, demands automatic compliance with his/her wishes, feels slighted when not met with these expectations.
6. Is interpersonally exploitative, uses others for their own benefit.
7. Is unable or unwilling to empathize with others, feels like they are the center of the world.
8. Believes that others are envious of them, or is constantly envious of others. Always wants to outdo others, or prove themselves to others.
9. Displays arrogant or haughty behavior. Similar to criteria 3 and 5.

From documented interactions, I don't see much evidence of above. As for lack of empathy (7), it can be explained by lack of a self.

May be what he says is the actual reason, he enjoys smoking and he doesn't see enough evidence to stop it. Is this less narcissistic? ... to cut a long story short I live a certain life-style and do certain things that various other people may find unhealthy for whatever reason. http://actualfreedom.com.au/sundry/frequentquestions/FAQ12a.htm#1

c) Describing his other good habits (to bring these into the picture is strongly suggestive of: "i am after all such a healthy and rational person who has made good choices. don't just focus on smoking")

I feel that he is emphasising harmful things that everyone does but he does not (driving a car, etc) indicative of life-style choices that he has made.

Harmanjit Singh said...

@sriram: Though my context of using the word narcissist was explained in the post (the article on thelastpsychiatrist.com) Richard fits the following criteria listed by the DSM as well:

1. Feels overly grandiose, an exaggerated sense of self importance. ("This long-awaited public announcement ... ushers in a brand new era in human experience and history")

2. Fantasizes about unlimited success, bodily beauty, unequalled brilliance, or ideal and everlasting love. ("Since then I have been consistently living an incomparable condition which I choose to call actual freedom ")

3. Feels unique, and believes that he/she can only be understood/should associate with others of equal brilliance or importance. ("I was truly on my own ... no one had ventured into this terrain before. ... In other words I traversed territory which no enlightened being has ever navigated.")

7. Is unable or unwilling to empathize with others, feels like they are the center of the world. ("I cannot relate to a person in sorrow for I do not have the faculties – or the capacity – for pathos.")

9. Displays arrogant or haughty behavior. (all over the place, but the following is an excellent example:)

(example follows in the following comment)

Harmanjit Singh said...

(Example of 9):


Exhibit A:
( http://www.actualfreedom.com.au/directorscorrespondence/01AMatterofStyle.html )
--
THE DIRECTORS: Third, the subject of font size has been canvassed a couple of times before ... for one instance:

• [Respondent]: ‘I think the text [on The Actual Freedom Trust web site] is very small, and the size can’t be changed by readers. Please remove the size setting in html, so grandpa also can read it.
• [Richard]: ‘Would it not be far simpler to suggest to Grandpa he use reading glasses (such as I do), or even alter the DPI setting on his computer to a larger size, than having to get others to make changes so as to suit him? Richard, List AF, Respondent 88, 27 Apr 05

RESPONDENT: Now this is silly. Most grandpas don’t even know what DPI is, let alone change it.

THE DIRECTORS: In order to successfully inform another person (in this case Richard is that person) that what they have to say is silly then it almost goes without saying that what they had to say does have to actually be silly (else it is what the informer has to say which is silly).

The following points are immediately obvious:

1. You have completely ignored Richard’s primary suggestion (about using reading glasses just as he does).
2. Your exclusive focus on Richard’s secondary suggestion (as if it were the only one) is a clear indication that Richard’s primary suggestion is not silly.
3. Your usage of the word most means you are stating it is a fact that more than half, at the very least, of the grandfathers using computers do not even know what DPI is (let alone how to change it).
4. You offer no supporting evidence that more than half, at the very least, of the grandfathers using computers do not even know what DPI is (let alone how to change it).
5. Even if (note ‘if’) it were true that most grandfathers do not know what DPI is you are overlooking the fact that operating systems have in-built accessibility options – such as a magnifier for instance – whereby it is not necessary to know what DPI is.
6. Even if (note ‘if’) it were true that most grandfathers do not know how to make use of the in-built accessibility options operating systems have (such as a magnifier for instance), whereby it is not necessary to know what DPI is, you are overlooking the fact that they can simply put on their reading glasses, just as Richard does, instead.

Ergo, what Richard has to say is not silly on both counts. (circa 2008)

Exhibit B
--

"So much so that I am currently considering my options in regards
making some changes to accommodate what more than a few
clearly would like to have happen.
Vineeto has already been looking into just what is required to take
the lock off the font size, for instance, but whatever we end up
doing it may take a little while (there is an issue with text-flow
around images, which may have to be attended to on a page-by-page
basis, as compared with a global unlock of font size)." (Richard, circa 2009)

Tarun Goel said...

There can be pure narcissists also...
Those who r so concerned about their doings that they do not want to do anything wrong [morally right narcissists]
Secondly, the fellow u just talked about was not a narcissistic, he was suffering from [Relative Impression Disorder, My Personal Finding :)]
Nice Reading It

You may[will] differ from my opinion :)

Ketan said...

Hi Harmanjit!

Very honestly, while I read your description of how narcissists justify what they 'know' to be wrong despite maintaining the association, I think I qualify!

Not that I would be shocked to draw that conclusion, because as far as I know, the ten types of personalities that form the bases of the corresponding personality disorders are representative of what 'normal' people anyway possess. They are diagnosed as personality disorders only when they cause sufficient social dysfunction.

But I am not sure if you were talking of personality disorder per se, or just the narcissistic personality type.

What I found strange in Richard's justification was this:

"I am a teetotaller in all other respects (not even caffeine these days) ..."

Above statement betrays the fact that he considers smoking at least more harmful than caffeine, yet he abstains from caffeine, but now nicotine?

What I also noticed is that in his entire response, he does not mention the possibility that he could be dependent on nicotine, or without it, he would find his life sort of incomplete, whereas that should be the most obvious reason for his continuing to smoke! I'm not sure if it is representative of some sort of insecurity of having to assess the self as less perfect (independent of 'external factors' like addictive substances) than desired.

My justification for continuing to do things that I consider wrong (sedentary lifestyle, addiction to internet and blogging) would usually be mental inertia (I don't know if there is a better term for it, maybe, passivity), which is not exactly a justification but a reason I cannot help or can't be proactive enough to try to help (am getting repetitive, hope you understand). The other justification would be unwillingness to sacrifice instantly available gratification in exchange of prospective, possibly amplified but uncertain gratification.

I really don't know if this makes me narcissistic, or something else....

Ketan said...

...But don't you think humans are intrinsically meant to be narcissistic, if its most important feature is self-centeredness? I have a "theory" for this. All our sensations impinge on our "self"; all the desires are felt within the "self"; gratification satisfies the "self"; anxiety arises in the "self". Considering these facts, is it not natural for a human to place effects on his/her "self" at the center of every decision? Is it truly possible to concede - "yes, I am less perfect than what I consider possible and I am alright with it"? I think very few people possess the ability to say the second thing.

So, what I feel is that fundamentally everyone is highly narcissistic; it is only social conditioning that makes people peep out of the "self" and try to see things from other peoples' perspectives.

I'll give an example:

Persons 'A' and 'B' both walk towards a table and see a piece of cake. What is the most natural thought that should come to their mind? I feel, it would be - "I am going to eat that cake".

What would be the most natural instinct of A when B also lays claim to the same cake? It would be the desire to eliminate B from the scene. And this is the desire that young children feel.

But why does A not eliminate B?

Because (I think), as we grow up, we develop an ability to "walk out" of our ego-bubbles. We can take a third person view of the situation.

Now, A imagines himself to be a third person - 'C'. He thinks - "one piece of cake, two people; the piece of cake can be divided at center and both A and B can eat it in equal amounts".

So now after visualizing himself as third person, C, A decides that both he and B can divide the cake into two, and eat it. Coincidentally, humans get so tuned to this kind of thinking that reflexively, both A and B think the same thing.

Is it possible that children's seeing parent divide everything into as many parts as people present attunes children to unquestioningly accept such division as the automatic thing to do?

I think narcissism is that trait of human nature that prevents our imaginative "walking out of the ego boundary". This inability to take a third person view afflicts some people more severely, and also on some particular occasions.

I do not know what factors could contribute to a weaker ability to take the third person view. Just one of the guesses is being an only child (sounds a silly idea to me, though).

Do you include the trait (wanting everything for the self and not being able to empathize) I just talked about as a part of narcissism? Or only an inordinate effort to maintain a good self-image (high self esteem) is what you consider narcissism, something which you described in the post? Are both traits more likely to occur together? Also, I think the former trait can make a person less hesitant towards deliberate as well as unintended cruelty (this idea is in line with your thoughts on absence of malice).

TC.

Harmanjit Singh said...

@ketan

I really don't know if this makes me narcissistic, or something else....

The label doesn't matter as much (except to understand and communicate), the consequences do.

Do read the following thread of articles (sometimes he may not be 100% correct, and read the comments too if you have time), and see what you find:

http://thelastpsychiatrist.com/narcissism/

As for your cake thought-experiment, altruism and selfism are both there in all of us to varying levels.

There have been some studies about fairness, altruism etc. (some even involving little kids). You may want to read various articles on altruism here: http://the-mouse-trap.com/?s=altruism and elsewhere.

The interesting aspect is: one can be seemingly altruistic in acts (a husband in a patriarchal society making tea for his wife in the morning), but narcissistic psychologically (husband thinking to himself: "Has she ever seen a husband who is so nice? I make tea for her!!!").

Anonymous said...

a good post..but i noticed that the person named Richard in Exhibit B. clearly states that it is an opinion only. Which bails him out, completely , from the label of being a Narcissist. Further, he has stated and quoted the research he has done and i have known of many people who have a similar opinion , even within hard core scientific circles.

I am still trying to make sense, how does this particular passage makes him a narcissist.