Jordan Ellenberg has a great article up on Slate on “The Mathematics of Narcissism.” There are two related themes running through it.
One theme surrounds the overhaul of the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition Revised (DSM IV-R), the “Bible” for psychiatric professionals. The DSM is the way in which psychiatrists and psychologists classify mental disorders into clumps so that we can use a common language in talking about patients and diseases. The other is about the ranking of graduate programs. Finding the commonality between these two themes is a great reason to read the article, which I highly recommend.
The overhaul of the DSM is an infrequent and important event in psychology and psychiatry. In the immortal words of Vice President Joe Biden, “It’s a big fucking deal!” Basically, the revisions in the DSM codify and standardize the current models of how the mind works. In order to standardize the classification and treatment of psychiatric disorders, we need a book that describes to the best of our current ability what is wrong and what is right.
For example, homosexual behavior was removed from the DSM-IIR in 1973. This reflects not so much a change in how homosexual behavior is processed by the brain (at least, we would certainly hope not) but rather a change in how science and scientists perceive the workings of the human brain. Are there politics in such decisions? You betcha, and we’ve discussed some of these in previous 538 Refugees posts. Still, one would hope that, over time, we develop models of how the human mind works that do a better and better job of explaining experimental findings.
As we’ve discussed before, science may progress by testing hypotheses (fine-grained, detailed), but it also works by coming up with explanatory models (coarse-grained, universal). As our tools and observations improve, so do our explanatory models.
The news that narcissism is to be removed from the next edition (DSM-V) and the rankings of graduate programs in Ellenberg’s view (and in mine) have similar problems. What we, as humans want, is a simple ranking. AFI has the Top 100 Movies of All Time. (White Heat doesn’t make the cut, but “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” is the 18th best quote in the movies and Cody Jarrett is the 26th most villianous villian.) Which is the “best” graduate program? Which is the “best” measure of narcissism? (“He’s a 98% narcissist, but I’m only an 83% narcissist.”)
In political terms, who is the “best” Republican Presidential candidate in 2012? What is the “best” solution to reduce the deficit?
In reality, that sort of analysis doesn’t do a very good job of what we need to do. We need to say, “these are characteristics most often shared by people who _____________.” To wit:
Diagnostic criteria for 301.81 Narcissistic Personality Disorder
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
- has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
- is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
- requires excessive admiration
- has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
- is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
- lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
- shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
But people don’t do very well with such classification schemes. They crave black-and-white answers in cardinal order (11th best quote: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”). Unfortunately, in the real world of politics, as in the real world of science, there are no such answers—only probabilities.
I believe that we need to work towards a world where we say, “these are the features we’re looking for in (health care reform/tax policies/deficit reduction schemes)” and then pick the plan that comes closest to the ideal. Others may see it another way, which is why we have a discussion section.
- Is It Time to Redefine Narcissism? (thedailybeast.com)
- Narcissism in High-Functioning Individuals — Big Ego or Severe Disorder? (brainblogger.com)
- Narcissism: The Malady of Me (nytimes.com)
- Bullish: How to Tell if You’re a Narcissist (and How It Might Be Holding You Back) (thegloss.com)
- The common statistical thread between psychiatric diagnosis and grad school rankings. (slate.com)
- Personality Disorders Shakeup in DSM-5 (psychcentral.com)
- It’s All About Me: But Is Narcissism A Disorder? (npr.org)
- Mind: A Fate That Narcissists Will Hate: Being Ignored (nytimes.com)