Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Are Assholes More Successful in Academia?

No_asshole Following up on my prior posts (links below):  Inside High Ed, Academic Jerks:

It’s a discussion that started over beer and chips and grew into a blog post now grabbing attention in higher education circles: Do asses do better in academe than their more tactful peers?

“All of us had a story or two to tell about academic colleagues who had been rude, dismissive, passive aggressive or even outright hostile to us in the workplace,” Inger Mewburn, director of research training at Australian National University, wrote in a recent post called Academic Assholes and the Circle of Niceness for her popular blog, The Thesis Whisperer. “As we talked we started to wonder: Do you get further in academe if you are a jerk?”

She continues: “I assume people act like jerks because they think they have something to gain, and maybe they are right…. Cleverness is a form of currency in academia; or ‘cultural capital’ if you like. If other academics think you are clever they will listen to you more; you will be invited to speak at other institutions, to sit on panels and join important committees and boards. Appearing clever is a route to power and promotion. If performing like an asshole in a public forum creates the perverse impression that you are more clever than others who do not, there is a clear incentive to behave this way.”

Mewburn, whose 2-year-old blog is dedicated to minimizing attrition among Ph.D. students, said in an e-mail interview that she was inspired to write the piece in part by reading The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't by Bob Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University. ...

The idea is resonating with academics across the Internet; the post has generated more than 100 comments and has been shared thousands of times on Facebook, Twitter and other blogs. Ph.D. students in particular have responded to Mewburn’s observation that faculty jerks can use research critiques more as an opportunity to display their own academic prowess to each other – sometimes cruelly – than to examine the candidate’s work. ...

Mewburn, who's been working at Australian for three weeks, also cites research supporting the idea that mean guys finish first, including Teresa Amabile’s famous 1983 publication, “Brilliant but Cruel: Perceptions of Negative Evaluators."  In that study, negative evaluators of books were perceived as more intelligent, competent and expert than positive evaluators, even when the content of the positive review was independently judged as being of higher quality. ...

Although Mewburn spends much of the post describing how nasty behavior can advance one’s academic career, she argues that, in the end, the phenomenon hurts institutions because talented but polite people leave. “Ultimately we are all diminished when clever people walk away from academia,” she wrote. “So what can we do? It’s tempting to point the finger at senior academics for creating a poor workplace culture, but I’ve experienced this behavior from people at all levels of the academic hierarchy. We need to work together to break the circle of nastiness.”

Amabile agreed that the cycle needs to be broken, for other reasons. “Although it’s important to have high standards in academia, I think that the negativity bias can have a chilling effect on creativity," she said. "All new ideas seem odd and lack grounding when they are first put forward. If people fear getting slammed when they come out with something truly new, they can become very conservative.”

Sutton, author of The No Asshole Rule, said he wasn’t sure if higher education was any more rife with assholes than any other profession. ... But, he said, there are certainly structural and personality factors that contribute to cruelty in academe. Scholars -- many of whom enjoy working independently and can be “socially inept” to begin with -- work "in a reward system in which we’re selected and rewarded and promoted and glorified and given raises for doing completely selfish things.” ...

To correct this, Sutton said, institutions can adopt their own, sometimes literal “no asshole rules” and reward systems that encourage scholars to consider others' needs, along with their own. Such moves benefit the organization as a whole, he said, as negative attitudes are contagious and the “rotten apple” effect lowers productivity. Of course, he added, it's important to be able to distinguish when peers are attacking an idea to advance it versus when they're attacking a colleague for their own ends.

The idea that bad attitudes can be "contagious" is why Mewburn thinks her post has been so popular. "It chimes with our experience of everyday academic life," she said. "A lot academic posturing is performance art. A colleague can be a shit to you in a seminar and then be perfectly nice at a party," and no one is immune from such behavior.

"Most people think of themselves as nice, so the temptation is to relate to the article as victims," she said, "but I was trying to point out that we all have the potential to catch the asshole virus and must be ever-vigilant."

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It's flattering to see that Prof. Tamanaha reads Taxprof.

Posted by: michael livingston | Feb 28, 2013 2:19:28 AM

I see what might be a major misinterpretation of the Amabile study. It doesn't sounds like it corrects for the endogeneity of review negativity. Suppose you are trying to figure out how smart two people are. One writes a negative review and the other writes a positive review, both of the same quality in terms of writing style, creativity, insight, and so forth. Suppose, too, that you know that smart people are more likely to write negative reviews (the reason doesn't matter; it might be that they aren't so dependent on mutual admiration societies). You will logically conclude that the writer of the negative review is smarter, simply by virtue of having written a negative review.

Thus, if readers are making rational decisions rather than systematic mistakes, the inference from the Amabile study should be that people who write negative reviews tend to be smarter than people who write positive ones, other things equal.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | Feb 27, 2013 8:29:51 AM

That's funny Michael, since I vaguely recall you calling me an a------s (or some version thereof).

Posted by: Brian Tamanaha | Feb 27, 2013 7:20:30 AM

In my experience the biggest a------s are the ones who accuse other people of being them

Posted by: michael livingston | Feb 27, 2013 2:37:25 AM

The heck with Academia!

Can you say "Partner at a Big Law Firm"? There are few places on earth that the axiom about "assholes/cream rising to the top" is more true. The asshole factor in the AMLaw 100 is off the charts.

Been there, done that, got the scars to prove it.

Posted by: Doug | Feb 26, 2013 4:41:39 PM