Absent-mindedness as dominance behaviour

My father told me a story once. Many years ago, he was a university professor. He taught history at St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan. He would drive his car to work, park it, and go teach his classes. But when it came time to go home, he would often find himself unable to remember where he had parked. University of Saskatchewan being one of those universities with vast parking lots extending out in all directions, he would be forced to wander through the lots looking for his car.

Life as a professor turned out to be much less than he had hoped it would be, on top of which he found himself embroiled in all sorts of acrimonious conflict with his colleagues. It got so bad that one day he just quit. He turned in his resignation, went out to the parking lot, searched around until he found his car, and drove home, never to return. Here’s the funny part of the story though. He swears that this was the last time, in his entire life, that he ever forgot where he had parked his car.

In other words, “being absent-minded” was somehow tied to “being a university professor.” It had nothing to do with his brain, it was a consequence of his social role. The day that he quit being a university professor, he also stopped being absent-minded – not intentionally, mind you, it was only decades later that he realized that he had stopped forgetting things.

I mention this because I work with a lot of very stereotypical absent-minded professors. One (former) colleague, in particular, has built an entire career playing the lovable fuddy-duddy absent-minded professor. He called me up once, on a Friday evening, wondering why I was not yet at his house. His wife had given him the task of inviting the guests to their dinner party, which he had promptly forgotten to do, and then forgotten that he had forgotten to do it. Luckily I wasn’t busy, so I hurried over.

It wasn’t always so funny though. When I was first hired, I didn’t have a driver’s license, and some of my classes were at a remote suburban campus. The fuddy-duddy professor, with whom I shared an office downtown, generously offered to give me a ride, since he drove there on the same days. One morning he was late. I sat around, getting increasingly anxious, worried about being late for my lecture. It got later and later, until eventually I had no hope of making it. Finally I went around asking if anyone knew where he was. “Oh,” I was told, “fuddy-duddy’s out of town at a conference. Didn’t he mention that to you?”

That was the end of our little car-pooling arrangement.

Now, promising someone that you will drive them to work, and then just not showing up, is conventionally known as a “dickhead move.” It shows total indifference to other people’s needs and feelings. And yet when a professor does it, it’s treated as though it were cute, and possibly a sign of genius. My colleague was so busy thinking important philosophical thoughts that of course he didn’t have time to think about tiny, insignificant things, like how his actions affected other people.

All of this has persuaded me that absent-mindedness should be viewed in much the same way that Talcott Parsons viewed illness. At its root, it is a form of social deviance. Basically, everyone would love to be absent-minded, because it allows you to skip out on all sorts of social obligations. (Again, I have colleagues who miss meetings all the time, or show up hours late saying “I could have sworn we agreed to meet at 5pm…” No one ever shows up early because they forgot what time the meeting was at.) More generally, remembering things involves a certain amount of effort, it’s obviously much easier just to be lazy and forget things. The major reason that we don’t all act this way is that most people get sanctioned for it by others. Absent-mindedness, after all, is just another form of stupidity, and when ordinary people do things like forget where they parked their cars, they get punished for it. People say things to them like, “what are you, stupid?” It’s in order to avoid being seen as stupid or incompetent by others that they feel motivated to make the effort to do things like remember where they parked their car.

Becoming a university professor, however, is a pretty good way of exempting oneself from suspicion of outright or base stupidity. When university professors do stupid things, people don’t say to them “oh my god, you’re so stupid,” or “stop being such an idiot,” instead they start making excuses, like “there he goes with his head in the clouds again,” or “he must have more important things on his mind.” In other words, they give you a free pass. Not only can you get away with being stupid, you wind up with social license to become even more stupid.

If there’s one thing that Freud taught us, it was to be suspicious of all these “involuntary” or “unconscious” mental acts. Motivated forgetting was one of his prime examples. Here is what he wrote in the Psychopathology of Everyday Life, regarding the forgetting of intentions and promises:

There are some who are noted as generally forgetful, and we excuse their lapses in the same manner as we excuse those who are short-sighted when they do not greet us in the street. Such persons forget all small promises which they have made; they leave unexecuted all orders which they have received; they prove themselves unreliable in little things; and at the same time demand that we shall not take these slight offences amiss – that is, they do not want us to attribute these failings to personal characteristics but to refer them to an organic peculiarity. I am not one of these people myself, and have had no opportunity to analyse the actions of such a person in order to discover from the selection of forgetting the motive underlying the same. I cannot forego, however, the conjecture per analogiam, that here the motive is an unusually large amount of unavowed disregard for others which exploits the constitutional factor for its purpose.

With this in mind, I thought back over all the instances I can recall of the professors I work with being absent-minded in ways that have affected me. And I asked myself, how many times did their oversight work in my favour, versus how many times did it serve to advance their own interests? For instance, how many times have colleagues who owed me money forgotten that fact, versus how many times have they forgotten when I owed them money? I am tempted to say “always” and “never,” although that would be a slight exaggeration, and in any case, I learned very quickly never to spot any money to a university professor – you’ll never see it again. In general, if you start to keep tabs, you’ll find that professors sometimes inconvenience themselves by being absent-minded, but far more often it is others who are being inconvenienced, or in some cases, are being hung out to dry.

One other thing. Men are far, far worse than women. Social deviance theory explains that quite well – women simply have a harder time getting away with it than men do, the same way they have a harder time getting students to shut up in their classrooms. They are more likely to get, or are more afraid of getting, the “what are you, stupid?” response, and so they are less bold in their effrontery.

Pierre Bourdieu used to complain about what he called the “ideology of natural taste” in the domain of aesthetics. People treat their own “taste” as thought it were merely a given, a fact about them, or something dictated by the world. And yet this taste just happens to coincide – miraculously! – with their precise class position and status ambitions. The same is true with respect to absent-mindedness. People treat it as a feature of their brains, that they are powerless to control, and yet those who exhibit the trait just happen to find themselves – miraculously! – in the privileged social position where they suffer no adverse consequences from these lapses of memory.

The more plausible explanation, in both cases, is that people are making “moves” in a game, one that involves status competition and dominance. Their understanding of this game is often implicit, and so there is often no explicit calculation underlying these moves. Nevertheless, a simple cui bono analysis is sufficient to lay bare what is going on. Thanks to this analysis, I have come to see absent-mindedness as essentially a form of male dominance behavior, and I respond to it as such. It really has given me a better grasp of the social dynamics at my workplace.


Absent-mindedness as dominance behaviour — 22 Comments

  1. There’s, of course, always an exception that proves the rule. Until I read this, I had completely forgotten that a friend (a policy consultant) owes me money. I will email her at once.

  2. Before theorizing grandly, one might try looking at what the relevant psych literature has to say about such things.

    Both high IQ and high Openness to Experience are traits that involve significant disassociation from reality because any kind of abstraction almost by definition involves taking something out of reality. Academics are high in both traits.

    So, “living in the clouds” is going to be tendency among academics. That’s not the end of the story, but it is an important place to begin. It also means pushback against this tendency is going to have to come from either other psych traits or external feedback.

    Let’s take a look at potential pushback from other personality traits.

    The trait associated with implementing plans in the real world is Conscientiousness. Academics are fairly high in the Conscientiousness subfactor Industriousness, but there is no association with the other subfactor, Orderliness, which is particularly associated with honesty, dutifulness and “doing the right thing.” Conscientiousness, as well as both its subfactors, has zero correlation with either IQ or Openness. So, this isn’t going to provide any pushback among academics.

    The trait associated with caring about personal relationships with other people is Agreeableness. In other words, not being a dick. Being an academic doesn’t have any correlation with Agreeableness, nor do IQ or Openness have any correlation with Agreeableness. So, there isn’t going to be any pushback from Agreeableness among academics.

    Now lets look at pushback from outside sources.

    Lots of other professions tend to have higher IQ. However, academia is almost unique in lacking a lot of real world feedback. If you’re a surgeon or lawyer, you get _lots_ of immediate real world feedback.

    So, what does this mean:

    a. Academia selects for people with traits that tend to push them towards absentmindedness.
    b. Academia doesn’t select for people with other psychological traits that push back against absentmindedness.
    c. Academia doesn’t provide any real world pushback to absentmindedness.
    d. The large number of absentminded people creates a social norm where absentmindedness is fine.
    e. All of the above encourage habits of absentmindedness among people in academia.

    I have no doubt that this all plays into status games people play within that environment, but that seems to be a secondary factor.

    As for fewer women engaging in this behaviour, women tend to be higher in both Orderliness and Agreeableness, so they tend to be more dutiful and better at putting plans into practice, and they also tend to care more about personal relationships. Both those traits make them less likely to be absentminded, particularly in their social relationships.

    • I forgot to mention that Orderly people actually tend to self select out of academia in favour of more practical careers, despite the fact that their IQ and Openness are as high as anyone’s. So, an environment that selects for high IQ, high Openness, low Orderliness people is going to be known for a fair amount of absentmindedness.

  3. Basically, everyone would love to be absent-minded, because it allows you to skip out on all sorts of social obligations.

    This is totally false. Highly Conscientious people, especially highly Orderly people, most definitely do not love to be absent minded, and there are quite a few of them.

  4. I worked with your father at the WDM. In those years he counted a time when he couldn’t,t recall the date of the French Revolution. He laughed it off! I was very impressed with his ability to analyze situations and formulate collective solutions to the ongoing problems that arose. His intellect inspired me in all of my future. Endeavours. Thanks for your column.

  5. One observation: most academics have nothing like the organizational support a personal secretary or personal assistant would provide (the excellent work done by many department administrative staff members notwithstanding). Putative “geniuses” in other lines of work that society rewards with better pay (business, law, arts, athletics) often have assistants or “handlers” or the like. If such organizational support were financially feasible within academia, perhaps fewer professors would seem absentminded in the relevant sense. This observation is no excuse for “dickhead” behavior by any means. It’s just intended as a stab at some of what’s going on empirically.

    • If this were the case you would expect the same degree of absent-mindedness in male and female professors alike, which is not the case, per Heath, because of the higher penalty females have to pay for absent-mindedness.

      • If *what* were the case? I make no claim that my observation explains absentmindedness in the relevant sense. I do conjecture that the availability of personal assistants or handlers would mitigate the felt effects that at least some absentminded professors have on others in a way that would, perhaps, mitigate the felt absentmindedness of professors as opposed to people in business, law, art, athletics, etc. This is all consistent with the claim that women pay a higher price for absentmindedness.

  6. This is a wildly irresponsible essay, in a surprisingly transparent and embarrassing way. First, there is the empirical part: from the author’s anecdotal sense, absent-minded professors’ mental lapses tend to serve themselves more than others (“I thought about all the cases…” – I’m not making that up!), and from this “research” he infers that professors IN GENERAL, when apparently absent-minded, are actually acting on a kind of selfishness or other anti-social or at least deviant behavior (Freud’s “disregard”).

    Both the “data” and the inference are at best suspect, for reasons that would not escape most readers.

    For one, the author doesn’t even consider the possibility that we’re all more likely to know about absent-mindedness that adversely affects us (others) than when it affects the professors alone (self). Nor does he notice the obvious, brick-in-the-face counterexample of his own lead sentence (!), his father’s forgetting where he parked. Whom, exactly, was Dad inconveniencing there?

    Another obvious, if inconvenient, piece of data is tacitly conceded in the point about effort. Yes, it takes effort to remember things, to keep on top of appointments, commitments, cars, directions, even getting dressed properly. You’re right. Indeed, like any other tasks, cognitive or behavioral, it takes skill. So might it be at least possible — just go with me for a second — that not everyone is as good at it as the next person? Indeed — follow me — couldn’t some be BETTER at it, and others WORSE? Indeed, isn’t memory — like all cognitive capacities — the sort of thing that some have MORE, and others have LESS? When Alzheimer’s patients begin to forget appointments, is it at least possible that a skill or capability, rather than a moral regard, is eroding in their brains? Just a little possible, maybe??

    No, couldn’t be, because to admit any of that — and its absolute denial is essential to the author’s thesis — would deprive you of the opportunity to malign the core characters of a whole class of people who’ve pissed you off. At least Freud was responsible enough to admit that he wasn’t in the class of people he was speculating about, and so didn’t really know for sure what lay behind their behavior. But then Freud didn’t have the benefit of this author’s vast research…

  7. Except when absent-mindedness IS a feature of their brains that they are powerless to control. The example of the absent-minded prof who had horrible working circumstances that went away when he quit could just as easily be about leaving a stressful situation than about leaving a professor’s position. Stress and memory problems are linked. And wasting time looking for his lost car at the University of Saskatchewan, where it is serious winter for most of the school year–I doubt that was fun. When I read, “Basically, everyone would love to be absent-minded, because it allows you to skip out on all sorts of social obligations” I have to admit that I was gobsmacked. Memory problems are terrifying. Sure there are profs who can “get away with this behaviour.” Some of those cases could be caused by privilege, and some of them can be caused by other things and permitted by privilege. Some of these cases do harm to other people and some don’t. Some are permanent and some are transient. I don’t doubt that there is some dominant absent mindless out there. It can be highly salient because it puts burdens on others. But I bet there is not as much absentmindedness, or dominant absent mindedness, as we think there is. There is a lot of biological and neurological diversity out there. It would be nice to see the analysis in this article attend more closely to some of that diversity.

  8. You should be more sensitive to two possibilities. One is that some of the absent-mindedness you encounter is the result of genuine cognitive or behavioral deficits, which are no fun for the prof either. As someone with a lot of experience with cognitive decline and disability, I find that while – true enough – some forgetful folks flake out of selfish disregard or status moves (think of Trump), others do it out of a lifelong difficulty with certain everyday tasks you and I take for granted. And academia, I happen to know, disproportionately attracts such people, for reasons I won’t get into here (another commenter has covered this nicely).

    The second possibility you should have kept in mind is that the asymmetry you observe, between self-harming and other-harming absent-mindedness, is likely a distortion due to our limited perspective. Basically: it’s just a lot easier for us to encounter the absent-mindedness that affects others, usually ourselves. In contrast, when someone comes too early, to use your example, we don’t see it because he embarrassedly leaves the empty room or empty table. When they lose their wallet or car or blow a job interview, or ruin their credit by forgetting payment deadlines, or miss a flight, they don’t exactly advertise it. But they don’t enjoy it, either.

    I emphasize these points because what you say here can hurt a lot of people, some of them already vulnerable, on what I think are shaky empirical grounds. I understand that you’ve suffered from their annoying blunders and brainfarts. But believe me, they’ve REALLY suffered from them.

  9. I think it is quite easy to concede the following point to the critics here in the comments: that some subset of people who display this sort of “absent-minded” behaviour are, indeed, suffering from real cognitive issues and so don’t deserve scorn.

    However, as anyone who works with professors in an administrative or other non-academic capacity will tell you (my spouse is one such), what Prof Heath describes is FAR more common than what can be explained by a few people with genuine cognitive difficulties. Indeed, what Prof Heath describes here rings true. Professors, especially men, occupy by virtue of their social and gender position a space in which there are no consequences to being “absent-minded” such that they can offload work or responsibility onto other people, or take actions which inconvenience or even harm other people. Certainly this is not true of every professor, but it is a very real phenomenon, and you need only ask those most directly affected by it whether it exists.

    • I don’t think anyone’s denying that academics exhibit the behaviors Prof Heath describes, nor the harms they inflict, and that many (white, male) get away with it more than they should. But he took the extra step of diagnosing the problem by breezily maligning the motives and characters of those who act this way, and he did it based on flimsy evidence he was demonstrably in no position to evaluate, for all the reasons already pointed out on this thread.

      Also, the dichotomy of “real cognitive issues” vs. culpable absent-mindedness is misleading. Remembering and keeping track of personal plans and commitments is a cluster of skills and tasks that some might find more difficult, irrespective of their motives and latent “status” issues.

      This all may be a sorry instance of the common fallacy of moralistically finding fault in equal measure to the harm people inflict on us: if they hurt us this much, they must be jerks. Grow up, people.

  10. So, speaking as someone who has had chronic memory problems, including forgetting a lot of errands I’m supposed to run — I’m reasonably sure that they were the result of stress, chronic sleep deprivation, and a medication that I was on. And I was punished for them constantly, and I felt horrible about myself, and I wondered if I had early-onset dementia, and yes, I’m sure the added stress made the initial problem worse in a spiraling feedback cycle. I would like to add my personal anecdata to the above comments pointing out that you are absolutely going to be unaware of all the instances where the forgetting is an act of SELF-harm, and indeed, your first example speaks more to me about your father’s stressful environment (which probably contributed to an attentional deficit — he could not remember where he was parked because he didn’t fully register where he was parked to begin with, because his attention was probably concentrated on the stress of the upcoming day). And I’m going to agree that this very self-centered essay of yours is a slap in the face to people who are not in control of this, and who are dealing with a problem which causes them tremendous worry.

  11. I would agree with many commenters here that high stress also tends to make people more absentminded. I don’t think high stress is a general explanation for why academics tend to be more absentminded than people in other professions. Lots of other professions, like law and surgery, are high stress, but are not noted for absentmindedness.

    However the high stress environment that our host’s father was in does provide an alternate explanation for why he in particular was absentminded while in academia, but not absentminded once out of academia.

    A more careful canvassing of the possibilities would have been appreciated.

  12. What are the odds that Joseph forwarded this article to all his collegaues as a passive aggressive way of telling them that he is going to start to behave rudely when people rely on ‘absent-mindedness’ as a excuse.

  13. It might be interesting to see if profs with tenure are more absent-minded than those still striving.

  14. This is an interesting argument that makes many valid points. As someone who has suffered mild brain damage as the result of an accident and has become even more absent minded as a result, I struggle to improve, and often catch myself using absent mindedness as an excuse for behavior that deeply disturbs me. Absent mindedness, as an excuse, and as a form of dominance behavior, certainly exists and is a problem. For some it is likely intentional, faking absent mindedness to get out of things one doesn’t want to do, (which is by definition lying and not absent mindedness at all). However, genuine absent mindedness needs to be treated more like a lack of a skill that is developed with some combination of practice and innate abilities out of our control.

    Being absent minded is lazy in the same way that being shy is lazy or being bad at math is lazy. These things are skills that can be improved with hard work, but we would also be fooling ourselves by saying that if absent minded people just tried a bit harder their behavior would greatly improve. Everyone is different and this post bothers me because it seems to deny people’s personal experiences. Don’t pretend you know how hard someone is trying to improve on their absent mindedness. For some, a mere few seconds worth of work per day will suffice, for others it will require hours every day over the course of many years to train the brain. Many absent minded people who need to spend several hours a day to improve may have decided that the benefits of improvement aren’t worth the time commitment, just as a shy person or someone bad at math may make the same calculation.

    Indeed you make an excellent point that absent mindedness is a bit different because it directly harms others quite a bit [you make the claim it harms others more than the person who is absent minded. That is clearly a dubious assertion for which other commenters have addressed]. However, the fact that absentmindedness harms others is undeniable and is a difficult predicament. What we need to do is incentivize the lack of absentmindedness more as a valuable skill in academia to motivate people to improve, and to make the considerable cost absentminded people need to correct their behavior worth it for them on an individual level.

  15. I enjoyed the article – thanks for writing it. As a female academic much of this rings true to me; I often can’t believe the level of irresponsibility some of my male colleagues are allowed to get away with under the guise of ‘lovably’ quirky disorganization. What has motivated me to comment here, however, is the rude and dismissive tone of many of the commentators. Why the hostility? Is that really necessary? Is it so hard to have a civil conversation? I hope you don’t speak to an interlocutor like this in real life.

    • My own comments were rather more hostile than I’ve ever been, and I regret it. Not called for. It bears mention, though, that this post is most unusual, in that its main point is to level an insult. Specifically, it argues that a group of people, whom you might have thought blameless or at least excusable, should be judged badly.

      Just think of the same argument about stutterers: “it turns out that stutterers are control freaks with a superiority complex who use their “problem” to force others to wait for them to get their words out, thereby dominating them.” You can imagine how that might offend folks (not just stutterers), even if it could be supported by the evidence that stuttering mostly impacts listeners, rather than when they’re talking to themselves.

      p.s. re. “interlocutors,” I can’t speak for the others but in my field we rarely have interlocutors, the way y’all seem to have out the wazoo.