Narcissists can show up in many different contexts and scenarios in life, but one particularly interesting type of narcissist is the intellectual (or psuedo-intellectual) or academic narcissist, whose ego is primarily wrapped up in their mental capability and academic accomplishments.
These narcissists are actually very different to the fun loving hedonistic narcissist, and live a very different lifestyle, but their underlying personality is every bit as grandiose and narcissistic. The context may differ, but all narcissists have the same sense of “uniqueness”, “specialness”, grandiosity and entitlement that is applied to their environment and interactions.
And parts of the academic and intellectual establishment (particularly the university system) can actually lend themselves very well to narcissists, providing a safe, protected, comfortable and often well funded and well tenured environment in which narcissists can grow very satisfied with themselves and ensconced into a certain setting that mirrors their own view of themselves and acts as an echo chamber of sorts.
Therefore narcissists are not uncommon in academia; I’ve met several myself when I was passing through the system.
Here are some common traits of the academic or intellectual narcissist:
- A general obsession with status, tenure and prestige.
- Feels automatically entitled to praise and reward for their work.
- Arrogant and dismissive of those with contrarian views.
- Often extremely sensitive to any criticism of their work.
- Petty and immature
- Not creative or vocational.
- A grandiose and exaggerated view of their work, which is often mediocre on closer inspection
- Often incoherent and rambling, not clear thinking.
- Envious of truly creative writers and scholars.
- Attacks non conformist, questioning students.
But this is just a very cursory, introductory list. Let’s look at the entire subset of academic/intellectual narcissists in more detail – how their narcissism manifests, some common traits and characteristics, plus some personal accounts of dealing with these types of narcissists.
Understanding Cerebral vs Somatic Narcissism
To better understand the kind of narcissism you’ll often encounter with intellectual and academic narcissists in universities especially, it’s important to understand the different types of narcissism; the different ego-investments and vanities narcissists can have, depending on their environment and attributes.
A distinction that’s important to make here is how a narcissist generates their supply, and a good criteria to use here is personality disorder expert Sam Vaknin’s distinction between cerebral and somatic narcissism.
Narcissistic supply is just some form of reinforcement or validation (psychological “food”) to the narcissist that their false, grandiose view of themselves is true. With regards to how different narcissists generate their supply
- Cerebral narcissists generate their supply by applying their minds (intellect, wit, humor etc).
- Somatic narcissists generate their supply by applying their bodies (beauty, fitness, sports, sex etc)
- Wherever a narcissist draws their supply from will become a significant ego-investment for them, and is therefore a weak spot for them psychologically, because they will be vain about that particular thing. Their (very fragile) ego is wrapped up in it.
Therefore under this distinction, the intellectual or academic narcissist is very clearly a cerebral narcissist, who draws their supply from what they do with their minds, their intellect.
These narcissists are rarely vain about how they look; they are vain about their intellectual or academic accomplishments, their perceived IQ or intelligence, and their status and credentials within their academic circle.
Common Characteristics Of The Intellectual/Academic Narcissist
Given that we’ve defined this particular type of cerebral narcissist, here are some common signs you might of an academic or intellectual narcissist using their chosen field to feed themselves supply and prop up their fragile ego:
- Will constantly be chasing prestige, status and tenure within their academic circle, as a way of feeding themselves narcissistic supply. Will have their ego wrapped up in whether they’re able co-publish with renowned academics and/or on big papers/studies, in big journals. And if they do gain prestige, will use this a lever of power to manipulate and influence others.
- Often full of petty/immature envy, taking great delight in pointing out flaws in the work of others, or trying to bring down others who are more intelligent and creative than them.
- In contrast to the last point, they are often very sensitive to any criticism of their work, flying off the handle at any kind of valid objection or criticism or corrections. As narcissists, they take any slight against their work to by extension be a slight against themselves ( and their fragile ego). Struggle to deal with criticism maturely.
- Often also arrogant, haughty, intolerant and dismissive of those with contrarian views within their circle. Will likely be especially obnoxious with anyone that challenges or opposes them, and openly bully colleagues and students who challenge them in ways they can’t handle or expose the mediocrity of their work (more on my own experience with this below).
- To maintain the image of academic and intellectual “openness”, they’ll often surround themselves with a bunch of “useful idiots”, who constantly feed their ego and offer only very slight criticism or objections of their work, so as not to cause them narcissistic injury. They will be very good at creating their own “echo chambers“. If they have a spouse, they will often be made to take this role (see examples below).
- Often talks in circles, spewing out lots of clever sounding words, but never really getting anywhere, never reaching any conclusions. Often “faffs around” intellectually, filling up conversations with words for the sake of words, but no substance there.
- You will also often find them surprising poor at properly defining the terms they are using. They also might create a “closed loop” of constantly referring back to arbitrary terms they’ve created and used and treating that as a “reference”, when it isn’t.
- NOT creative. A huge one. The primary motive for their intellectualism is feeding themselves supply and aggrandizing themselves. Not to really add value or make the world a better place. As with all narcissists, they are self serving and not vocational or creative.
- As a result of their lack of creativity, they may be more of a journeyman in academia, despite what their grandiose image of themselves may be. They might be industrious and churn out work, but little or none of it is truly original or creative.
- If they are academics, their writing style will often be largely in-penetrable, waffling and waffling and taking forever to reach a point. Their work will often be tortuous to try reading, with loads of dense, clever sounding language used, but no real substance or depth. Contrast this with a truly creative scholar or writer, who will “bring their subject to life”, speaking and writing in an engaging and easy to understand way.
- Related to the last point, because of their grandiose sense of self, if they haven’t been particularly successful, they’ll often have a persecution complex. They’ll feel that their work has never been “truly valued or understood”. In reality, it’s because their work is mediocre and doesn’t add value, but a narcissist would never see it that way – it’s always the world at fault, not them.
The university system can be the perfect environment for attention and status seeking narcissists
It has to be said that not all academics and intellectuals who meet some of these criteria are narcissists. Some might just fit “that stereotype” of the grey haired, cardigan wearing academic, who has spent their entire life teaching theory instead of applying it in the real world, and is firmly set in their ways and ensconced in their “ivory tower” of academic life. But they don’t have a personality disorder.
The narcissistic academic by contrast, alongside many of these traits, will tick off the traits for Narcissistic Personality Disorder or NPD, including arrogance, entitlement, envy, preoccupation with power and influence, a sense of “specialness and uniqueness”, lack of empathy, and a manipulative and exploitative style of interaction with others.
It has been well noted by others that narcissists often inhabit this academic or intellectual sphere however. Here are some other resources I’ve come across which have made similar observations to mine on this topic:
- Chapter 6 of Nietzche’s Beyond Good & Evil (“We Scholars“) gives some more applicable overviews of the petty, narrow minded type of narcissist intellectuals you would encounter in the education system even back in his day. Nothing much has changed in over a century.
- Economist Murray Rothbard also wrote an excellent scathing piece on the invasion of this type of arrogant, narcissistic post-modernist psuedo-intellectual into the philosophy and economics fields, hiding behind ideas of postmodernism and “subjectivism” to “faff about” in endless discussion, never actually moving anywhere or arriving at a useful conclusion.
- See also this provocative but insightful video from Stefan Molyneux on Intellectuals and the State.
- See here for a great debunking of psuedo-intellectual “Red Pill” author Rollo Tomassi, where he follows this general pattern of rambling and rambling using inaccurately defined terms, but producing little of real substance, that you’ll often find with intellectual and academic narcissists.
My Own Personal Experience With An Academic Narcissist
I’ll briefly describe my own experience with a particularly obnoxious person I encountered at university, who I now can see clearly was a narcissist.
He has his ego wrapped up in a sense of “specialness” and “uniqueness” in terms of one of the more philosophical modules he offered. The general narcissistic undertone I picked up from him was “well, those other modules on theory and application are all fine, but my module is extra-special, because it examines the philosophical back workings and underpinnings of the subject. It’s a step above everything else that’s on offer”.
I took the module, thinking it would be interesting, but when I got to it, his course material was actually completely mediocre and dull.
There was a constant intellectual “faffing around”, where he introduced all kinds of clever sounding methodological and philosophical words, but none of it actually ever went anywhere in seminars or lectures. It was just going round in circles, asking a load of questions with an air of narcissistic self importance, but never actually arriving at any conclusions.
I very quickly saw through it all, having studied the writings of others know really did know what they were talking about in terms of methodology and philosophy, and were very able to “sift through the nonsense” and arrive at very clear conclusions on what avenues were (and more importantly, were NOT) fruitful in terms of methodology and study in the subject concerned.
When I tried to introduce some of this stuff into the seminars, he did not respond very well. He started attacking me at every opportunity thereafter, both verbally and through non verbal cues, generally acting in really disrespectful and unprofessional ways towards me. He tried to embarrass me in front of other students several times.
It was really unprofessional, obnoxious stuff from him. As all of this continued, I began thinking to myself “what is this guy’s problem? He seems to be attacking me whenever he can in lectures, seminars, through his comments on my work. I’m not doing anything to him. It just seems like me being me and just existing is irritating him”.
I didn’t have any understanding of narcissism at the time, and it was only years later when I gained more understanding that I realized why he attacked me so obnoxiously:
The (very valid) questions and non-conformist perspectives I was bringing to the discussion were rubbing his face in the ordinariness of his course material. It was causing him narcissistic injury.
The entire approach I took to the subject was (unbeknownst to me at the time) sending him the message “your course material is really nothing special, and I really have no interest in your take on the subject”.
And given that he was a narcissist, this really rubbed him up the wrong way, and that’s why he behaved so obnoxiously towards me. A more open minded and truly philosophical academic with a less fragile ego would of course welcome open discussion and different perspectives, especially in a module that’s specifically meant to be philosophical, as this one was.
But narcissists aren’t interested in any of that. He was hiding behind the “philosophy of….” and “methodology” labels to give his module, and by extension himself, an air of importance and superiority. But in terms of his real personality, he was as far from a real philosopher as you could ever get.
However, it is also true that this kind of restriction of free thinking and non-conformity is largely built into the way the education system works, and is fostered even by non-narcissistic teachers.
It reminds me of a great quote from economist and forecaster Martin Armstrong on the common dynamic that happens when any kind of free thinking type comes up against a closed minded, non-creative and often narcissistic academic/intellectual type within the education system, and how this system usually narcissistically punishes non conformity and creativity out of students:
“Formal education is the way we perpetuate our mistakes forward. When I hire, I do not look at fake degrees. I look at the person and their thinking process…… If your child does not do well in school because they are bored rather than incapable of understanding such subjects, then they may be what people call a genius. Geniuses are often misunderstood in classrooms and are typically poor students whom teachers dislike because they are non-conformists. Studies at the University of Chicago and the University of Minnesota have found that teachers smile at children with high IQs and frown upon those with creative minds.
The intelligent yet un-creative students accept conformity, never rebel, and complete their assignments quickly and perfectly. The creative child questions everything and accepts nothing. They are much more manipulative, imaginative, and intuitive growing up. They will often play one parent against another. In school, teachers dislike them because they will harass the teacher with questions that expose the illogical dogma they teach.
These genius children are often viewed as wild, naughty, silly, undependable, and lacking in seriousness or even promise. They even said that of Albert Einstein. Their behavior is typically distracting and they will often appear lazy, bored, and lacking any effort to try to advance, but in truth, they are absorbing everything around them”.
However, narcissist lecturers and teachers will take this kind of behavior up several notches, sometimes being really vicious and obnoxious in the way they crush the non conformism and opposition they see in others. I would never claim to fit the “genius” mold Armstrong is talking about above; all I did was ask very fair questions and bring very reasonable perspectives to the table, and this still sent this particular lecturer into a childish, petty fit of “narcissistic injury” that lasted the remainder of the module.
Therefore if an intellectual or academic narcissist ever comes up against a truly creative, free thinking type at any stage in the education system, you can be sure they’ll respond to them in this obnoxious manner, because they envy the creative thinker for their ability, because they can never be truly creative themselves.
Some More Accounts on Academic Narcissists
This experience of being in a relationship with an intellectual or academic narcissist, and seeing how their personality disorder affects the way they behave, is surprisingly common. University faculties are full of these types; I’ve seen them myself for sure.
Here are a couple of other accounts that should resonate with others who’ve had similar experiences with these narcissistic psuedo-intellectual types.
Elan Golomb on Intellectual Narcissists
Elan Golomb’s book “Trapped in the Mirror” is a fantastic read for people who’ve grown up with narcissistic parents. See the Narcissism section of our Books page for a link.
It has several good accounts of what it’s like living with an intellectual or academic type of narcissist, especially since one of them is of her own father. Chapters 3 and 10 are especially instructive on this and have some great quotes.
Firstly, regarding her own narcissistic intellect/writer father living a life of strict self absorbed routine, with his wife serving as a servant and echo chamber:
“My father exists in a rigidly structured routine in which the central, controlling factor, as one would expect with a narcissist, is himself. He has embarked upon a writing program which has consumed most of his time for the last ten years. His schedule is as follows: up at eight, exercise…breakfast served by wife (who has already eaten), write until lunch, eat lunch, write until four, stop, go for a half hour run, return and take a nap, get up and have dinner served by wife (who has already eaten), watch TV…lecture to wife on political topics…reads until 2am and goes to sleep. Time spent trying to please his wife by meeting her needs: nil.
In order to be with him, she must type his manuscripts, cook and serve his meals, listen to his political analyses, making only slight attempts to disagree with him on minor points, so as to maintain the illusion of being a separate person”
Trapped in the Mirror, p.38
Many people will recognize the self centeredness and the exploitative enlisting of the help of a friend or spouse as a submissive slave or “useful idiot” to support their lifestyle and prop up their fragile ego. This is the sort of pattern that can play out when it’s more of a intellectual narcissist than a hedonistic or somatic one – a life of rigid routine and intellectual pomposity and seriousness.
And then later in the chapter, more on the narcissistic psuedo-intellect “holding court” with a captive audience, and acting in that bellicose, loud mouthed way many readers will recognize of narcissists:
“In the car, my father dominated the conversation with his version of the fight they were having with the co-op board…..He produced an extremely loud, strident and remarkable torrent of words…No one could interrupt him. If anyone tried, they were angrily told to wait until he had finished. We were his captive audience, his slaves…..Most of me was in a deadened state, even as I went through the motions of joining in the chatter. It was his show now.”
And then later on in Chapter 10, she describes Alan, a true academic narcissist, holding court again in that superior way that’s very familiar:
“Alan chose to be the center of sound, an outpouring of words that brooked no interruption…..He induced (a feeling of inadequacy in listeners) with a constant string of scholarly references followed by the question “Have you read……?” which I hadn’t….
His thinking was crammed with information tangential to the point, philosophical and literary asides, name dropping of specialized social movements. He was the master of quantity and speed. He talked me deaf and dumb, filling the silent spaces I needed to breathe or think….
He would use the few points I made as a jumping-off point for an ever greater torrent of words. He used words and ideas to hide himself. He would dominate our conversation with own flow of speech. Quantity, obscurity, tangential thinking, interpolated sub-themes, any and every trick to confuse and lose the listener. He didn’t want you to get too near him and he didn’t want to be understood”.
This should resonate with anyone who’s dealt with an academic/intellectual narcissist – they just fill the air up with clever sounding words, but does any of actually fit together in a logical and relatable way? Or as the old saying goes, “they talking, but they’re not actually saying anything“. It’s about image and appearance, not substance, with the narcissist.
And then more on causing narcissistic injury to Alan by simply bringing up a valid disagreement with of his “theses”:
“I was shocked when I received the first wave of Alan’s fury. I had contradicted him! I was disputing his knowledge of Jewish history. He started citing sociological texts and asking me if I had read them. He announced that until I did, I was in no position to conduct my study. He was trying to put me out of business….
This was the first person I had interviewed whose narcissism was so great as to require total protection from a foreign idea or voice. His narcissism has been somewhat rearranged and concealed by a facade of therapized rationalization. But it was still classic (narcissism).
p. 125-6, 129.
The rest of this chapter also contains many more instances of this very familiar, narcissistic reaction of being quick to temper and “flying off the handle” at even the slightest disagreements, that you’ll often find with intellectual narcissists. They consider their ideas, and work, and by extension themselves, as superior to others, and do not like their ego-investment in this punctured in any way.
Richard Grannon on Exploitative Academic Narcissists
Narcissism expert Richard Grannon also has another excellent account of how an academic narcissist, if they do manage to fairly or unfairly gain some level of power and prestige in their field, will readily use this to exploit others for their own ends :
“There is always a hook (that draws people in to relationships with narcissists).
With someone I knew, it was an academic thing. She could only get into that particular academic field through the not particularly pleasant (narcissist) character who was dangling the academic credentials in front of her.
(He was saying) “well you can publish a couple of papers with me. I’m the most famous professor on this subject in the world. Do you want my name to be right next to your name?”
And she was like “yes please”. (And the narcissist was like): “well, this is how it happens”
The narcissistic personality is fundamentally manipulative and exploitative – it’s one of main diagnostic traits of NPD – so this behavior shouldn’t come as any surprise, if a narcissist ever gains a position of status in the academic field. I suspect this kind of trading of favors and exploitation of tenure, credentials and prestige by narcissists is not uncommon in some academic circles.