Why aren’t math professors sociopaths?

Great open from Chris Hayes:

Imagine you’re a scientist in some sci-fi alternate universe, and you’ve been charged with creating a boot camp that will reliably turn normal but ambitious people into broken sociopaths more or less willing to do anything.

There are two main traits you’d want to cultivate in your recruits. The first would be terror: You’d want to ensure that the experimental subjects were kept off-­balance and insecure, always fearful that bad things would happen, that they would be humiliated or lose their position and be cast out. But at the same time, it would be crucial that you assiduously inculcate a towering sense of superiority, the belief that the project they happen to be engaged in is more important than anything and that, because of their remarkable skills and efforts, they are among the select few chosen to be a part of it. You’d want to simultaneously make them neurotically insecure and self-doubting and also filled with the conviction that they and their colleagues are smarter and better and more deserving than anyone else.

He’s writing about young investment bankers, whose lives, such as they are, are described in Kevin Roose’s new book “Young Money.”  But doesn’t this boot camp actually describe the Ph.D. experience pretty well?  And if so, why aren’t math professors sociopaths?

I can think of one reason:  in finance, the thing you are trying to do is screw over somebody else.  If you win, someone has lost.  Mathematics is different.  We’re all pushing together.  Not that there’s no competition; but it’s embedded in a fundamental consensus that we’re all on the same team.  Apparently this is enough to hold back the sociopathy, at least for most of us.

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11 thoughts on “Why aren’t math professors sociopaths?

  1. Deane says:

    How do you know we aren’t? And we *are* competitive. Priority matters a lot.

  2. Mark Meckes says:

    This sounds a lot like (although more extreme than) what this NYT op-ed piece claims distinguishes successful people in general.

  3. JSE says:

    Good catch! I agree, the depiction is similar.

  4. piper says:

    b/c the premise is wrong? haven’t read the book (though i did read ‘the psychopath test’ by the ‘the men who stare at goats’ guy), but i don’t think you create sociopaths. my guess is there are certain places where sociopaths thrive and that is not in mathematics. sociopathy gives you an advantage in areas where your actions negatively affect other people (and where hurting/manipulating others helps you), but probably not in academic research.

  5. Frank says:

    Reminds me of Paul Graham’s recollections of high school:


    Although my experience was not so bleak, I found it to be very entertaining reading. He argues that this kind of behavior emerges in communities where people are more concerned with their status than with external goals.

    That said, I suppose that this is not true of finance: not only is finance quite consumed with a single external goal, it is easy to measure.

  6. Yiftach says:

    I agree with piper that it is more about sociopaths are successful in such environment rather than creating sociopaths. In any case, most mathematicians know that there are quite a few mathematicians that are smarter than them. So they are reasonably modest about their abilities. Furthermore, to do mathematics you have to fail, a lot. This is probably not so attractive to sociopaths.

  7. valuevar says:

    What Piper said. Sociopaths are probably set up such much earlier in their lives.

  8. valuevar says:

    Made into such, I mean. Darn “Enter” key!

  9. […] why aren’t math professors sociopathic … but why on the hand, do we find that Disney writers […]

  10. Not at all, but a nice cheap shot nonetheless.

  11. Bobito says:

    Where is the evidence that math professors aren’t sociopaths?

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