The absent-minded genius is just a very clever jerk. He can fail to show up for a meeting and the world sees it as cute
Iwork with a lot of very stereotypical absent-minded professors,” the University of Toronto philosopher Joseph Heath wrote a while back on the Canadian blog In Due Course. One former colleague, he remembered, “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.” Readers in academia will recognise the phenomenon, but then, so will everyone else, as the stereotype goes back millennia: the ancient Greek astronomer Thales supposedly once fell into a well because he was stargazing as he walked. There’s a lesson here for all thinkers with their head in the clouds, though also for anyone who texts as they walk.
What makes this form of forgetfulness so annoying is that you’re not even supposed to be annoyed by it: the absent-minded professor can fail to show up for an appointment, or forget he owes you money, and the world “treats it as though it were cute, and possibly a sign of genius”. He’s not just allowed to neglect duties the rest of us feel obliged to observe, but he’s also rewarded for it.
And, on closer inspection, as Heath notes, this trait – let’s call it high-status absent-mindedness – exhibits some curious features. For one thing, it’s overwhelmingly a characteristic of men. For another, it somehow always seems to end up benefiting the absent-minded person. If someone were straightforwardly bad at retaining information, you might expect them to show up early for meetings, sometimes, rather than late; they’d forget you owed them money as often as the other way round. But that never happens, leading Heath to speculate that what’s going on here is really a form of “male dominance behaviour”. You act as though you’re too important to concern yourself with trifling matters to demonstrate that you can get away with doing so. And, by cloaking your obnoxiousness in absent-mindedness, you don’t even have to admit you’re being a jerk.
There are echoes here of “strategic incompetence”, whereby people exempt themselves from tedious chores such as stacking the dishwasher or clearing paper jams at the office, by performing
He’s not just allowed to neglect duties the rest of us feel obliged to observe, but he’s also rewarded for it
them so terribly, they’re never asked again. Unlike strategic incompetence, however, high-status absent-mindedness needn’t be conscious. Sigmund Freud argued that this kind of “motivated forgetting” was a way of expressing unconscious antipathy to others in a form acceptable to the conscious mind. And the e evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers shows how w natural selection has made us excellent at selfdeception, because the best way to deceive others ers is often to deceive yourself first. That way, when n you perform the part of the scatterbrained genius us who can’t help himself, you get to be completely y sincere and thereby more convincing. Or, to put t it another way: your forgetfulness may be a statussboosting act, but you’ve forgotten you know that. at.