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

The Guardian Weekly - - Mind & Relationships - oliver.burke­man@the­ Oliver Burke­man

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.

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