Gordon Livingston

Gordon S Livingston M.D.


People to Avoid

Not all those who will make us miserable are in DSM-IV,

Posted May 25, 2009

    Recently I published a book on "people to avoid, people to cherish." Among the former group I relied heavily on descriptions of certain character traits that are variants of the DSM-IV definitions of personality disorders: "An enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from cultural expectations, is pervasive and inflexible, is stable over time, and leads to distress and functional impairment."
     After considering the perils of linking one's life to the terminally self-absorbed, substance prone to substance abuse, or those consumed with anxiety or depression, I was left with a group of people to be wary of that do not fit into any specific category of personality disorder. They do not, in general, seek to manipulate or disadvantage others. They are not necessarily conceited or unkind, and their intentions are usually benign. And yet they are hard to be around for long. They are seldom insightful or reflective, though they may be intelligent and capable of useful work. They tend toward a certain loquaciousness and are not often good listeners. It is the quality of their thoughts combined with an irresistible need to communicate them that are defining characteristics. They are fools.
     As we pass through life, experiencing success and failure, acceptance and rejection, each of us is trying to apprehend how the world really works. Everything that happens to us, everything we know or believe is integrated into this perception and has some effect on our subsequent behavior. Intolerance in areas of ethics, politics, or religion is the hallmark of fools. In its worst manifestations it may lead to violence against others who hold alternative beliefs.
     Other examples of imperfect understanding are people who carry around misconceptions of what works and what doesn't in any important area of their lives. If one imagines, for example, that there exists a conspiracy on the part of modern medicine to ignore the benefits of herbal supplements and "natural" cures, one is prone to making decisions about one's health that do not comport with scientific evidence. In its most benign form this can result in the consumption of all manner of substances with no health benefits. It can also lead to a desperate and futile pursuit of expensive and unproven remedies for serious illnesses like cancer. Similarly, the decision of some parents to not immunize their children against common childhood diseases because of an unfounded fear of vaccines endangers their kids and places us all at risk for the return of illnesses previously on their way to extinction.
     Since foolishness depends on context and represents deviance from some social norm, it is not necessarily a permanent affliction. We are all familiar with the person who is an outcast in high school but a major success in later life. The deficits that define a fool - a lack of understanding, judgment, or common sense - are also remediable by experience and learning. Nevertheless, an established inability as a teen-ager to think clearly is an attribute frequently encountered that makes one a poor candidate for a lasting relationship. People with unconventional beliefs, for example, UFO spotters or conspiracy theorists, tend to cluster together for mutual support. Membership in such groups is often a signal that one is in the presence of someone given to alternative and marginal views of how the world works.
     The important component of true foolishness is a contempt or lack of understanding for the scientific method as a means of explicating the world, combined with a belief in "miracles" that is simply an exercise of faith. The capacity to think clearly about one's life experience is a crucial component of a successful life. If one believes that human affairs are governed by an alignment of the stars and that one's fate is determined by one's date and time of birth, one is prone to decision making that is not based on reality
Our brains can entertain a limited number of ideas simultaneously. If our consciousness is cluttered by beliefs in magic, ghosts, paranormal phenomena, alien abduction, or the conviction that we are influenced by past lives, it is difficult to consider the variables that actually affect us.
     There is a school of thought that truth is a flexible construct, elusive and subject to interpretation. There is at least one area in which this is demonstrably not the case. Nature and its laws are intolerant of fools. When Timothy Treadwell chose to live among the Alaskan grizzlies for extended periods, he imagined that they reciprocated the affection and respect that he felt for them. He even gave them names. It turned out that while he was indulging his naïve delusions about these wild creatures they had also given him a name. That name was "food" and his life was ended by a hungry bear. Timothy was a friendly, well-meaning person, eager to talk endlessly into a video camera in an effort to educate others about these animals. The saddest part of his story is that he persuaded a young woman to accompany him on his last trip to live among them. She was also killed.
     A hallmark of foolishness is an inability to learn from experience. A traditional definition of "insanity" applies here: doing the same things and expecting different results. All of us crave approval from others, especially our contemporaries. An important component of social learning is figuring out how to gain the acceptance and respect of those who surround us. Since none of us as children is issued an instruction manual, we discover what works socially primarily by trial and error and by treating others in the way that we would like to be treated. If we have experienced the love and approval of our parents, we are likely to have a solid sense of ourselves as valuable people and are apt to approach others with an expectation of being liked.
     If, on the other hand, we have early childhood experiences of neglect or rejection, we are likely to anticipate more of the same from the people we encounter outside our families. This attitude of mistrust causes us to be vulnerable to fears of humiliation and a self-consciousness that makes it difficult to be optimistic about the outcome of new relationships. The natural defense for such fears is some form of shyness or social withdrawal that frequently results in an inability to feel comfortable with other people and an unwillingness to take the risks necessary to draw close to them. Such aloofness can also lead to scapegoating or other forms of rebuff by others. We are all aware of how cruel and exclusionary certain groups can be in adolescence. Few of us have not felt the sting of rejection.
     Often mistaken for stupidity, foolishness can be the province of highly intelligent people. Recently, a past recipient of the Nobel Prize revealed sentiments about racial differences that were widely condemned and caused him to lose his job. It is common to hear opinions from public people (usually in areas outside their expertise) that are demonstrably absurd. When a US Senator described the internet as "a series of tubes," this was deeply revealing about his grasp of the world.
     Perhaps we would do well admit that we are all subject to superstitions, misconceptions, and delusional ideas and so are capable of acting like fools at times. As with any human failing foolishness is a matter of degree. Still, it is sobering to imagine spending any considerable portion of one's life in the company of a judgmental, bloviating, talkative fool who is unable to profit from experience and whose opinions are not reality-based. If you seek examples of this personality type you need only to spend a little time watching the opinionated blather that passes for cable television commentary on current events. Our primary defense against such people, the remote control, is ineffective if we happen to live with them.

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