Giving a keynote talk at a software conference recently made me reflect on the essence of "nerds." Assume that nerds essentially have "Autism light," i.e., high intelligence and low social skills. If so, then while nerds can reason and sympathize well, they are less able to read the acts and expressions of others in order to infer their states of mind. Nerd social behavior could then be as strategic or altruistic as anyone else, but it couldn’t as subtly depend on reading social cues.
Nerdism is a commitment mechanism similar to religion in the sense that nerdism signals inability to defect and hence safety while religion signals disbelief in the existence of Prisoner's Dilemma scenarios and hence safety.
I want to propose an alternative theory – that nerds, instead of having «”Autism light,” i.e., high intelligence and low social skills», have “Schizoid Personality Disorder – high intelligence and low social desire“.
This could explain more the things – a person with low social desire (even he could prefer work alone) usually don’t have problems in working with others, if he likes the work; he will be cold and unaffectionate, but at a functional level the relation with co-workers will be OK; but they will have a problem in making alliances, etc, because these kind of things requires some emotional bonding.
[correcting typo]Then this explain the pattern.
I really liked it. But not bad, it would be to add a few important sections.
I think JF is right, about the fact that you may have the Asperger Self-Diagnosis Syndrome. I believe that each individual person is entirely different from one another, but as humans we feel a need to categorize and so we create stereotypes to better organize information in our brains. It's just how our memory works, so it's not surprising. It is true that at a very young age, most people get along (in most cases), and that when we hit late elementary school, so about age 9-11 we begin to form social cliques in an effort to understand ourselves better and part of that is social dominance. We cannot help the fact that we are animals no matter how human we may think we are. There simply needs to be social order, and thus, nerds being children who are exceptional in some way (smart, strange, funny looking) get cast down and are really treated like crap and over time develop the body language of a submissive dog (hunched shoulders, downward gaze, purposeful but ungraceful gait) and a severe lack of social skills. HOWEVER. There are many people out there who do not fit into this stereotype. I have asked people to classify me over the years and no one seems to be able. They start to say, you're an art kid, but then they say no...you're an art kid who isnt at all feminine, and your friends are all nerds, and you are too, but you're not...shit i dunno you're just a dude! It probably comes from the fact that, I am an artist, who is bad at math, but particularly intelligent, with great social skills, and I happen to be built like a football player, and look like an inmate with a shaved head and a goatee. I think this article is really damn funny, and true when dealing with stereotypes, but lacking.
Being smart pays off, but I think controlling for IQ being nerdy detracts from income substantially. For what it's worth, drinking in high school correlates positively with later income. I work in finance and I can definitively say that in general clear thought and numeric skills are not valued and the people who make the decisions are not nerds who see right through fakes.
I think there's an egoist element to becoming an archetype (an example of unusual transparency about this is the narrative of how Watson and Crick connived to solve the structure of DNA first) so I doubt any popular nerd archetype was actually a bad-conniving nerd. Just like extreme altruist archetypes were probably not themselves extreme altruists (Mother Teresa). I'd put Einstein and Gates in the category of people that were probably excellent connivers. Examples of possibly imperfect conniving (working in the patent office, using rich and well-connected parents as a crutch) don't mean they were among the best connivers in their competition set, or in the general population.
michael vassar wrote: "I don't think we disagree about the ethical issue, but I don't equate Kantian reasons with "enlightened self-interest". Kantian behavior is a mix of overly inhibited and actively self-destructive much of the time; not enlightened at all. It's not as if being nerdy pays off in the long term."
That's less optimistic than my opinion. It seems like being nerdy does pay off in terms of things like income. Earning money nowadays increasingly means winning the trust of people who value clear thought and numeric skills. Obviously there are plenty of jobs for people who project confidence about skills they don't have, but the nerds see right through them.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that a nerdish respect for rules pays off in a narrow group of people, and that acceptance in that group pays off in the usual way for its members. "Enlightened self-interest" may suggest the wrong things for the point I'm making. Obviously in plenty of situations nerdiness is punished, more or less. Wouldn't Dilbert's company be worse off without him? And isn't he better off if the company is better off? He may be better off if he abandoned nerdiness and emulated his boss more, but that would be unenlightened.
So I suppose I agree with your contention that the Kantian reasons are self-destructive a lot of the time; it's just the nerds have such an eccentric incentive structure that they don't change.
Furthering that thought, nerds are bad at one-on-one self promotion and at playing the system, but they are shameless and funny, which makes them very good at public speaking on average, although this isn't part of the stereotype.
bbroadside: I don't think we disagree about the ethical issue, but I don't equate Kantian reasons with "enlightened self-interest". Kantian behavior is a mix of overly inhibited and actively self-destructive much of the time; not enlightened at all. It's not as if being nerdy pays off in the long term.
Hmm: Einstein was too much of a womanizer to be a plausible nerd, but if he was a good self promoter he wouldn't have been working in the patent office. We agree though that generally in the modern world (I'm not sure about pre 1960 or so) you need good self-promotion skills to become a professor.Gates might be a nerd. His rich and well connected parents substituted for the self-promotion skills CEOs normally need and he wasn't much of a CEO. Also, it's rare, but you can be a nerd and a good self-promoter. There are a few such people on this blog, though most of the professors are not very nerdy.
My sense is the some nerds are unable to detect duplicity and political moves by others, but my experience is that it's more common that nerds *can* see what's going on but detest those sorts of games, think they're above politics, and refuse to play. That's Dilbert all over -- he knows what the boss is up to, he just thinks it's stupid and pointless and won't do that kind of thing himself.
Perhaps preferences more powerful and important than innate capacities?
"If so, then while nerds can reason and sympathize well, they are less able to read the acts and expressions of others in order to infer their states of mind."
I've been thinking about the last point in reverse recently. From my experience, it strikes me that others have a difficult time reading the tone and body language of nerds. I wouldn't describe it as a difference in level of social skills so much as a habit of relying on different languages - nerds are more straightforward and word-oriented than the general public (which agrees with the "autism light" point). Nerds aren't necessarily better at reading each other; if they care about such things they are likely to ask (and answer) overt questions.
In social situations where the non-nerds are making eye contact and grinning, the nerd says, "What? What's going on, guys?" (unless he's resigned himself and has a policy of just grinning and pretending to understand). That agrees with the assertion I quoted above. But when the nerds are reacting emotionally, the non-nerds start making incorrect guesses about why. Nerds smile when you expect them to frown and vice versa, not because they don't understand but because they may well undertand the wrong thing. The nerds are surprised to be misread - their position is: if you want to know how I'm feeling and why, just ask. But it's not in the habit of non-nerds to verbalize their guesses since they are so confident in them (they obviously don't visit this site much!) So the nerds are described as having random or eccentric affects, which is the closest many non-nerds come to admitting that their "body language" skills are limited.
For me, it boils down to: Continually applying non-nerd (or anti-nerd) social norms to nerds isn't a mark of social skills but rather, social power. Non-nerds are more common, not more skillful, than nerds. I am more dogmatic about it than I should be, but that's my honest opinion.
As regards Hopefully and Michael's last few points: I agree that "generally unselfish" is too strong to be applied to nerds as a group. I would say, nerds are more likely to be enlightened in their self-interest. Your nerds are less likely to follow rules for childish avoid-punishment reasons, and more for Kantian reasons. Your non-nerds are more likely to break rules for short-term gain, not necessarily because they care less about the good of the whole, but because they pay less attention to abstractions like their own track record for honesty.
There's a whole field dedicated to solving (and exploiting) this phenomenon. Engineering Management.
Project Managers frequently have B.S. in engineering along with MBAs. This leads to a hub and spoke model of engineering collaboration where the PMs manage communication and tasks.
Above a certain level of economical and social awareness, technically savvy people know society systematically undercompensates technicians. Those who remain are unaware or are altruists.
Most of your famous "nerds", like Edison and Gates, aren't nerds at all. They're superb strategists and self-promoters in addition to being technically competent. You never hear about true nerds because they are research scientists, not CEOs or professors.
Michael is right; I meant "sympathy" when I said "empathy." I've fixed the post text.
Selfish could mean that self-interest is valued over the interest of others or valued over all other interests. Valuing one's own interest no more highly than those of any others appears to be a non-viable strategy. Technically it probably is not, but the appearence is strong enough that it is not likely to happen. Changing one's perception of self-interest so that it requires conformity with some external standards seems to happen, to a greater or lesser extent, all the time.
Michael,"more rule-abiding" doesn't translate to "generally unselfish" -the latter is a binary description. One could argue that nerds are less selfish than non-nerds (an empirically testable claim, as long as we don't get into a 'no true scotsman' zone) but I disagree that nerds are "generally unselfish" --any group that was "generally unselfish" would lose its cohesion, and probably its very existence fairly rapidly, it seems to me.
Hopefully: I agree that nerds are generally unselfish and believe others to be, but that they do this in a Kantian rather than a Utilitarian fashion. They are more rule-abiding, not more concerned for the worse off.