Friday, September 25, 2009

Political Science Applied to Political Scientists

I was chatting with a great friend the other day, and he was puzzled by one of his colleagues who seemed to be upset when he got a great publication. Why was this friend not helping him enjoy his success? As part of a larger pattern, it made complete sense to me.

The logic of invidious comparisons not only explains ethnic conflict (thanks to Donald Horowitz) but also those with self-esteem issues in the profession. The basic idea comes from social psychology--that one's self-esteem depends on how the group with which one identifies is perceived. The better one's own group, the better one feels. And the group's status depends on how it compares to other groups, so individuals will put down out-groups as part of making in-groups look better, which, in turn, makes the individuals feel better about themselves. This dynamic explains sports fans so well and ethnic conflict, too.

As it turns out, the individual in this friend's department was already in the habit of putting down work that did not fit into his category of good work (his kind), so my friend's success challenged his views. Not all colleagues are this un-collegial. In fact, most are: genuinely happy for the success of the colleague; glad that the department will look better as a whole (and thus themselves too); and/or so self-absorbed as not even notice.

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