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The Complex Psychology of the Geek

The Force is with you, because you're special.
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A man dressed up as Darth Maul looks at his phone, during the first Comic Con convention at the Grande Halle de la Villette, on October 23, 2015, in Paris. (Photo: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)

A man dressed up as Darth Maul looks at his phone, during the first Comic Con convention at the Grande Halle de la Villette, on October 23, 2015, in Paris. (Photo: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)

The most magical, and eagerly anticipated, day of the year is fast approaching. It's a joyous excuse to dress up and celebrate with those closest to you—the day when that long-anticipated, desperately desired gift will finally arrive.

If you assumed I was writing about the December 18 premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you are officially a geek.

The word "geek"—used to define a person obsessed with science fiction tales, superhero sagas, and fantasy worlds—has been around since the 1950s. But despite the fact that geek culture has grown from a niche market into a multi-billon dollar business, psychology has never really defined who exactly is drawn to such material, and why.

In the journal PLoS One, a research team led by University of Georgia psychologist Jessica McCain attempts to remedy that situation—to go where no researchers have gone before, as it were. In a series of studies, they attempt to define what makes geeks tick.

For many, geek culture is a way to act out fantasies of being powerful and influential.

And while this may provoke many to reach for their lightsabers, among the qualities they consistently find in this population are narcissism, neuroticism, and depression. "Our findings suggest that geek media is especially attractive to narcissists," the researchers write.

McCain and her colleagues are not linking geek culture with mental illness or antisocial behavior. Among their findings is that, contrary to the stereotype of the isolated, obsessed fan, geeks—while largely apolitical—report above-average levels of civic engagement. Many comfortably have one foot in the real world, and another in the fantasy realm.

The researchers tentatively conclude that, for many, geek culture is a way to act out fantasies of being powerful and influential, temporarily transcending personal unhappiness by escaping into an alternate world. In addition—and this is more important than many outsiders realize—it provides them with a much-needed creative outlet.

"We have painted a picture of geeks as different," they write, "but not dysfunctional."

McCain and co-authors Brittany Gentile and W. Keith Campbell based their conclusions on the results of seven studies—six conducted online (via Amazon's Mechanical Turk), and one featuring 202 attendees of a Dragon Con convention in Atlanta.

The researchers began by assembling the first-ever Geek Culture Engagement Scale, in an attempt to pin down what, exactly, constitutes geekdom. Using wording intended "to attract people who are engaged in geek culture," they gathered two separate groups of participants (350 and 317, respectively), and asked them the extent to which they participate in a variety of activities.

These included "table top role-playing games" such as Dungeons and Dragons; making and wearing costumes of superheroes, Anime characters, and the like; and more generic fields such as robotics, puppetry, theater, and creative writing.

Participants were also asked the extent to which they were fans of such entertainment genres as fantasy, science fiction, Japanese comic books, and, for some reason, Broadway musicals. (I haven't seen too many people dressing up as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, but maybe I've just been hanging with the wrong crowd.)

In addition, participants filled out some standard personality tests, including ones designed to determine their level of narcissism, self-esteem, depression, and sense of entitlement.

The researchers found engaging in geek culture "consistently relates to grandiose narcissism, openness, extroversion, depression, and subjective well-being." They then proceeded to refine and expand that jumble of indicators in six subsequent studies.

In one, featuring 348 online participants, the researchers asked about life goals. They found that "individuals high in geek engagement endorsed items reflecting a desire for power and status"—another indicator of narcissism.

"Geek engagement was associated with disengagement from political behavior," they write. However, it was also associated with "non-political civic organizations," a finding that led the researchers to speculate that activities such as volunteering at conventions may "provide more opportunities for geeks to be engaged."

Another study, featuring 226 people, measured two kinds of intelligence: "crystallized" (accumulated knowledge) and "fluid" (the ability to work with information). Engagement with geek activities was negatively associated with both, which will surprise those who hold the "commonly held belief that geeks are more intelligent than non-geeks." (They're presumably conflating geeks with nerds. Different subcultures, people!)

A final study, featuring 396 participants, focused on creativity. "Individuals high in geek engagement report having more ideas, feel compelled to do more creative projects, and value creativity and its products more than individuals low in geek engagement," the researchers write. Geeks "not only engaged in opportunities to be creative in work or school ... but also undertook creative endeavors on their own time, and of their own accord."

"Overall," they conclude, "although geeks do not appear to particularly need emotional or intellectual stimulation, they require outlets for their creativity."

While these findings are too varied and tentative to sum up neatly, the researchers come up with a plausible scenario that may explain the attraction of geek-related behaviors. "Individuals who feel ineffective and controlled in real life, and thus may suffer from reduced well-being and depression," they write, "may increase their well-being through geek activities that support autonomy."

So if you're convinced of your own importance and creativity, but have yet to find a real-world way to get those feelings affirmed, immersing yourself in one or more fantasy worlds can prove deeply satisfying. As a coping mechanism—an "escape from unpleasant experiences," as the researchers put it—many people find it extremely effective.

If the Force isn't with you in this universe, it helps to find one where it is.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.