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Highly Intelligent But Socially Handicapped: The Psychology Of The Nerd

Question:

My son in his mid-30s, is extremely intelligent, has a Ph.D. in Chemistry, and is a postdoctoral researcher at an Ivy League University. He has significant social-relationship problems. He does not know many of the rules of social interaction, and lacks confidence in social situations. Some of his actions are often considered eccentric. He is interested in developing social relationships. But, he has had no significant romantic relationships with the opposite sex (though he has had a couple of brief ones). He does have male friends but none very close. He also has non-romantic relationships with the opposite sex (even more-so than with male friends). He has some minor eccentric behavioral mannerisms. His almost always carries a backpack with him, often to the most inappropriate places, his dress awareness is weak (by any convention), and he has developed other minor unusual mannerisms, which discourage potential female partners. He is, though, generally considerate, kind, and gentle, he is attractive though short in stature (about 5ft2”). He is well aware of his problem and makes an effort to deal with his situation (sometimes they are clumsy and sometimes with varying degrees of success). He is well liked and respected by some of his academic peers, and his research results are impressive but he is often not invited to participate in social events because he is seen to ‘not fit in’. He interacts well with his family and has a loving relationship with his parents and siblings. He lives away from home (near his university) and speaks often by phone and visits his family occasionally. He is not generally depressed (he has many professional successes and is quite respected), but his clumsy social skills and lack of romantic relationship do depress him. He is generally kind, rational, and forthcoming. He readily seeks advice from his close family. He is easily insulted in social situations when his is confused or reacts inappropriately. When in his element (chemistry, history, politics, or near his family) he is confident and imposing, and often humorous (he has a keen sense of humor). His main concern is that he will not succeed in finding a life-partner and will not raise a family (which he dearly wishes to do).

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Answer:

The implicit question here is "what can be done to help my son?" The answer is, that I don’t know exactly, but we can explore some ideas about what might be wrong and what a helping process might look like.

Before trying to address a problem it is generally best to first know what is the cause and nature of the problem. So, the first part of my response will be to offer you some ideas about what might be happening to your son. None of the ideas I’m going to explore here are necessary descriptive of your son, but they might help to organize our thinking.

Your son is a member of a social class often described in colloquial terms as nerds. I mean no insult by using this term! I use it in the sense of the second of the Answers.Com definitions for the term:

A person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.

Meant in this way, the term nerd has utility. It allows us to talk in general terms about a group of individual who have similar social awkwardness issues. Since I can’t think of a better term to use to describe such individuals, let’s talk about the psychology of the nerd.

Nerdiness exists on a continuum. Some people are a little nerdy, while others are very nerdy. The more nerdy you get, the more you tend to be oblivious of yourself as a social object and to behave in socially awkward ways such as dressing badly or failing to take subtle hints. Nerdiness is developmental in some fashion. It tends to come on early on in life. People grow out of being nerds; they don’t become nerds in later life.

Because nerds are awkward and un-smooth, they tend to be rejected and isolated by peers, and because it is emotionally painful to experience such marginalization, they tend to push themselves to be excellent in aspects of life that do not require social skills. If they are at all smart, they tend to go whole hog into some intellectual pursuit. Computer science is a big one for many nerds (or that subspecies of nerd who proudly call themselves "geek"), but any non-social intellectual pursuit will do. Chemistry fits the profile as would most any academic pursuit. The strategy at work is a variation on the theme of making a weakness into a virtue. Nerds can become very good at their chosen fields because they have very little to keep them from devoting all of their energy to those fields. These are not balanced people with rich social lives. Instead, these are people who spend holidays writing papers. I know this because I used to be one of these people.

The big lie that a nerd tells him or herself is that they will make a satisfying life for themselves based purely on their intellectual pursuits. For some minority of nerds, this may be possible, but I think for many others, the "life of the mind" becomes excruciatingly lonely after a while. The problem is though that by the time such people realize that they are in trouble, they don’t know how to fix themselves. They are so very competent at what they do intellectually that they cannot stand the thought of having to go back to being an absolute beginner and trying to figure out how to be with other people. The whole idea of being an adult who is a virgin (or a relationship virgin anyway even if not a physical one) is deeply shameful and embarrassing and people tend to avoid dealing with what is deeply shameful and embarrassing. What happens is that they know there is a problem but when they try to deal with it, they get so painfully emotional and threatened that they become defensive and back off the project and retreat back to the ivory tower where they stay until the next time they get lonely. The other academicians around you sharing office space in the tower are by and large also nerds and also socially awkward and so they can’t help much. They are good for mutually reinforcing the idea of how great it is to work on the chosen field, but they aren’t good for intimacy. Too bad because intimacy is, for most people, ultimately what gives meaning to life.

I don’t think anyone has developed a comprehensive theory of what causes people to become nerds, but any such theory will have to take the following concepts into account if it is ever written.

Some people’s nerdiness is a function of a condition called Asperger’s Disorder which is a mild pervasive developmental disorder on the same spectrum as Autism. We’ve got a very comprehensive article about Autism and Aspergers available here, but the thing to know about this sort of condition is that it involves language and communication deficits which have a basis in neurological deficits. The prototypical person with Asperger’s learns language reasonably well, but doesn’t seem to experience language the same way as a normal person. Some quality of emotional transmission is missing. People with Asperger’s can talk in odd cadences and/or they may fail to understand social reciprocity such that they may manifest an "eccentric and one-sided social approach to others (e.g., pursuing a conversational topic regardless of others’ reactions) rather than social and emotional indifference." (DSM page 80). The character of Toby in the movie "American Splendor" is one reasonable portrayal.

An alternative kind of nerd is someone who develops a condition known as Schizotypal Personality Disorder. To say someone has a personality disorder in general is to say that they have grown up with some important part of the normal human coping toolkit missing or undeveloped. People with personality disorders are developmentally delayed in important social-emotional ways that cause them to be "one trick ponies" who can only react to the world in a narrow and rigid set of ways. When such a person is in their element, all is fine (because they know how to cope with their element), but when they go out of their element, they lack the flexibility to know how to cope appropriately and experience significant problems as a result (or for some personality disorders, other people experience significant problems).

Schizotypal Personality Disorder is defined in the DSM (page 701) as characterized by, "A pervasive pattern of social and interpersonal deficits marked by acute discomfort with, and reduced capacity for, close relationships, as well as by cognitive or perceptual distortions and eccentricities of behavior…". The definition of eccentric behavior typically characteristic of Schizotypal PD is beyond simple cluelessness about how to dress. It involves the presence of minor sorts of delusional beliefs (such as a belief in UFOs or ESP), odd perceptions and sensations, odd mannerisms and speech patterns, and mild paranoia. Recall the character of Kramer from the television show "Seinfeld" and you’ll have a good idea of what this looks like. People with Schizotypal PD are thought of as eccentric, weird, strange, or different. People tolerate them and may find them amusing but always tend to consider them an outsider.

Having a diagnosable disorder such as Asperger’s or Schizotypal PD might qualify a person as a nerd or a geek in some circles, but the reverse is not true. There are many nerds who don’t qualify for any diagnosable disorder. They may be the way they are for other reasons. One primary reason that could push a person towards nerdiness is the presence of simple but profound social anxiety. Social skills are learned through interaction with other children and adults during childhood and adolescence. If you are a very anxious child and avoid developmentally important social interactions, you will tend to remain delayed in your social-emotional skillfulness. If, because of your social anxiety you cease to push yourself to interact and instead channel your energy into socially avoidant pursuits the problem becomes compounded. Not being a member of intimate relationships means you are cut off from important feedback such as how to dress appropriately or when it is not good form to wear a backpack. The true nerd will rationalize his or her odd social behavior, I think for defensive purposes. It is simply very painful to admit to yourself that you are essentially incompetent in this very important aspect of life.

The really important question is what can be done to turn this sort of ship around. In order for your son to become more able to realize his dreams he will need to get through his avoidance and confront his social deficits. He will need to learn how people actually perceive him (and he will need to remain able to care about this perception so as to be motivated to do something about it). He will need to alter his lifestyle so as to make a commitment towards putting himself out there in the world with regard to eligible women partners. He will need to become less inwardly focused and to learn how to see himself as the social object he is. This is going to be painful work. He is likely to feel very vulnerable while engaged in this work and perhaps at times quite pathetic. In order to best help him make his way through this painful learning process and ultimately through the universally awkward and painful dating process it may benefit him to have a guide in the form of a psychotherapist or other high quality "life coach" with whom he can form a trusting relationship, who can give him the social feedback he needs, and who can be a stable and comforting force in his life as he makes awkward mistakes.  This will need to be a long term process I think as the learning that needs to take place is basic and the avoidance of this learning is deeply ingrained. To the extent that your son’s problems are caused by an actual diagnosable disorder such as Asperger’s or Schizotypal, the same goals might apply, but the goals to shoot for should be more circumscribed and more modest, and the coach figure should an actual licensed therapist experienced in working with individuals with the disorder in question.

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