High-Status Absent-Mindedness

High-status absent-mindedness – always seems to end up benefiting the absent-minded person.

What makes this form of forgetfulness uniquely annoying is that you’re not even supposed to be annoyed by it: the absent-minded professor can fail to show up for an appointment, or forget he owes you money, and the world “treats it as though it were cute, and possibly a sign of genius”. He’s not just allowed to neglect duties the rest of us feel obliged to observe, he’s also rewarded for it.

And, on closer inspection, as University of Toronto philosopher, Joseph Heath wrote a while back on the Canadian blog In Due Course notes, this trait – let’s call it high-status absent-mindedness – exhibits some curious features.  High-status absent-mindedness ssomehow always seems to end up benefiting the absent-minded person.

If someone were straightforwardly bad at retaining information about their daily activities, you might expect them to show up early for meetings, sometimes, rather than late; they’d forget you owed them money as often as the other way round.

But that never happens, leading Heath to speculate that what’s going on here is really a form of “male dominance behavior”. You act as though you’re too important to concern yourself with trifling matters to demonstrate that you can get away with doing so. And, by cloaking your obnoxiousness in absent-mindedness, you don’t even have to admit you’re being a jerk.

There are echoes here of “strategic incompetence”, the aptly named tactic whereby people exempt themselves from tedious chores such as stacking the dishwasher or clearing paper jams at the office, by performing them so terribly, they’re never asked again. Unlike strategic incompetence, however, high-status absent-mindedness needn’t be conscious.

Sigmund Freud argued that this kind of “motivated forgetting” was a way of expressing unconscious antipathy to others in a form acceptable to the conscious mind. And the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers shows how natural selection has made us excellent at self-deception, because the best way to deceive others – in this case, to trick them into thinking you’re simply too preoccupied with big ideas to have brain space for minor obligations – is often to deceive yourself first.

That way, when you perform the part of the scatterbrained genius who can’t help himself, you get to be completely sincere and thereby more convincing. Or, to put it another way: your forgetfulness may be a status-boosting act, but you’ve forgotten you know that.