Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness
Dr. David Weeks and Jamie James
I think most of us bookworms know what it’s like to be thought of as a little bit eccentric. Non-readers simply can’t understand the joy we get from immersing ourselves in the imaginative worlds that books create. The joy is so great that we go on indulging our intellectual whims regardless of the jokes and criticisms. The same is true of people further along the eccentricity continuum, who are the subject of this book. In Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness, the authors report the results of the first major scientific study of eccentrics. The lead investigator, Dr. David Weeks, began in a rather eccentric way. In order to find subjects, he posted index cards on bulletin boards that said “Eccentric? If you feel that you might be, contact Dr. David Weeks at…” He figured that an eccentric would be exactly the sort of person to respond to that kind of ad, in indeed they did, in droves. In the end nearly 800 people were selected for the study, and from the response the investigators estimated that about one in ten thousand people are “classic, full-time eccentrics.”
So, what is an eccentric? According to this study, an eccentric is:
- strongly motivated by curiosity;
- idealistic: he wants to make the world a better place and the people in it happier
- happily obsessed with one or more hobbyhorses (usually five or six)
- aware from early childhood that he is different;
- opinionated and outspoken, convinced that he is right and that the rest of the world is out of step;
- noncompetitive, not inneed of reassurance or reinforcement from society;
- unusual in his eating habits and living arrangements;
- not particularly interested in the opinions or company of other people, except in order to persuade them to his—the correct—point of view;
- possessed of a mischievous sense of humor;
- usually the eldest or an only child; and
- a bad speller.
The first five items on the list were the most defining characteristics of the eccentrics in the study. The other factors were common but not universal. The last item should perhaps be explained: it’s not that eccentrics don’t know how to spell, it’s just that they sometimes think they have a better way to spell things. Given how crazy the English language is (most of the subjects were British or American) they may have a point!
The most likeable eccentrics are the creatives—the painters, sculptors, writers, etc. I suppose society almost expects artists to be eccentric, so these people are not so threatening to our sense of order. A little more difficult are the eccentric scientists, mostly inventors, who often seek after seemingly impossible goals, such as perpetual motion machines. It would be easy to write off their activities as pointless tinkering except that many important scientific and technical discoveries have been made by people we would consider eccentric. For example, Isaac Newton spent more time on alchemy than on physics or mathematics, and he attributed his Principia to esoteric knowledge revealed by God to ancient mystical philosophers. Somehow those eccentricities have been conveniently cleansed from the history of science in order to preserve the myth that science is a purely rational pursuit. Arthur C. Clarke wrote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Perhaps science has to start with magic as well.
The most difficult eccentrics to handle are the ones involved in alternative theories of reality—arcane spiritualism, wild speculations about the origins of civilization (e.g. Atlantis), and conspiracy theorists. Some of these proselytizers are clearly charlatans, but others genuinely believe what they propose, even when it flies in the face of incontrovertible facts. These eccentrics are hard to understand, and I guess as long as they don’t cause any trouble we must let them be. Mental health is not a question here; eccentrics are demonstrably healthy mentally, and even tend to have less mental illness in their families than non-eccentrics. This study looked at various psychological indicators and found that while healthy, eccentrics are definitely different and have specific personality traits (listed above) that distinguish them from non-eccentrics. What this means is that eccentricity is not an act, but it comes from within, and usually starts in childhood. The people in the study could remember feeling different as a child, and often had bitter feelings about being forced to conform. Few had anything good to say about their upbringing. Being repressed as children often made them rebel and become even more eccentric in adulthood. Conversely, the children of eccentrics (when they have children, which isn’t often) tend to rebel by becoming overly conformist. That always seems to be the way with strong childhood influences, doesn’t it?
Women eccentrics are difficult to study. They are almost absent from the historical record, partly due to bias in reporting, partly because many were shut up in mental institutions or kept at home. In recent decades women are more free to be eccentric, but judging eccentricity in women is still subject to bias. What might be considered normal behaviour in a man might be considered out of the ordinary for a woman. These judgements are changeable, just as what was eccentric for a woman to do in the past (e.g. wear pants) is now perfectly normal. Therefore it is difficult to judge eccentricity in women objectively, even with psychological tests, which can themselves be gender-biased. Nevertheless, it does seem that eccentric women react to societal strictures by becoming even more eccentric, just as all eccentrics do in response to strict parenting. It is also common for eccentric women to wait until the children have left home to begin expressing themselves, often divorcing their husbands in the process. Interestingly, there were more women than men in the survey (500 versus 300, approximately), but I wonder how many more women there are just waiting for their opportunity to pursue their own eccentric projects?
The final chapter of the book was about the general health and happiness of eccentrics. The former is easier to measure; eccentrics are healthier than average, and tend to go to the doctor far less often than non-eccentrics. More difficult to measure is happiness, but the authors report that the eccentrics in the study not only seem happier than most people, they radiate joy. It appears that their creative and investigative pursuits are deeply fulfilling, and this is surely good for health. Also good for their health is their lack of concern for what other people think. Eccentrics seem to be free from the need to impress others and free from the fear of failure (partly because they don’t accept the notion of failure). The book speculates that eccentrics may have lower levels of stress hormones and higher levels of growth hormone (a sign of well-being), but there are no medical tests to confirm this. As with all scientific investigation, eccentric or not, more study is needed.
This book certainly made me think about my own eccentricities. When I look at the list of characteristics of an eccentric, I can check off every item except the last—I must admit I do enjoy spelling words correctly. I still don’t know if I qualify as an eccentric, though, because I keep most of it to myself. I don’t “look” eccentric, and in fact I consciously groom myself to look ordinary. The older I get the more I like to fly under the radar—I call it urban camouflage. Part of it has to do with where I live—ordinary, middle-class, leafy suburbia. When I’ve travelled to big cities I’ve been excited by the diversity of self-expression there, but there even the craziest outfits are taken in stride; here they would stop traffic. Part of it has to do with my illness; I don’t have the energy to answer a lot of questions. But mostly I’m just self-conscious, which likely excludes me from the ranks of eccentrics. I wish I wasn’t self-conscious, and this book has certainly gotten me thinking about how to get over it. On the other hand, perhaps the study is wrong. Most eccentrics live alone, and many are quite reclusive. Perhaps they are more self-conscious than they let on, and simply appear not to care what others think while in reality they have just learned to avoid society in order to make both it and themselves more comfortable. If they hide their eccentricities with walls, can it not be said that I hide mine with ordinary clothes? That said, I do not consider myself to be as eccentric as the people in the study. I am not trying to solve the energy crisis, nor do I create sculptures out of found materials or walk everywhere backwards. I just want to read my books and learn about everything. Is that so eccentric?
Here lies Lord Berners,
One of the learners.
His great love of learning
May earn him a burning.
But praise to the Lord,
He never was bored!