Throughout The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg demonstrates most of the traits associated with what the DSM-IV calls “Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” If you’ve spent much time on my site, you’ll have gathered that I’m no fan of diagnosis. I don’t want to end my discussion of the film before I’ve even begun by affixing a label to this character; instead, I’d like to use The Social Network as a way to approach a cluster of psychological traits that often go together. Sometimes you see them in the bipolar disorders; or you might find them displayed by someone who’d receive a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder instead. In truth, the so-called personality disorders exist along a spectrum, nobody fitting neatly into any single diagnostic category, but I’ll use the DSM-IV criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a basis for my discussion. I’ll invert the order of list and end with the earlier criteria since they raise some interesting and difficult questions.
According to the DSM-IV, you need to display at least five of these qualities to meet the diagnostic threshold.
1. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
From the opening scene with his girlfriend Erika, where he sneers at Boston University and condescendingly tells her he’ll give her the opportunity to mingle with people she wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to meet, to his disdain for the lawyers who question him, Zuckerberg behaves with consistent arrogance. He clearly feels himself to be above everyone in intelligence and entitled to treat other people in any way he sees fit. Contempt is the hallmark of his character.
2. Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
The Winklevoss twins represent a privileged, Waspy way of life that Zuckerberg clearly envies; in addition, he will never possess their athletic ability and social ease, qualities he believes his ex-girlfriend Erika admires. In the first scene, when telling Erika about the powerful final clubs and the importance of belonging to one them, he clearly aches to be part of that system, not a member of Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish fraternity. When Eduardo receives an invitation to be “punched” by the Phoenix Club, a prestigious and storied campus organization at Harvard, Zuckerberg dismisses the invitation as “a diversity thing,” thus spoiling Eduardo’s pleasure. In a way, you can view his treatment of Eduardo and the Winklevoss twins as triumphing over them, a classic strategy for mitigating unbearable envy.
3 Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
In the very first scene, Zuckerberg demonstrates his complete inability to identify with or understand the experience of others. He insults Erika by belittling her school and treating her with condescension; then, when she’s upset by his behavior, he repeatedly asks her if she’s being serious. He needs to be told because he lacks the ability to understand via empathy. Only when she at last convinces him that she’s truly angry does he apologize; it’s apparent that he issues this apology merely as a tactical measure, because he knows this is what you’re supposed to do in order to mollify someone under these circumstances, and not because he feels true remorse. For the remainder of the film he displays consistent disregard for the feelings of virtually every other person he knows, including his best friend Eduardo.
4. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
Regardless of the merit of their subsequent legal claims, the Winklevoss twins are consistently dismissed, ignored and out-maneuvered by Zuckerberg. They invited him to join their venture as a programmer; never once does he acknowledge any sense of gratitude or responsibility to them. Despite the fact that Eduardo has been a loyal and supportive friend who bankrolled their operation, Zuckerberg ruthlessly cheats him out of his ownership interest in the company they founded together. As Eduardo points out to him late in the film, Zuckerberg has no other friends.
5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
Zuckerberg clearly feels entitled to wealth, fame and success. He expects people to conform to his expectations, move wherever he likes and do what he tells them. Without consulting his partner, he decides to move their company to California and expects Eduardo to fly out when summoned. He thinks he’s more brilliant than everyone else (with the exception of Sean Parker, founder of Napster) and is therefore entitled to do things his own way, no matter how it makes other people feel or the inconvenience it may cause them. He demonstrates one type of insensitive, narcissistic behavior after another.
We’ve met the minimum five criteria for the diagnosis. In my experience, whether in Narcissistic Personality Disorder or some other syndrome, these five traits often show up together. Let’s call this configuration “pathological narcissism”; in general, it is characterized by grandiosity, a lack of empathy, poisonous envy, a sense of entitlement and a tendency to manipulate and exploit other people.
There are several other possible diagnostic criteria one can meet for Narcissistic Personality Disorder; two of them raise some interesting questions.
6. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance; and
7. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
What if you really are the smartest person in the room, or in almost any room? What if your achievements truly are extraordinary by any sense of the word? Are you narcissistic if you recognize the truth and expect others to acknowledge it as well? What if only someone as intelligent and mentally quick as you can truly understand you? Does it make you an elitist to insist upon that fact? Throughout the film, I was often torn as I listened to Zuckerberg, particularly in the scenes where he squares off with the lawyers: I found his contempt grating but at the same time, I thought that virtually every observation he made about them was true. From my point of view, he displayed superior logic and rhetorical skill in almost every exchange.
Finding Your Own Way:
I’d like to devote this section to a series of questions about the film; I welcome your thoughts and comments. Try to answer them without any resort to morality, or ideas about how we all ought to behave.
How did you feel about Mark Zuckerberg? Did you find him repulsive or was there a way in which you empathized?
Did his arrogance offend you or could you see the ways in which it was a defense mechanism, a response to a narcissistic injury such as rejection by Erika? At core, did he struggle with deep and completely unacknowledged feelings of inferiority?
Do you believe he “stole” the Winklevoss twins’ idea, in the process overvaluing his own creation, or was Facebook truly something bigger and more creative than their original concept? Was he in the right place at the right time, maybe an opportunist, or was he a true (if obnoxious) visionary?
Do you believe he really cared about Erika or was it simply that he couldn’t bear rejection? The last scene in the film where he’s gazing at her Facebook page could be read either way: (1) he’s still pining for her, after all this time; or (2) everything since that night when she rejected him has been a response, an attempt to inflate himself after she shot him down. Narcissists have notoriously thin skins; was the fuel behind the creation of Facebook the intolerable pain of a brutal blow to his ego?
Does he over-value intelligence as a defense against something else? What do you think it might be?[jwplayer mediaid="309"]
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