Psychopathic Narcissists: The Uncanny Valley of Cold Empathy

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited”

Cold Empathy evokes the concept of “Uncanny Valley”, coined in 1970 by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. Mori suggested that people react positively to androids (humanlike robots) for as long as they differ from real humans in meaningful and discernible ways. But the minute these contraptions come to resemble humans uncannily, though imperfectly, human observers tend to experience repulsion, revulsion, and other negative emotions, including fear.

The same applies to psychopathic narcissists: they are near-perfect imitations of humans, but, lacking empathy and emotions, they are not exactly there. Psychopaths and narcissists strike their interlocutors as being some kind of “alien life-forms” or “artificial intelligence”, in short: akin to humanoid robots, or androids. When people come across narcissists or psychopaths the Uncanny Valley reaction kicks in: people feel revolted, scared, and repelled. They can’t put the finger on what it is that provokes these negative reactions, but, after a few initial encounters, they tend to keep their distance.

Contrary to widely held views, Narcissists and Psychopaths may actually possess empathy. They may even be hyper-empathic, attuned to the minutest signals emitted by their victims and endowed with a penetrating “X-ray vision”. They tend to abuse their empathic skills by employing them exclusively for personal gain, the extraction of narcissistic supply, or in the pursuit of antisocial and sadistic goals. They regard their ability to empathize as another weapon in their arsenal.

I suggest to label the narcissistic psychopath’s version of empathy: “cold empathy“, akin to the “cold emotions” felt by psychopaths. The cognitive element of empathy is there, but not so its emotional correlate. It is, consequently, a barren, detached, and cerebral kind of intrusive gaze, devoid of compassion and a feeling of affinity with one’s fellow humans.

Narcissists and psychopaths also appear to be “empathizing” with their possessions: objects, pets, and their sources of narcissistic supply or material benefits (often their nearest and dearest, significant others, or “friends” and associates). But this is not real empathy: it is a mere projection of the narcissist’s or psychopath’s own insecurities and fears, needs and wishes, fantasies and priorities. This kind of displayed “empathy” usually vanishes the minute its subject ceases to play a role in the narcissist’s or psychopath’s life and his psychodynamic processes.

What is Empathy?


Normal people use a variety of abstract concepts and psychological constructs to relate to other persons. Emotions are such modes of inter-relatedness. Narcissists and psychopaths are different. Their “equipment” is lacking. They understand only one language: self-interest. Their inner dialog and private language revolve around the constant measurement of utility. They regard others as mere objects, instruments of gratification, and representations of functions.


This deficiency renders the narcissist and psychopath rigid and socially dysfunctional. They don’t bond – they become dependent (on narcissistic supply, on drugs, on adrenaline rushes). They seek pleasure by manipulating their dearest and nearest or even by destroying them, the way a child interacts with his toys. Like autists, they fail to grasp cues: their interlocutor’s body language, the subtleties of speech, or social etiquette.


Narcissists and psychopaths lack empathy. It is safe to say that the same applies to such patients who are co-diagnosed (co-morbid) with other personality disorders, notably the Schizoid, Paranoid, Borderline, Avoidant, and Schizotypal.

Empathy lubricates the wheels of interpersonal relationships. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (2011 edition) defines empathy as:

“The ability to imagine oneself in anther’s place and understand the other’s feelings, desires, ideas, and actions. It is a term coined in the early 20th century, equivalent to the German Einfühlung and modelled on “sympathy.” The term is used with special (but not exclusive) reference to aesthetic experience. The most obvious example, perhaps, is that of the actor or singer who genuinely feels the part he is performing. With other works of art, a spectator may, by a kind of introjection, feel himself involved in what he observes or contemplates. The use of empathy is an important part of the counselling technique developed by the American psychologist Carl Rogers.”

This is how empathy is defined in “Psychology – An Introduction” (Ninth Edition) by Charles G. Morris, Prentice Hall, 1996:

“Closely related to the ability to read other people’s emotions is empathy – the arousal of an emotion in an observer that is a vicarious response to the other person’s situation… Empathy depends not only on one’s ability to identify someone else’s emotions but also on one’s capacity to put oneself in the other person’s place and to experience an appropriate emotional response. Just as sensitivity to non-verbal cues increases with age, so does empathy: The cognitive and perceptual abilities required for empathy develop only as a child matures… (page 442)

In empathy training, for example, each member of the couple is taught to share inner feelings and to listen to and understand the partner’s feelings before responding to them. The empathy technique focuses the couple’s attention on feelings and requires that they spend more time listening and less time in rebuttal.” (page 576).

Empathy is the cornerstone of morality.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011 Edition:

“Empathy and other forms of social awareness are important in the development of a moral sense. Morality embraces a person’s beliefs about the appropriateness or goodness of what he does, thinks, or feels… Childhood is … the time at which moral standards begin to develop in a process that often extends well into adulthood. The American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg hypothesized that people’s development of moral standards passes through stages that can be grouped into three moral levels…

At the third level, that of postconventional moral reasoning, the adult bases his moral standards on principles that he himself has evaluated and that he accepts as inherently valid, regardless of society’s opinion. He is aware of the arbitrary, subjective nature of social standards and rules, which he regards as relative rather than absolute in authority.

Thus the bases for justifying moral standards pass from avoidance of punishment to avoidance of adult disapproval and rejection to avoidance of internal guilt and self-recrimination. The person’s moral reasoning also moves toward increasingly greater social scope (i.e., including more people and institutions) and greater abstraction (i.e., from reasoning about physical events such as pain or pleasure to reasoning about values, rights, and implicit contracts).”

“… Others have argued that because even rather young children are capable of showing empathy with the pain of others, the inhibition of aggressive behaviour arises from this moral affect rather than from the mere anticipation of punishment. Some scientists have found that children differ in their individual capacity for empathy, and, therefore, some children are more sensitive to moral prohibitions than others…”

Young children’s growing awareness of their own emotional states, characteristics, and abilities leads to empathy–i.e., the ability to appreciate the feelings and perspectives of others. Empathy and other forms of social awareness are in turn important in the development of a moral sense… Another important aspect of children’s emotional development is the formation of their self-concept, or identity–i.e., their sense of who they are and what their relation to other people is.

According to Lipps’s concept of empathy, a person appreciates another person’s reaction by a projection of the self into the other. In his Ästhetik, 2 vol. (1903-06; ‘Aesthetics’), he made all appreciation of art dependent upon a similar self-projection into the object.”

Empathy – Social Conditioning or Instinct?

This may well be the key. Empathy has little to do with the person with whom we empathize (the empathee). It may simply be the result of conditioning and socialization. In other words, when we hurt someone, we don’t experience his or her pain. We experience OUR pain. Hurting somebody – hurts US. The reaction of pain is provoked in US by OUR own actions. We have been taught a learned response: to feel pain when we hurt someone.

We attribute feelings, sensations and experiences to the object of our actions. It is the psychological defence mechanism of projection. Unable to conceive of inflicting pain upon ourselves – we displace the source. It is the other’s pain that we are feeling, we keep telling ourselves, not our own.

Additionally, we have been taught to feel responsible for our fellow beings (guilt). So, we also experience pain whenever another person claims to be anguished. We feel guilty owing to his or her condition, we feel somehow accountable even if we had nothing to do with the whole affair.

In sum, to use the example of pain:

When we see someone hurting, we experience pain for two reasons:

1. Because we feel guilty or somehow responsible for his or her condition

2. It is a learned response: we experience our own pain and project it on the empathee.

We communicate our reaction to the other person and agree that we both share the same feeling (of being hurt, of being in pain, in our example). This unwritten and unspoken agreement is what we call empathy.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“Perhaps the most important aspect of children’s emotional development is a growing awareness of their own emotional states and the ability to discern and interpret the emotions of others. The last half of the second year is a time when children start becoming aware of their own emotional states, characteristics, abilities, and potential for action; this phenomenon is called self-awareness… (coupled with strong narcissistic behaviours and traits – SV)…

This growing awareness of and ability to recall one’s own emotional states leads to empathy, or the ability to appreciate the feelings and perceptions of others. Young children’s dawning awareness of their own potential for action inspires them to try to direct (or otherwise affect) the behaviour of others…

…With age, children acquire the ability to understand the perspective, or point of view, of other people, a development that is closely linked with the empathic sharing of others’ emotions…

One major factor underlying these changes is the child’s increasing cognitive sophistication. For example, in order to feel the emotion of guilt, a child must appreciate the fact that he could have inhibited a particular action of his that violated a moral standard. The awareness that one can impose a restraint on one’s own behaviour requires a certain level of cognitive maturation, and, therefore, the emotion of guilt cannot appear until that competence is attained.”

Still, empathy may be an instinctual REACTION to external stimuli that is fully contained within the empathor and then projected onto the empathee. This is clearly demonstrated by “inborn empathy”. It is the ability to exhibit empathy and altruistic behaviour in response to facial expressions. Newborns react this way to their mother’s facial expression of sadness or distress.

This serves to prove that empathy has very little to do with the feelings, experiences or sensations of the other (the empathee). Surely, the infant has no idea what it is like to feel sad and definitely not what it is like for his mother to feel sad. In this case, it is a complex reflexive reaction. Later on, empathy is still rather reflexive, the result of conditioning.

The 1999 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica quoted some fascinating research that supports the model I propose:

“An extensive series of studies indicated that positive emotion feelings enhance empathy and altruism. It was shown by the American psychologist Alice M. Isen that relatively small favours or bits of good luck (like finding money in a coin telephone or getting an unexpected gift) induced positive emotion in people and that such emotion regularly increased the subjects’ inclination to sympathize or provide help.

Several studies have demonstrated that positive emotion facilitates creative problem solving. One of these studies showed that positive emotion enabled subjects to name more uses for common objects. Another showed that positive emotion enhanced creative problem solving by enabling subjects to see relations among objects (and other people – SV) that would otherwise go unnoticed. A number of studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of positive emotion on thinking, memory, and action in pre-school and older children.”

If empathy increases with positive emotion, then it has little to do with the empathee (the recipient or object of empathy) and everything to do with the empathor (the person who does the empathizing).

ADDENDUM – Interview granted to the National Post, Toronto, Canada, July 2003

Q. How important is empathy to proper psychological functioning?

A. Empathy is more important socially than it is psychologically. The absence of empathy – for instance in the Narcissistic and Antisocial personality disorders – predisposes people to exploit and abuse others. Empathy is the bedrock of our sense of morality. Arguably, aggressive behavior is as inhibited by empathy at least as much as it is by anticipated punishment.

But the existence of empathy in a person is also a sign of self-awareness, a healthy identity, a well-regulated sense of self-worth, and self-love (in the positive sense). Its absence denotes emotional and cognitive immaturity, an inability to love, to truly relate to others, to respect their boundaries and accept their needs, feelings, hopes, fears, choices, and preferences as autonomous entities.

Q. How is empathy developed?

A. It may be innate. Even toddlers seem to empathize with the pain – or happiness – of others (such as their caregivers). Empathy increases as the child forms a self-concept (identity). The more aware the infant is of his or her emotional states, the more he explores his limitations and capabilities – the more prone he is to projecting this new found knowledge unto others. By attributing to people around him his new gained insights about himself, the child develop a moral sense and inhibits his anti-social impulses. The development of empathy is, therefore, a part of the process of socialization.

But, as the American psychologist Carl Rogers taught us, empathy is also learned and inculcated. We are coached to feel guilt and pain when we inflict suffering on another person. Empathy is an attempt to avoid our own self-imposed agony by projecting it onto another.

Q. Is there an increasing dearth of empathy in society today? Why do you think so?

A. The social institutions that reified, propagated and administered empathy have imploded. The nuclear family, the closely-knit extended clan, the village, the neighborhood, the Church- have all unraveled. Society is atomized and anomic. The resulting alienation fostered a wave of antisocial behavior, both criminal and “legitimate”. The survival value of empathy is on the decline. It is far wiser to be cunning, to cut corners, to deceive, and to abuse – than to be empathic. Empathy has largely dropped from the contemporary curriculum of socialization.

In a desperate attempt to cope with these inexorable processes, behaviors predicated on a lack of empathy have been pathologized and “medicalized”. The sad truth is that narcissistic or antisocial conduct is both normative and rational. No amount of “diagnosis”, “treatment”, and medication can hide or reverse this fact. Ours is a cultural malaise which permeates every single cell and strand of the social fabric.

Q. Is there any empirical evidence we can point to of a decline in empathy?

Empathy cannot be measured directly – but only through proxies such as criminality, terrorism, charity, violence, antisocial behavior, related mental health disorders, or abuse.


Moreover, it is extremely difficult to separate the effects of deterrence from the effects of empathy.


If I don’t batter my wife, torture animals, or steal – is it because I am empathetic or because I don’t want to go to jail?


Rising litigiousness, zero tolerance, and skyrocketing rates of incarceration – as well as the ageing of the population – have sliced intimate partner violence and other forms of crime across the United States in the last decade. But this benevolent decline had nothing to do with increasing empathy.

The statistics are open to interpretation but it would be safe to say that the last century has been the most violent and least empathetic in human history. Wars and terrorism are on the rise, charity giving on the wane (measured as percentage of national wealth), welfare policies are being abolished, Darwinian models of capitalism are spreading. In the last two decades, mental health disorders were added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association whose hallmark is the lack of empathy. The violence is reflected in our popular culture: movies, video games, and the media.

Empathy – supposedly a spontaneous reaction to the plight of our fellow humans – is now channeled through self-interested and bloated non-government organizations or multilateral outfits. The vibrant world of private empathy has been replaced by faceless state largesse. Pity, mercy, the elation of giving are tax-deductible. It is a sorry sight.

Click on this link to read a detailed analysis of empathy:

Other People’s Pain – click on this link:

Is the USA a Failed State?

By Sam Vaknin
Editor-in-Chief of Global Politician

Its credit rating downgraded (in August 2011 by Standard and Poor’s), its politicians deadlocked in a bipartisan danse macabre, it middle-class impoverished, its hordes of long-term unemployed a fixture. It has been called a rogue state, a colonialist-imperialist throwback, the puppet of Zionism. But, is the United States of America a failed state?

The US State Department’s designation of “rogue state” periodically falls in and out of favor. It is used to refer to countries hostile to the United States, with authoritarian, brutal, and venal regimes, and a predilection to ignore international law and conventions, encourage global or local terrorism and the manufacture and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Most rogue states are not failed ones.

An “immature state” is a polity whose elites are dysfunctional, venal, and narcissistic; whose economy is not viable, frequently dependent on handouts; and whose coherence is threatened by a lack of social consensus. Immature states typically lack political traditions, change agents, goal-oriented bureaucracies, and institutional memory. Consequently, the denizens of immature states are often xenophobic and insular.

A “failed economy” fails to attract foreign direct investment. It is characterized by kleptocratic governments and rampant corruption, increased geopolitical risk, and lack of modern infrastructure. It features all-pervasive failure of institutions; lack of commitment to true reforms; absence of a functioning private sector; problematic mentality (laziness, passive-aggressiveness, pathological and destructive envy; xenophobia, resistance to learning, etc.); a low-level of research-and-development and innovation; an antiquated and dysfunctional education system; and primitive banking system and capital markets. While not failed states in the political and full-fledged sense of the word, “failed economies” come in a close second.

A “failed state” is a country whose government has no control and cannot exercise a monopoly on the legitimate use of force over a substantial part of its territory or citizenry. It is continuously and successfully challenged by private military power: terrorists, warlords, or militias. Its promulgations and laws are futile and inapplicable.

With the exception of the first criterion (hostility towards Pax Americana), some scholars claim that the USA is, itself, a rogue state (q.v., for instance, William Blum’s “Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower” and “Rogue Nation” by Clyde Prestowitz).

Admittedly, the USA’s unilateralist, thuggish and capricious foreign policy represents a constant threat to world peace and stability. But labeling the USA a “rogue state” may be overdoing it. It better fits the profile of a semi-failed state.

A semi-failed state is a country whose government maintains all the trappings and appearances of power, legitimacy, and control. Its army and police are integral and operative. Its institutions function. Its government and parliament promulgate laws and its courts enforce them. It is not challenged by any competing military structures within its recognized borders.

Yet, the semi-failed state – while going through the motions – is dead on its feet. It is a political and societal zombie. It functions due mainly to inertia and lack of better or clear alternatives. Its population is disgruntled, hostile, and suspicious. Other countries regard it with derision, fear, and abhorrence. It is rotting from the inside and doomed to implode.

In a semi-failed state, high crime rates and rampant venality, nepotism, and cronyism affect the government’s ability to enforce laws and implement programs. It reacts by adding layers of intransigent and opaque bureaucracy to an already unwieldy mammoth. The institutions of the semi-failed state are hopelessly politicized and, thus, biased, distrusted, and compromised. Its judiciary is in a state of decrepit decline as unqualified beneficiaries of patronage join the ranks.

The result is social fragmentation as traditional and local leaders, backed by angry and rebellious constituents, take matters into their own hands. Centrifugal politics supplant statehood and the nation is unable to justly and effectively balance the competing claims of the center versus the periphery.

The utter (but insidious) institutional failure that typifies the semi-failed state is usually exposed with the total disarray that follows an emergency (such as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack).

To deflect criticism and in a vain attempt to reunite its fracturing populace, the semi-failed state often embarks on military adventures (cloaked as “self-defense” or “geopolitical necessity”). Empire-building is an indicator of looming and imminent disintegration. Foreign aggression replaces reconstruction and rational policy-making at home. The USA prior to the Civil War, the USSR between 1956 and 1982, federal Yugoslavia after 1989, and Nazi Germany are the most obvious examples.

Is the USA a semi-failed state?

I. Empire-building and foreign aggression

Its neighbors always perceived the United States as an imminent security risk (ask Mexico, half of whose territory was captured by successive and aggressive American administrations). The two world wars transformed the USA into a global threat, able and only too willing to project power to protect its interests and disseminate its brand of missionary liberal-capitalism.

In the last 150 years, the USA has repeatedly militarily attacked, unprovoked, other peaceful or pacified nations, near and far. To further its (often economic) ends, the United States has not refrained from encouraging and using terrorism in various parts of the globe. It has developed and deployed weapons of mass destruction and is still the biggest arms manufacturer and trader in the world. It has repeatedly reneged on its international obligations and breached international laws and conventions.

II. Dysfunctional institutions

Hurricane Katrina (August-September 2005) exposed the frailty and lack of preparedness of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and, to some extent, the National Guard. It brought into sharp relief the cancerous politicization of the crony-infested federal government.

FEMA is only the latest in a long chain of failed institutions. The SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) coped poorly with virulent corruption and malfeasance in Wall Street. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) capitulated in the face of commercial and political pressures and neglected to remove from the market malfunctioning medical devices and drugs with lethal side effects.

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has sacrificed America’s nature reserves to business interests. A heavily politicized Supreme Court legitimized manifestly tainted election results and made a president out of the loser of the popular vote. The disenfranchisement of minorities, the poor, and ex-convicts is now in full swing.

The legislature – the two houses of Congress – are deadlocked and paralyzed owing to partisanship and corruption. The executive either ignores laws passed by the the legislative branch of government (President Bush issued well over 750 “presidential statements”, effectively obviating many of them) or actively encroaches on Congressional turf (for instance, by sending the FBI to search the offices of elected Representatives).

As the 2011 brinkmanship debate about the debt ceiling proved conclusively, the organs of the government of the United States now function only when exposed to acute embarrassment and a revolted public opinion. Private firms and charities sprout to fulfill the gaps.

III. The National Consensus

Americans long mistook the institutional stability of their political system, guaranteed by the Constitution, for a national consensus. They actually believe that the former guarantees the latter – that institutional firmness and durability ARE the national consensus. The reverse, as we know, is true: it takes a national consensus to yield stable institutions. No social structure – no matter how venerable and veteran – can resist the winds of change in public sentiment.

Hurricane Katrina again demonstrated the unbridgeable divides in American society between rich and poor and black and white. But this time, the rift runs deeper.

The Bush administration is the first since the Civil War to dare to change the fundamental rules of the political game (for instance by seeking to abolish the filibuster in the Senate and by a profligacy of recess appointments of judges and officials). Its instincts and reflexes are elitist, undemocratic, and violent. It is delusional and its brand of fanatic religiosity is not well-received even among the majority of Americans who are believers. Additionally, it is openly and unabashedly corrupt and ridden with nepotism and cronyism.

Yet, Bush, unlike Nixon, is not an aberration. He is unlikely to be impeached. He was overwhelmingly re-elected even as his quagmire war in Iraq unraveled and the self-enrichment and paranoia of his close circle became public.

This is the new and true face of at least half of America, to the horror and dismay of the other half, its liberals. If the history of the United States is any judge, these two camps are unlikely to sit back and navel-gaze. Semi-failed states typically disintegrate. A bloodied (perhaps even nuclear) second civil war is in the cards.

Should the United States devolve into its constituent states, the world will breathe a sigh of relief. A European Union (EU)-like economic zone between the parts of the former USA is bound to be far more pacific and to contribute to world stability – something its malignant former incarnation had so signally failed to do.


Narcissist’s Reactions to Deficient, Fake, Negative, Low-grade, or Static Narcissistic Supply

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited”

The narcissist presents to the world a facade of invincibility, equanimity, superiority, skilfulness, cool-headedness, invulnerability, and, in short: indifference.

This front is penetrated in times of great crises that threaten the narcissist’s ability to obtain Narcissistic Supply, or when the Narcissistic Supply is spurious (fake or low-grade), negative, or static.

In the majority of cases, narcissists react to deficient narcissistic supply by resorting to several adaptive solutions:

The Delusional Narrative Solution


The narcissist constructs a narrative in which he figures as the hero – brilliant, perfect, irresistibly handsome, destined for great things, entitled, powerful, wealthy, the centre of attention, etc. The bigger the strain on this delusional charade – the greater the gap between fantasy and reality – the more the delusion coalesces and solidifies.


Finally, if it is sufficiently protracted, it replaces reality and the narcissist’s reality test deteriorates. He withdraws his bridges and may become schizotypal, catatonic, or schizoid.


The Antisocial Solution


The narcissist renounces reality. To his mind, those who pusillanimously fail to recognize his unbound talents, innate superiority, overarching brilliance, benevolent nature, entitlement, cosmically important mission, perfection, etc. – do not deserve consideration. The narcissist’s natural affinity with the criminal – his lack of empathy and compassion, his deficient social skills, his disregard for social laws and morals – now erupt and blossom. He becomes a full-fledged antisocial (sociopath or psychopath). He ignores the wishes and needs of others, he breaks the law, he violates all rights – natural and legal, he holds people in contempt and disdain, he derides society and its codes, he punishes the ignorant ingrates – that, to his mind, drove him to this state – by acting criminally and by jeopardizing their safety, lives, or property.


A variant of this pattern of conduct is the Passive-Aggressive solution.


Passive-aggressiveness wears a multitudes of guises: procrastination, malingering, perfectionism, forgetfulness, neglect, truancy, intentional inefficiency, stubbornness, and outright sabotage. This repeated and advertent misconduct has far reaching effects. Consider the Negativist in the workplace: he or she invests time and efforts in obstructing their own chores and in undermining relationships. But, these self-destructive and self-defeating behaviors wreak havoc throughout the workshop or the office.

Despite the obstructive role they play, passive-aggressives feel unappreciated, underpaid, cheated, and misunderstood. They chronically complain, whine, carp, and criticize. They blame their failures and defeats on others, posing as martyrs and victims of a corrupt, inefficient, and heartless system (in other words, they have alloplastic defenses and an external locus of control).

Passive-aggressives sulk and give the “silent treatment” in reaction to real or imagined slights. They suffer from ideas of reference (believe that they are the butt of derision, contempt, and condemnation) and are mildly paranoid (the world is out to get them, which explains their personal misfortune). In the words of the DSM: “They may be sullen, irritable, impatient, argumentative, cynical, skeptical and contrary.” They are also hostile, explosive, lack impulse control, and, sometimes, reckless.

The Paranoid Schizoid Solution


When narcissism fails as a defense mechanism, the narcissist develops paranoid narratives: self-directed confabulations which place him at the center of others’ allegedly malign attention. The narcissist becomes his own audience and self-sufficient as his own, sometimes exclusive, source of narcissistic supply.


The narcissist develops persecutory delusions. He perceives slights and insults where none were intended. He becomes subject to ideas of reference (people are gossiping about him, mocking him, prying into his affairs, cracking his e-mail, etc.). He is convinced that he is the centre of malign and mal-intentioned attention. People are conspiring to humiliate him, punish him, abscond with his property, delude him, impoverish him, confine him physically or intellectually, censor him, impose on his time, force him to action (or to inaction), frighten him, coerce him, surround and besiege him, change his mind, part with his values, victimize or even murder him, and so on.


Some narcissists withdraw completely from a world populated with such minacious and ominous objects (really projections of internal objects and processes). They avoid all social contact, except the most necessary. They refrain from meeting people, falling in love, having sex, talking to others, or even corresponding with them. In short: they become schizoids – not out of social shyness, but out of what they feel to be their choice. “This evil, hopeless world does not deserve me” – goes the inner refrain – “and I shall waste none of my time and resources on it.”


The Paranoid Aggressive (Explosive) Solution


Other narcissists who develop persecutory delusions, resort to an aggressive stance, a more violent resolution of their internal conflict. They become verbally, psychologically, situationally (and, very rarely, physically) abusive. They insult, castigate, chastise, berate, demean, and deride their nearest and dearest (often well wishers and loved ones). They explode in unprovoked displays of indignation, righteousness, condemnation, and blame. Theirs is an exegetic Bedlam. They interpret everything – even the most innocuous, inadvertent, and innocent comment – as designed to provoke and humiliate them. They sow fear, revulsion, hate, and malignant envy. They flail against the windmills of reality – a pathetic, forlorn, sight. But often they cause real and lasting damage – fortunately, mainly to themselves.


The Masochistic Avoidant Solution


The narcissist is angered by the lack of narcissistic supply. He directs some of this fury inwards, punishing himself for his “failure”. This masochistic behavior has the added “benefit” of forcing the narcissist’s closest to assume the roles of dismayed spectators or of persecutors and thus, either way, to pay him the attention that he craves.


Self-administered punishment often manifests as self-handicapping masochism – a narcissistic cop-out. By undermining his work, his relationships, and his efforts, the increasingly fragile narcissist avoids additional criticism and censure (negative supply). Self-inflicted failure is the narcissist’s doing and thus proves that he is the master of his own fate.


Masochistic narcissists keep finding themselves in self-defeating circumstances which render success impossible – and “an objective assessment of their performance improbable” (Millon, 2000). They act carelessly, withdraw in mid-effort, are constantly fatigued, bored, or disaffected and thus passive-aggressively sabotage their lives. Their suffering is defiant and by “deciding to abort” they reassert their omnipotence.


The narcissist’s pronounced and public misery and self-pity are compensatory and “reinforce (his) self-esteem against overwhelming convictions of worthlessness” (Millon, 2000). His tribulations and anguish render him, in his eyes, unique, saintly, virtuous, righteous, resilient, and significant. They are, in other words, self-generated narcissistic supply.


Thus, paradoxically, the worst his anguish and unhappiness, the more relieved and elated such a narcissist feels!

In extremis, when all these default behaviors and solutions fail, or when only negative, fake, low-grade, and static narcissistic supply is to be had, the narcissist “falls apart” in a process of disintegration known as decompensation (the inability to maintain psychological defenses in the face of mounting stress.) This is accompanied by “acting out”: when an inner conflict (most often, frustration) translates into aggression. It involves acting with little or no insight or reflection and in order to attract attention and disrupt other people’s cosy lives.

The dynamic forces which render the narcissist paralysed and fake – his vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and fears – are starkly exposed as his defences crumble and become dysfunctional. The narcissist’s extreme dependence on his social milieu for the regulation of his sense of self-worth is painfully and pitifully evident as he is reduced to begging and cajoling.

At such times, the narcissist acts out self-destructively and anti-socially. His mask of superior equanimity is pierced by displays of impotent rage, self-loathing, self-pity, passive-aggressiveness, and crass attempts at manipulation of his friends, family, and colleagues. His ostensible benevolence and caring evaporate. He feels caged and threatened and he reacts as any animal would do: by striking back at his perceived tormentors, at his hitherto “nearest” and “dearest”.

Crisis of Growth, Crisis of Measuring Growth

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited”

The sovereign debt crisis of 2010-2 emanated from the realization that lower growth rates throughout the industrialized West were insufficient to guarantee the repayment of debts accumulated by governments. The proceeds of the credits and loans assumed by public sectors throughout Europe and in the USA were ploughed into successive futile attempts to stimulate ailing economies and avert banking crises and panics.

But this second leg of the global Great Recession is less about stalling growth than about the perception and measurement of growth. As labour-intensive industries increasingly adopted information- and automation-driven manufacturing, outsourcing and offshoring, the anemic recovery that attended the 2008-9 conflagration in the industrialized West was rendered jobless. Corporations sit on hoarded cash piles, driven by enhanced profitability and productivity even as workers languish in unemployment lines. Globalizeed labor and skills markets coupled with technological substitution for human employment dented consumption and this, in turn, adversely affected investments. The classical twin engines of every recovery since the Second World War have thus been somewhat decommissioned. Bouts of fiscal and monetary profligacy failed to resuscitate moribund financial transmission mechanisms.

But this is also a crisis of national accounting. The traditional ways of measuring growth simply fail to capture technological progress; the massive increase in purchasing power as it applies to consumer goods and products; and a discernible improvement in externalities such as the environment. Critical factors such as vastly improved health, an increased life expectancy (and, therefore, an extended economic horizon), public goods, or even changes in the quality of life remain unreflected in the way that countries measure their output and adjust it.

Indeed, current methodologies of quantifying GDP and GNP (NDP) take a dim view of the precipitous and predictable drop in the prices of consumer goods, for instance. The same computing power costs now one fifth what it used to cost only three years ago. But this means that its contribution to the country’s GDP is down by c. 81% over the same period of time (assuming 6% inflation in these three years)! In other words: technological (and productivity) improvements translate into economic contraction in the way we currently gauge our economies.

Moreover: it is a maxim of current economic orthodoxy that governments compete with the private sector on a limited pool of savings. It is considered equally self-evident that the private sector is better, more competent, and more efficient at allocating scarce economic resources and thus at preventing waste. It is therefore thought economically sound to reduce the size of government – i.e., minimize its tax intake and its public borrowing – in order to free resources for the private sector to allocate productively and efficiently.

Yet, both dogmas are far from being universally applicable.

The assumption underlying the first conjecture is that government obligations and corporate lending are perfect substitutes. In other words, once deprived of treasury notes, bills, and bonds – a rational investor is expected to divert her savings to buying stocks or corporate bonds.

It is further anticipated that financial intermediaries – pension funds, banks, mutual funds – will tread similarly. If unable to invest the savings of their depositors in scarce risk-free – i.e., government – securities – they will likely alter their investment preferences and buy equity and debt issued by firms.

Yet, this is expressly untrue. Bond buyers and stock investors are two distinct crowds. Their risk aversion is different. Their investment preferences are disparate. Some of them – e.g., pension funds – are constrained by law as to the composition of their investment portfolios. Once government debt has turned scarce or expensive, bond investors tend to resort to cash. That cash – not equity or corporate debt – is the veritable substitute for risk-free securities is a basic tenet of modern investment portfolio theory.

Moreover, the “perfect substitute” hypothesis assumes the existence of efficient markets and frictionless transmission mechanisms. But this is a conveniently idealized picture which has little to do with grubby reality. Switching from one kind of investment to another incurs – often prohibitive – transaction costs. In many countries, financial intermediaries are dysfunctional or corrupt or both. They are unable to efficiently convert savings to investments – or are wary of doing so.

Furthermore, very few capital and financial markets are closed, self-contained, or self-sufficient units. Governments can and do borrow from foreigners. Most rich world countries – with the exception of Japan – tap “foreign people’s money” for their public borrowing needs. When the US government borrows more, it crowds out the private sector in Japan – not in the USA.

It is universally agreed that governments have at least two critical economic roles. The first is to provide a “level playing field” for all economic players. It is supposed to foster competition, enforce the rule of law and, in particular, property rights, encourage free trade, avoid distorting fiscal incentives and disincentives, and so on. Its second role is to cope with market failures and the provision of public goods. It is expected to step in when markets fail to deliver goods and services, when asset bubbles inflate, or when economic resources are blatantly misallocated.

Yet, there is a third role. In our post-Keynesian world, it is a heresy. It flies in the face of the “Washington Consensus” propagated by the Bretton-Woods institutions and by development banks the world over. It is the government’s obligation to foster growth.

In most countries of the world – definitely in Africa, the Middle East, the bulk of Latin America, central and eastern Europe, and central and east Asia – savings do not translate to investments, either in the form of corporate debt or in the form of corporate equity.

In most countries of the world, institutions do not function, the rule of law and properly rights are not upheld, the banking system is dysfunctional and clogged by bad debts. Rusty monetary transmission mechanisms render monetary policy impotent.

In most countries of the world, there is no entrepreneurial and thriving private sector and the economy is at the mercy of external shocks and fickle business cycles. Only the state can counter these economically detrimental vicissitudes. Often, the sole engine of growth and the exclusive automatic stabilizer is public spending. Not all types of public expenditures have the desired effect. Witness Japan’s pork barrel spending on “infrastructure projects”. But development-related and consumption-enhancing spending is usually beneficial.

To say, in most countries of the world, that “public borrowing is crowding out the private sector” is wrong. It assumes the existence of a formal private sector which can tap the credit and capital markets through functioning financial intermediaries, notably banks and stock exchanges.

Yet, this mental picture is a figment of economic imagination. The bulk of the private sector in these countries is informal. In many of them, there are no credit or capital markets to speak of. The government doesn’t borrow from savers through the marketplace – but internationally, often from multilaterals.

Outlandish default rates result in vertiginously high real interest rates. Inter-corporate lending, barter, and cash transactions substitute for bank credit, corporate bonds, or equity flotations. As a result, the private sector’s financial leverage is minuscule. In the rich West $1 in equity generates $3-5 in debt for a total investment of $4-6. In the developing world, $1 of tax-evaded equity generates nothing. The state has to pick up the slack.

Growth and employment are public goods and developing countries are in a perpetual state of systemic and multiple market failures. Rather than lend to businesses or households – banks thrive on arbitrage. Investment horizons are limited. Should the state refrain from stepping in to fill up the gap – these countries are doomed to inexorable decline.

In times of global crisis, these observations pertain to rich and developed countries as well. Market failures signify corruption and inefficiency in the private sector. Such misconduct and misallocation of economic resources is usually thought to be the domain of the public sector, but actually it goes on eveywhere in the economy.

Wealth destruction by privately-owned firms is typical of economies with absent, lenient, or lax regulation and often exceeds anything the public administration does. Corruption, driven by avarice and fear, is common among entrepreneurs as much as among civil servants. It is a myth to believe otherwise. Wherever there is money, human psychology is in operation and with it economic malaise. Hence the need for governmental micromamangement of the private sector at all times. Self-regulation is a costly and self-deceiving urban legend.

Another engine of state involvement is provided by the thrift paradox. When the economy goes sour, rational individuals and households save more and spend less. The aggregate outcome of their newfound thrift is recessionary: decreasing consumption translates into declining corporate profitability and rising unemployment. These effects are especially pronounced when financial transmission mechanisms (banks and other financial institutions) are gummed up: frozen in fear and distrust, they do not lend money, even though deposits (and their own capital base) are ever growing.

It is true that, by diversifying risk away, via the use of derivatives and other financial instruments, asset markets no longer affect the real economy as they used to. They have become, in a sense, “gated communities”, separated from Main Street by “risk barriers”. But, these developments do not pertain to retail banks and when markets are illiquid and counterparty risk rampant, options and swaps are pretty useless.

The only way to effectively cancel out the this demonetization of the national economy (this “bleeding”) is through enhanced government spending. Where fearful citizens save, their government should spend on infrastructure, health, education, and information technology. The state’s negative savings should offset multiplying private savings. In extremis, the state should nationalize the financial sector for a limited period of times (as Israel has done in 1983 and Sweden, a decade later).

A Note on GDP (Gross Domestic Product)

GDP figures are not an exact science. All over the world, GDP numbers are politicized and subject to heavy manipulation. There are at least 3 known methodologies to calculate GDP and, for each of these methodologies, there are two alternative formulas which take into account completely different economic sets of data.


Still: there are good proxies to GDP. For instance: the consumption of electricity in the residential (household) sector and in the industrial sector, adjusted for the size of the informal economy, for the change in personal incomes (including private credit), and for shifts in weather patterns (as measured by a multiannual time series of average temperatures). Macedonia’s energy consumption has been growing by almost 4% annually for a few years now. This means that the economy is either stagnant or slightly contracting – but definitely not growing, as the government would have us believe.


Other proxies: money velocity; wage statistics (especially the wages of urban unskilled workers); crude death rate; infant mortality; and even the amount of mail sent per capita. Fluctuations in purchasing power (PPP) reflect the relative strengths of currencies, but also changes in GDP. All these measures indicate that Macedonia’s economy is experiencing either weak growth or no growth at all.

The formula to calculate GDP is this:

GDP (Gross Domestic Product) =

Consumption + investment + government expenditure + net exports (exports minus imports) =

Wages + rents + interest + profits + non-income charges + net foreign factor income earned

But the GDP figure is vulnerable to “creative accounting”:

1. The weight of certain items, sectors, or activities is reduced or increased in order to influence GDP components, such as industrial production. Developing countries often alter the way critical components of GDP like industrial production are tallied.

2. Goods in inventory are included in GDP although not yet sold. Thus, rising inventories, a telltale sign of economic ill-health, actually increases the GDP!

3. If goods produced are financed with credits and loans, GDP will be artificially HIGH (inflated).

4. In some countries, PLANS and INTENTIONS to invest are counted, recorded, and booked as actual investments. This practice is frowned upon (and landed quite a few corporate managers in the gaol), but is still widespread in the shoddier and shadier corners of the globe.

5. GDP figures should be adjusted for inflation (real GDP as opposed to nominal GDP). To achieve that, the calculation of the GDP deflator is critical. But the GDP deflator is a highly subjective figure, prone, in developing countries, to reflecting the government’s political needs and predilections.

6. What currency exchange rates were used? By selecting the right “points in time”, GDP figures can go up and down by up to 2%!

7. Healthcare expenditures, agricultural subsidies, government aid to catastrophe-stricken areas form a part of the GDP. Thus, for instance, by increasing healthcare costs, the government can manipulate GDP figures.

8. Net exports in many developing countries are negative (in other words, they maintain a trade deficit). How can the GDP grow at all in these places? Even if consumption and investment are strongly up – government expenditures are usually down (at the behest of multilateral financial institutions) and net exports are down. It is not possible for GDP to grow vigorously in a country with a sizable and ballooning trade deficit.

9. The projections of most international, objective analysts and international economic organizations usually tend to converge on a GDP growth figure that is often lower than the government’s but in line with the long-term trend. These figures are far better indicators of the true state of the economy. Statistics Bureaus in developing countries are often under the government’s thumb and run by political appointees.

Note: Why Recessions Happen and How to Counter Them

The fate of modern economies is determined by four types of demand: the demand for consumer goods; the demand for investment goods; the demand for money; and the demand for assets, which represent the expected utility of money (deferred money).

Periods of economic boom are characterized by a heightened demand for goods, both consumer and investment; a rising demand for assets; and low demand for actual money (low savings, low capitalization, high leverage).

Investment booms foster excesses (for instance: excess capacity) that, invariably lead to investment busts. But, economy-wide recessions are not triggered exclusively and merely by investment busts. They are the outcomes of a shift in sentiment: a rising demand for money at the expense of the demand for goods and assets.

In other words, a recession is brought about when people start to rid themselves of assets (and, in the process, deleverage); when they consume and lend less and save more; and when they invest less and hire fewer workers. A newfound predilection for cash and cash-equivalents is a surefire sign of impending and imminent economic collapse.

This etiology indicates the cure: reflation. Printing money and increasing the money supply are bound to have inflationary effects. Inflation ought to reduce the public’s appetite for a depreciating currency and push individuals, firms, and banks to invest in goods and assets and reboot the economy. Government funds can also be used directly to consume and invest, although the impact of such interventions is far from certain.

Economies revolve around and are determined by “anchors”: stores of value that assume pivotal roles and lend character to transactions and economic players alike. Well into the 19 century, tangible assets such as real estate and commodities constituted the bulk of the exchanges that occurred in marketplaces, both national and global. People bought and sold land, buildings, minerals, edibles, and capital goods. These were regarded not merely as means of production but also as forms of wealth.

Inevitably, human society organized itself to facilitate such exchanges. The legal and political systems sought to support, encourage, and catalyze transactions by enhancing and enforcing property rights, by providing public goods, and by rectifying market failures.

Later on and well into the 1980s, symbolic representations of ownership of real goods and property (e.g, shares, commercial paper, collateralized bonds, forward contracts) were all the rage. By the end of this period, these surpassed the size of markets in underlying assets. Thus, the daily turnover in stocks, bonds, and currencies dwarfed the annual value added in all industries combined.

Again, Mankind adapted to this new environment. Technology catered to the needs of traders and speculators, businessmen and middlemen. Advances in telecommunications and transportation followed inexorably. The concept of intellectual property rights was introduced. A financial infrastructure emerged, replete with highly specialized institutions (e.g., central banks) and businesses (for instance, investment banks, jobbers, and private equity funds).

We are in the throes of a third wave. Instead of buying and selling assets one way (as tangibles) or the other (as symbols) – we increasingly trade in expectations (in other words, we transfer risks). The markets in derivatives (options, futures, indices, swaps, collateralized instruments, and so on) are flourishing.

Society is never far behind. Even the most conservative economic structures and institutions now strive to manage expectations. Thus, for example, rather than tackle inflation directly, central banks currently seek to subdue it by issuing inflation targets (in other words, they aim to influence public expectations regarding future inflation).

The more abstract the item traded, the less cumbersome it is and the more frictionless the exchanges in which it is swapped. The smooth transmission of information gives rise to both positive and negative outcomes: more efficient markets, on the one hand – and contagion on the other hand; less volatility on the one hand – and swifter reactions to bad news on the other hand (hence the need for market breakers); the immediate incorporation of new data in prices on the one hand – and asset bubbles on the other hand.

Hitherto, even the most arcane and abstract contract traded was somehow attached to and derived from an underlying tangible asset, no matter how remotely. But this linkage may soon be dispensed with. The future may witness the bartering of agreements that have nothing to do with real world objects or values.

In days to come, traders and speculators will be able to generate on the fly their own, custom-made, one-time, investment vehicles for each and every specific transaction. They will do so by combining “off-the-shelf”, publicly traded components. Gains and losses will be determined by arbitrary rules or by reference to extraneous events. Real estate, commodities, and capital goods will revert to their original forms and functions: bare necessities to be utilized and consumed, not speculated on.

“I Can Achieve and Do Anything If I Only Put My Mind to It”

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited”
From an early age we are taught (at least in the USA) that there is no limit to what we can achieve; that if we wish to accomplish something all we need to do is set ourselves goals and then apply ourselves to their attainment. With time and dedication, we are told, positive outcomes are guaranteed and ineluctable no matter how high we set the bar. There are no unrealistic aspirations – only insufficient perspiration and lacking inspiration!
This is a narcissistic and delusional narrative. It is counterproductive because in reality we do have limitations, we suffer defeats, and we make mistakes. No one is infallible, invincible, omnipotent, or omniscient.
But, exposed to this onslaught of propaganda, aimed at boosting our self-esteem and puffing up our self-confidence, when, inevitably, we fail in some of our endeavors – we tend to blame ourselves: “If only I had tried harder”, or “I am such a loser, a lazy good-for-nothing, I never get it right!”
Such inner sadistic voices tend to deplete our energy and discourage us from trying again. In hock to the official line that casts us as absolute masters of our own fate, we’d rather abstain than be proven wrong. By attributing failures to our failings, we become the reification of our own “bad fortune” or “indolence”. We give up on life’s challenges, engulfed by fatalism and defeatism.
Some of us choose another path: “If I botched and bungled it, surely I didn’t want it that badly” (a reaction known as “cognitive dissonance”). This kind of self-deception is equally self-destructive. It teaches us that nothing really matters, everything is fun and games and should not be taken too seriously. Reality and personal history are what you make of them and are subjects to re-writing, reframing, and outright confabulation.
How to avoid these pitfalls?
First, you should develop a realistic gauge of your fortes and weaknesses, talents and shortcomings, skills and limitations. Make a list of your own positive and negative traits. Ask others – family members, friends, co-workers, people who know you well – to commit to paper their observations: your good and bad sides. If they are reluctant to risk your ire find a way to allow them to submit their input anonymously.
Now, compare the lists: the one that you have generated with the ones others have provided. Are they largely in agreement? If they are, it means that you know yourself well and that you evaluate your capabilities or lack thereof courageously and objectively.
If, however, there is an abyss between the way you see yourself and the way others view you, something is wrong with your self-assessment.
Concentrate on the questionnaires of those who know you best, longest, and in a variety of situations. Single out their responses which conflict with yours. Proceed to grade these answers on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being “I completely agree”. Isolate those reactions and descriptions that you have rated most highly. Are you ready to change your mind about some issues? Do you recognize yourself in some of this feedback? Give yourself time to digest all this conflicting information. Think about it hard and long. Can you come up with incidents and events in the past which support your view – or theirs? Try to return to your list and re-do it in light of these new data.
This protracted inner dialog is important. You are bound to emerge from it with a better, more functional appraisal of yourself. You will learn to set goals that are realistic are are unlikely to result in frustration and emotional pain. Getting acquainted with your limitations is the first step towards a balanced, mentally hale life. You and your nearest and dearest will benefit from it immensely.

Britannica Everywhere?


The Encyclopedia Britannica has long been much more than a venerable print reference work. A decade ago it pioneered a freemium website (some content free, other content behind a pay wall). This has now flourished into a comprehensive walled garden of knowledge. Additionally, the Britannica publishes books and CD-ROMs about specific topics and issues. These are the best primers and introductions available to a host of fields and areas, from history to science.

Britannica Online

The Britannica’s rich online content adds context and dollops of information to the already unsurpassed DVD (see below). Indeed, buyers of any of the Britannica’s physical products enjoy 30-180 days of free access to this cornucopian resource (subject to registration of their products). But, in an age of mobile, wireless smartphones and netbooks, the Britannica Online is also a stand-alone product: it provides the entire content of the DVD and much, much more besides. Admittedly, at 30-50 USD annually it is not cheap and thus more suited to institutions, universities, and libraries than to individuals. The Britannica would do well to consider an affordable, more limited consumer version.

Research tools include: an A to Z, biography, and subject browsers and a sophisticated search box of the entire encyclopedia content; access to the entire Project Gutenberg e-books collection; in-depth (“extended play”) videos about selected topics coupled with an impressive assortment of other media; a Quotations finder; a world atlas; world data analyst (statistics by country, replete with analytical, comparative, and graphing tools); timelines on a multitude of subjects, from sports to evolution; browseable content of more than 500 magazines (otherwise not available online for free); and an “on this day” (“Born This Day”, “This Day in History”) feature which aggregates date-sensitive content from the entire corpus of information. A selection of new and revised full-text articles is highlighted.

Everything is grouped into 7 channels which display rotating daily samples culled from the Encyclopedia: History and Society, Arts and Entertainment, Travel and Geography, Science and Technology, Featured Video, Britannica Blog (as content-rich as the Encyclopedia itself!), and Advocacy for Animals. Any word in any of the articles can be double-clicked for its definition in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

In total, the Britannica Online comprises more than 1 million pages. There is a delightful, colourful, and multimedia-rich Britannica Online for Kids.

The paid content is augmented by loads of free features. “Spotlights” provide hand-picked multimedia-enhanced tours of broad subjects (Nobel prizes, Hispanic heritage, Shakespeare, women who changed the world, American presidents, Normandy 1944, black history, the Holocaust, and the Oscar awards); newsletters provide a plethora of theme-specific information; RSS feeds allow the user to explore places, people, and topics; aggregated newsfeeds from the BBC News and the New-York Times sit right atop a Merriam-Webster dictionary searchbox.

I tested the site on 4 mobile phones (older versions SonyEricsson and Nokia, iPhone 3, and Siemens) and it worked well as far as text is concerned. Graphics and videos were another matter, but this is a problem common to all websites: from YouTube to the CNN. Britannica has an iPhone edition and great topic-specific apps for the iPhone as well as a “Concise Britannica” app. There are also browser widgets which facilitate the surfing of the Britannica Online and fully benefit from its visual content.

I could find no Britannica apps for Android-based smartphones and devices: a major lacuna. Although Britannica Online sports a Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube presence there does not seem to be coherent strategies in place either for content management or for marketing via social networks. Britannica’s presence on these sites seems to be an afterthought. I couldn’t get the “Britannica on Google” thingie to work either (Error 404.)

Encyclopedia Britannica 2011-2012 Ultimate Editions

My first pleasant surprise was the discovery that many articles in the Britannica Ultimate 2012 edition have been revamped to incorporate up to the minute developments. From “Hosni Mubarak” to the tsunami disaster in Japan in 2011, the Britannica is now fully up to date. This has not been the case in previous editions and it is a welcome development if the Britannica is to compete with online reference works such as Wikipedia.

Both the Encyclopedia Britannica 2011 and 2012 Ultimate Editions (formerly “Student and Home Edition”) build on the success of its completely revamped previous editions in 2006-10. The rate of innovation in the last six versions was impressive and welcome. It continues apace in this rendition with Britannica Biographies (Great Minds, Heroes and Villains, and Leaders), Classical Music (500 audio files arranged by composer), and a great Workspace for Project Management (a kind of friendly digital den). Six months of free access to the myriad riches of the Britannica Online complete the package (as well as monthly updates and discounts on a plethora of products).

The Britannica 2012 comes bundled with an atlas (close to 2900 maps linked to articles and 287 World Data Profiles of individual countries and territories); the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus, augmented by a Spanish-English translation dictionary; classic articles from previous editions; fourteen yearbooks (12,200 articles in total); Interactive Timelines with 4000+ indexed timeline entries; a Research Organizer; and a Knowledge Navigator (called The Brain or BrainStormer). All told, it offers a directory of more than 166,000 reviewed and vetted links to online content.

In its new form the Britannica is user-friendly, with an A to Z Quick Search feature. The Britannica’s newest interface is even more intuitive and uncluttered than previously and is great fun to use. It offers morsels of knowledge, some of it date-specific, appetizingly presented through a ticker tape of visuals that leisurely scrolls across the bottom of the screen plus highly edifying interactive tours of articles and attendant media.

When you enter even the first few letters of a term in the search box, it offers various options and is persistent: no need to click on the toolbar’s “search” button every time you want to find something in this vast storehouse of knowledge. Moreover, the user can save search results onto handy “Virtual Notecards”. Whole articles can be copied onto the seemingly inexhaustible Workspace.

The new Britannica’s display is tab-based, avoiding the erstwhile confusing proliferation of windows with every move. Most importantly, articles appear in full, not in sections. This major improvement facilitates the finding of relevant keywords in and the printing of entire texts. These are only a few of the numerous alterations and enhancements.

Perhaps the most refreshing change is the Britannica’s Update Center. Dozens of monthly updates and new, timely articles are made available online (subject to free registration). A special button alerts the user when an entry in the base product has been updated.

Regrettably, the updates are not incorporated into the vast encyclopedia and its search interface: they are out there on a website. Moreover, the product does not alert its user to the existence of completely new articles, only to updated ones. It takes a manual scan of the monthly lists to reveal newly added content.

Speaking of updates, one must not forget to dwell on the Britannica’s unequalled yearbooks. Each annual volume contains the year in events, scientific developments, and everything you wanted to know about the latest in any and every conceivable field of human endeavor, or Nature. About 12,200 articles culled from the last 14 editions buttress and update the Encyclopedia’s anyhow impressive offerings. In the 2012 edition, the content of the yearbooks is more neatly and intuitively arranged than before, both chronologically and thematically.

The Britannica provides considerably more text than any other extant traditional encyclopedia, print or digital (a total of 62 million words). But it has noticeably enhanced its non-textual content over the years (the 1994-7 editions had nothing or very little but words, words, and more words): it now boasts in excess of 37,000 images and illustrations (depending on the version) and 900 video and audio clips. This is not to mention the Britannica Classics: articles from Britannica’s most famous contributors: from Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein to Harry Houdini and from Marie Curie to Orville Wright.

The Britannica fully supports serious research. It is a sober assemblage of first-rate essays, up to date bibliographies, and relevant multimedia. It constitutes a desktop university library: thorough, well-researched, comprehensive, trustworthy.

The Britannica’s 82-107,000 articles (depending on the version) are long and thorough, supported by impressive bibliographies, and written by the best scholars in their respective fields. The company’s Editorial Board of Advisors reads like the who’s who of the global intellectual and scientific community.

The Britannica is an embarrassment of riches. Users often find the wealth and breadth of information daunting and data mining is fast becoming an art form. This is why the Britannica incorporated the “Personal Brain” to cope with this predicament. But an informal poll I conducted online shows that few know how to deploy it effectively.

The Britannica also sports Student and Elementary versions of its venerable flagship product, replete with 16,500 articles, a Homework Helpdesk, “how to” documents, and interactive games, activities, and math and science tutorials. Still, the Britannica is far better geared to tackle the information needs of adults and, even more so, professionals. It provides unequalled coverage of its topics.

Ironically, this is precisely why the market positioning of the Britannica’s Elementary and Student Encyclopedias is problematic: compared to the Wikipedia, the Britannica’s brand is distinctly adult and scholarly. The vacuum left by the Encarta (lamented) discontinuance, though, should make it easier to market the Student and Elementary versions (which are an integral part of the Ultimate Edition and not sold separately).

Still, the 2011 and 2012 editions of both the Student and Elementary encyclopedias improve on the past in terms of both coverage and facilities: the Homework Helpdesk is a collection of useful homework resources including a video subject browse; online learning games and activities; online subject spotlights; and how-to documents on topics such as writing a book review. There are also Learning Games and Activities: hundreds of fun and interactive games and activities to help students with subjects like Math, Science, and Social Studies. Both versions are updated monthly with new online-only articles.

The current edition is fully integrated with the Internet. Apart from articles about new topics and personalities in the news, it offers additional and timely content and revisions on a dedicated Web site. The digital product includes a staggering number of links (165,808!) to third party content and articles on the Web. The GeoAnalyzer, which compares national statistical data and generates charts and graphs, is now Web-based and greatly enhanced.

The Britannica would do well to offer a browser add-on search bar and to integrate with desktop search tools from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and others. Currently it offers search results through Google but this requires the user to install add-ons or plug-ins and to go through a convoluted rite of passage. A seamless experience is in the cards. Users must and will be able to ferret content from all over – their desktop, their encyclopedias, and the Web – using a single, intuitive interface.

Some minor gripes:

To install the Britannica, I had to disable my Comodo firewall.

The atlas, dictionary, and thesaurus incorporated in the Britannica are still surprisingly outdated. Why not use a more current – and dynamically updated – offering? What about dictionaries for specialty terms (medical or computer glossaries, for instance)?

Despite considerable improvement over the previous edition, the Britannica still consumes (not to say hogs) computer resource far in excess of the official specifications. This makes it less suitable for installation on older PCs and on netbooks. If you own a machine with anything earlier than Pentium 4, less than 1 Gb RAM, and less than 10 Gb of really free space, the Britannica would be clunky at best.

But that’s it. Don’t think twice. Run to the closest retail outlet (or surf to the Britannica’s Web site) and purchase the 2010 edition now. It offers excellent value for money (less than $40, with a rebate). For less than the price of an antivirus software and for a fraction of the cost of Windows 7, you will significantly enhance your access to the sum total of human knowledge and wisdom.

With the demise of Microsoft’s Encarta (it has been discontinued) and the tribulations of the Wikipedia (its rules have been revamped to resemble a traditional encyclopedia, alienating its contributors in the process), the Encyclopedia Britannica 2010 (established in 1768) may have won the battle of reference.

Britannica Guides and CD-ROMs

Britannica guides come in two forms: books and CD-ROMs. By now, the range of titles and issues tackled is staggering: from climate change to Renaissance artists. I have written extensively and have read widely on many of the topics, but have yet to find more balanced and roundly-informed offerings than The Britannica’s. A typical print guide sports 400+ pages, densely packed with state-of-the-art data and research, the Britannica team having covered every conceivable aspect, bringing to the fore the most current knowledge; the most recent studies; the most erudite interlocutors; and the hardest of facts.

Take, as an example, the Britannica Guide to Climate Change, a typical product: it starts with an edifying vade mecum: an introduction by the eminent scientist, Robert M. May. While clearly on the side of environmentalists, he is no starry-eyed tree hugger but a hard-nosed scientist, worried sick about our abuse of our only planet, Earth. This is followed by concise but comprehensive chapters dedicated to climate, climate change, and weather forecasting; the changing planet (land, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and the decline in biodiversity); and an overview of ideas and arguments about the environment, replete with a synoptic sweep of history and prominent thinkers. Finally, the book charts our (relative) progress and what more needs to be done, including an overview of all available alternative energy technologies. The book is refreshing in its objectivity and candor. It refrains from taking sides or from preaching. This does not mean that it is a soulless inventory of data: on the contrary, it is yet another passionate plea to save our planet and our future. But it addresses our brains rather than our hearts and this makes for a welcome departure from contemporary practices.

The CD-ROMs are actually compilations of topic-specific content – both text and visuals – from the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Encyclopedia is sprawling and, despite its exhaustive internal hyperlinks, the chances of missing out on relevant content are high and the effort required in tracking down all the branches of its tree of knowledge is considerable. Britannica’s CD-ROMs come to the rescue. Consider, for example, the “Discovering Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Life” disc: it aggregates hundreds of articles about dinosaurs, ancient plants, ancient marine life, ancient amphibians, reptiles, and birds, ancient mammals, fossils, paleontology, geologic time, and pertinent biographies. The disc contains hundreds of videos, animations, and images as well as homework tools and research organizers. The CD-ROM constitutes an ideal – and guided – tour of the treasure trove that is the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is easy to install and comes with a 30-day free trial of the Britannica Online.

Maltin’s Movie Guides Keep Giving

Maltin’s Movie Guide requires no booting, minimal “surfing”, and no software, or special hardware. It is always on and it is authoritative in the best sense of the word: implying erudition, not bullying. It is updated sufficiently frequently to remain relevant in its field, though, admittedly, a web presence with real-time capsule reviews, peer-reviewed content, and user-generated commentary would have leveraged the Maltin brand to good use. An iPhone/iPad app of the Guide is a step in the right direction, hopefully to be followed by a comparable Android offering.

In an age of crowdsourcing and mob “wisdom” made available on every mobile device, why invest in a reference book? With dozens of user reviews available on websites such as and for each film ever shot, however obscure – why bother with Maltin’s voluminous fine-print doorstopper movie guides? Because Maltin is the Britannica to imdb’s Wikipedia: he offers expertise where laymen merely register opinions.

There are two Maltin movie guides: the veteran and venerated “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide”, annually published since 1996 and a lighter-weight but equally authoritative “Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide” whose second edition covers movies made no later than 1965. The Guides are mutually exclusive: most films would be listed in either book, but not in both. Each volume proffers between 10,000 (the Classics Guide) and 17,000 (the annual tome) capsule reviews of movies and what a marvel these snippets are!

Each capsule review comes replete with a plethora of information culled from hundreds of sources: date of release, viewing time in minutes, a quality rating assigned by the Guide’s editors (more about them later) as well as the MPAA’s parental guidance rating, credits of directors and actors involved, a brief synopsis of the plot, and even gossip, cameo appearances, anecdotes, and the social and cultural context of the work – all neatly and articulately folded into a Tweet-like 100 words or less!

The annual Guide also includes an incisive and insightful essay (in the form of an introduction) about the current state of the cinematic arts and commerce; lists of movies by topic (this year it is the Favorite Films of the New Millennium); mail-order and online sources for home videos (a USA-centric feature, admittedly); a widescreen glossary; and an index of film stars (gone is the index of movie directors, alas!) each with his or her respective oeuvre. The Classic Guide augments these offerings with “25 vintage movies you really shouldn’t miss.”

Back to our opening salvo: why not stick with imdb, or rottentomatoes, both of which now aggregate critics’ reviews from a wide variety of sources, print and digital?

When one is faced with a health problem one consults a doctor or two (for a second opinion.) No one I have heard of confers with 10, 70, or 5000 doctors. The element of expertise is crucial. The authors-editors of the two Guides are not merely the world’s leading critics (which they are) – but some of them have actually worked in the film industry, bringing to the proverbial table invaluable insights gleaned first-hand. Moreover, the usefulness, indeed indispensability of an informed impartial guide grows in an environment of cacophonic background noise and random “lists”.

But surely cinema – as opposed to medicine – is a matter of taste and opinion rather than facts and figures? Well, yes and no. Filmmaking is a discipline which must be learned and assimilated methodically and in-depth. Many of its aspects are utterly objective. The same applies to film historiography. And when it comes to taste and opinion I would rather rely on Maltin’s than on any Joe Schmo with a keyboard and time to kill. Even when I wholeheartedly disagree with Maltin (“Black Swan”, “Blade Runner” and that’s only on one page of the Guide!), I find myself challenged, enlightened, provoked, and informed by the collective intelligence and unfathomable knowledge of the crew behind the book.

No lover of the movies should go without a Maltin Guide (or two.)

DISCLAIMER: I have bought every single edition of Maltin’s Guides that I possess, except the last two, which were provided to me, as review copies, courtesy Penguin/Alan Lane.