Stockholm syndrome

There’s two kinds of Stockholm syndrome, and neither is good for young scientists.

It is a crass and tasteless comparison, but take a moment to read the signs of modern slavery in the picture above, and then ask how many of those things could be applied to young scientists in academia today.

You needn’t feel too abashed about doing it, despite the insensitivity of the request. Comparing the predicament of young scientists with indentured servitude is something that young scientists frequently do themselves…a symptom of the gallows humour that now permeates the profession. 

Because, shockingly, many of the things on that list do actually apply – some directly (false job promises, long shifts, being in fear of someone), and some only to a relative extent (threats to person, isolated from others, little or no pay) – but the comparison can nonetheless be made. In egregious cases, the situation may so closely match the features of servitude that a comparison ceases to be humorous (see here for a deeply troubling article by Nic Fleming on this topic; graphic below taken from the same source).

Graphic from “Underpaid and overworked” by Nick Fleming.

A big difference between overt slavery and the situation of young scientists in academia is the role of agency. Modern slaves are coerced to work by people controlling them, whereas young scientists willingly submit to these conditions – one reason why such exploitation tends to be classified as “bullying” rather than more loaded terms. A young scientist can walk away from an academic position any time they choose, yet many choose not to despite being treated appallingly. 

There’s another term for this kind of behaviour: Stockholm syndrome. Being held captive, but empathising with the needs of your captor to such an extent that you ultimately share their aims. 

Stockholm syndrome in the context of hostage-taking and kidnapping remains contentious, but the behaviour it describes is more commonly encountered in abusive relationships of all forms. Rather than confronting the problem of the relationship itself – which may be dangerous for the individual – the abused individuals cope by identifying with the aggressor. They cooperate with the person holding power over them.

In science, this translates into young researchers working hard – very hard – to enable the aggrandisement of their mentors. They are hostages to others’ ambition, coping by telling themselves that in the long run, they too will benefit even as their boss is benefitting now (spoiler: most of them don’t). And just as with Stockholm syndrome, they may even rationalise the treatment they receive from their mentors to such an extent that they take it as a template to be copied. In this way, bad attitudes to mentorship proliferate, as masses of young scientists – destined to be forgotten or overlooked – labour for the burgeoning reputations of others. A small, glittering number of pharaohs to be idolised at the expense of those who brought their success and sustained it.

This obsession with the achievements of the powerful reaches its zenith each autumn, when another kind of Stockholm syndrome occurs – the frenzy over the award of the Nobel prizes. For one brief moment, scientific research basks in the adulation of the international news media, and the pharaohs jostle for the ultimate recognitional accolade. Professors all across the US endure sweaty sleepless nights hoping the telephone will ring.

Like so much in modern science, the number of candidates for Nobel prizes has increased dramatically while the number of openings has remained fixed, with the same number of prizes and the same limits on the number of awardees since the inception of the Nobel awards over 100 years ago. Despite longstanding and justified criticism of the awards, change is unlikely. The number of awards or awardees could be increased, but this would dilute the prestige. The awards could be made to research fields instead of 1-3 individuals (similar to how the Peace Prize is often given to organisations), but this would be too great a blow to the cult of individual brilliance. 

Even the most narcissistic of awardees cannot claim to have done it all themselves, and some arguably play a less decisive role in the enNobeled work than the people in their labs (leading to some bitter disputes). In fairness though, most are magnanimous in the recognition of their lab members, often because they can afford to be. The race has been won, and a glittering future of after-dinner speeches, TV interviews, and instant deference awaits. And in one of the few remaining instances where trickle-down economics can be said to work, the reflected glory of “worked in the lab of Nobel laureate X” is bound to burnish the standing of those who’ve laboured at the creation of a godhead. 

Amid all this cynicism, we shouldn’t forget that there are of course many good and enlightened mentors out there, some of them occupying the heights of their chosen fields. But the fact remains that many young scientists are willingly exploited for the benefit of their older colleagues, and the direct and indirect benefits of such associations are getting harder than ever to justify. Young scientists sacrifice their time, their happiness, and sometimes their sanity in pursuit of a career in which they almost never benefit as much as their mentors, despite the supposedly didactic nature of the relationship.

Not only that, but the entrenched power structures of academia – the very imbalances that enable the development of these psychological bonds – engender an awareness of the predicament but an apathy to do anything about it. The Alt-Ac (alternative academic careers) backlash is now well under way, a belated recognition that a profession to which many so gladly and so unselfishly devote themselves has been warped into an unequal and unfair exploitation of its youngest members. The only thing that young scientists can do, and, wonderfully, that many are now beginning to do, is to demonstrate the difference between their situation and that of genuine slavery, and vote with their feet. 

Related postings:
Weinstein, Einstein, high time – why power imbalances in academia create fertile ground for abuse.
Manumission – why poor mentorship can have a corrosive effect on successive generations.

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