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  • Debbie Dougherty

The Unique Person Syndrome

Updated: Jan 27

By Debbie S. Dougherty

Debbie S. Dougherty
So You Think You Are Special? Picture by Fionna Clark

I am sorry to have to tell you this, but we are not as special as we think we are. The problem isn’t that we think we are special. We are special. The problem is that we think that, because we are special, we are somehow uniquely exempt from social problems, problems ranging from sexual harassment to unemployment. I have seen this phenomenon in my research, my consulting, and in my teaching. While individually, this may not seem like a big deal, when considered as a larger pattern of human behavior, the damage is tremendous.

The unique person syndrome taps into our collective tendency to see ourselves as special, or unique. It also taps into our tendency to oversimplify problems.Take for example victim blaming. If I am too smart, too tough, too whatever to be a victim, then victims must have been targeted because they are not smart enough, not tough enough, not whatever enough. As a result, not only do we misdiagnose complex social problems, we can even make those problems worse. It is for this reason that I call this the unique person syndrome.

The Problem With Simple Explanations

It seems like wisdom to search for the simplest possible explanation for a problem. Sometimes the problem is simple. For example, my washing machine stopped working a few days ago. A code flashed on the display telling me that the drain was clogged. I googled how to fix it, watched a few videos, opened up the back panel on my washing machine, cleaned out the filter, put the panel back on, and that is it. Fixed. If only most problems were so easy. Wouldn’t it be nice if, when confronted with racism or misogyny, or whatever, there would be a code flashing on a screen telling you how to fix it? A little google, a short video, a little physical effort and done! No more racism. No more misogyny. Yay.

Unfortunately, that is not how social problems work. If we try to solve racism by removing a racist, or sexual harassment by telling targets to be more aggressive/tougher/whatever, we would end up spending all our time in a frustrating game of whack-a-mole. But that is our tendency. We tend to believe that social problems are caused by a person behaving badly. This is where the Unique Person Syndrome comes into the equation.

So how does it work?

Let’s take long term unemployment for example. In one research study, my colleagues and I asked employed people to talk about unemployed people. They described the typical unemployed person as lazy, fat, single mom, drug user, uneducated, and usually Black or Brown. In other words, they seemed to believe that most people are unemployed because they are bad, or at least deeply flawed. In contrast, the study participants almost all described themselves as uniquely exempt from unemployment because they worked hard, had important skill sets, and were willing to take whatever work was available. What is fascinating is that many of the people making these claims had previously experienced long-term unemployment, meaning they were not so uniquely exempt after all!

I get it. It is nice to pretend that we will not suffer the consequences of a social problem. If we can blame problems on individual flaws, and then explain how we do not have those flaws, then we can believe we are exempt from the social problem. But you see, social problems are, well, social. They are built into larger systems. For example, as the recent economic crisis clearly demonstrates, when we have more jobs than we have job seekers, we end up with scary levels of inflation. The systems needs unemployed people to sustain a steady state. In other words, unemployment is built into our economic systems, rather than being the result of lazy, stupid people who don’t want to work.

The Unique Working Woman Syndrome

In my newest book, I introduce the unique person syndrome (chapter 6), focusing in particular on how women enact this bias in the workplace. Women believe they are uniquely special in comparison to other women, and therefore believe they are uniquely exempt from discrimination in the workplace. They believe they cannot be harassed because, unlike other women, they are strong and assertive and “would not stand for that behavior.” Let me share with you an excerpt from my book Sexual Harassment in Organizational Culture: A Transformative Approach. The examples below are real examples of people talking.

Many women from across my research studies believe if they were harassed they would enact violence on the perpetrator:

Example 1

Rosemary: I can’t imagine like, somebody doing that cause I’d probably hit them, like, “listen here!” But like, ‘cause I also like, I think it’s how you let, ‘cause some people let themselves, their personal bubble in closer to people, like to actually touch them and stuff like that so I think there’s different things there that I don’t deal with ‘cause people know that I have a huge personal bubble. Like I don’t like, hug people. I don’t do stuff like that just ‘cause it makes me uncomfortable

Example 2

Jennifer: And I worked at the [bar] so I got to know everybody. And it was always friendly, it was always very, [slight pause] nobody made it very personal, like made derogatory remarks, it was always. And if you told them “hey that’s enough that’s getting a little too far,” they would stop, they would apologize. Probably because they know I would slap them otherwise.

These women seriously believe that they are immune to sexual harassment. What is fascinating is that some of the women who make this claim have experienced egregious sexual harassment that left them afraid and shaken. Yet still, they claim that they would physically assault a harasser if they were targeted. Why does this matter? Two consequences come to mind.

What are the Consequences?

First, women who believe that they are exempt from sexual harassment are poorly prepared for the likelihood that it will happen to them. Second, as Karen Attiah illustrates in her excellent Washington Post opinion piece, how can we solve a social problem if we keep treating it like it is an individual's problem, if we keep blaming targets for being targeted?

Action Steps

What can we do about the Unique Person Syndrome? First, we need to slow down. Implicit biases are knee jerk, instantaneous behaviors, like when a doctor taps your knee with that little hammer to see if your leg swings. Pausing for a moment before we respond can help us manage our biases. Mindfulness can also help. Engage in complex thinking when confronted with complex problems. Finally, as always, ask more questions. It is amazing how a few good questions can help us think more clearly, precisely, and with greater complexity.

This week's art is from Fionna Clark (Freya's sister). Fionna is an artist who lives and works in Washington D.C.

Debbie S. Dougherty is a professor, author, consultant, farmer

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