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Narcissism and the Expert Witness: A Perfect Storm

Narcissism and the Expert Witness: A Perfect Storm

I've commented before about medical expert witnesses who testify regularly for the defense industry. Those experts are paid large sums of money to testify against injured people and oppose their claims.

One might wonder whether experts of this type ever got bothered by what they do. Might they feel some remorse if their testimony is believed, and a legitimately injured person is sent packing with no money to pay for their medical bills?

For some of these experts, the answer is no. That's because they are what psychologists call narcissists, or exceptionally self-absorbed people. Narcissists are people with unusually high levels of self-esteem, grandiosity, self-focus, and self-importance. One of their defining characteristics is exploitative and entitled. This basically means they manipulate and exploit others, and at the same time expect favors from them.

This combination of characteristics is almost eerily perfect for expert witnesses. Nothing could be better for a narcissist than being introduced to a jury as an expert, being paid a lot of money for your "expertise," and getting a forum where you can show off your (own perceived) brilliance and ability to persuade.

It doesn't stop there, either. Many other characteristics of narcissists seem tailor-made for the expert witness role. Narcissists tend to dress well and groom themselves neatly. Psychological studies show that on first impression, they are more likely than others to seem attractive, entertaining, and charming. Narcissists have outsized self-confidence and are unlikely to admit any doubt about what they say.

At the same time, narcissists have a powerful need for admiration. Even though they care little about other people, they crave attention and respect from them. It's easy to see how being an expert would almost be like a drug for people in this category: they get money, respect, and undivided attention all at once. They even get to brag about their accomplishments directly, because lawyers typically ask a lot of questions about the expert's education and training to build their credentials in the eyes of jurors.

When one goes back to the original question - don't they feel bad about what their testimony might do to other people's lives? - the answer is simple. Someone whose essential traits are insensitivity and lack of concern for others might not feel any guilt at all. Even if they do, those feelings are far outweighed by the short-term high they get from being the center of attention in a trial.

There's one more problem. It's true that narcissists eventually get exposed, and people who spend time around them realize they're deeply flawed. One might expect that people serving on juries would see through them too.

Unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way. An expert witness might only testify for an hour. During that period of time, he or she does not directly interact with jurors. Thus, the narcissistic expert may not be found out in that short period of time. Because the encounter is relatively short, he or she might retain the benefit of a favorable first impression.

We've all seen movies where a mother tells her daughter to look for the quiet, sensitive man in the corner instead of the handsome, charming man who grabs the center of attention. The daughter doesn't listen, of course, but ends up learning in time that the handsome man is a disaster. Jurors might want to keep this familiar story in mind when they evaluate the testimony of the smooth-talking expert on the witness stand.

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