For much longer than I’ve run Thought Distiller, I’ve been meaning to take a look at what it means when someone is described as having a “polarizing personality.” What is it about a single person that can inspire both awe and revulsion? Thus far, it’s been difficult for me to adequately phrase my thoughts on the topic.
That changed recently, however, when I saw the play The Last Five Years. Simply put, it tells the story of a failed romance; the twist is that the male protagonist (Jamie Wellerstein) experiences the relationship in realtime whereas the female protagonist (Cathy Hiatt) lives it in reverse chronological order. While their relationship fails for a number of reasons, I believe that the core reason in the case of Jamie and Cathy is something known in politics as a “cult of personality.”
A cult of personality (aka “celebrity worship”) arises when an individual is the subject of positive mass media, propaganda, or other methods that create an idealized, heroic image. Returning to The Last Five Years, when Jamie and Cathy meet, Jamie’s career as a novelist is beginning to take off. He secures a respected agent and a big publisher to back him; indeed, people get into bidding wars over his work. As his career progresses, Jamie’s fame skyrockets: he is invited to lavish parties and his books top bestseller lists for months on end. Thus, he becomes the center of his own cult of personality, which is evidenced by the fact that he ends up sleeping with his editor as well as a receptionist. Jamie steadily becomes larger than life, which is perhaps what drew Cathy to him in the first place.
To investigate further, we must turn to another polarizing personality: Peter Thiel. He describes the population of startup founders as an inversion of the populace at large. That is to say, startup founders tend to have extreme personality traits at a much greater rate than the rest of the population.
As shown above, the population of regular people is a normal distribution or a fat-tailed distribution as denoted by the dashed lines. The orange line is a potential distribution of great startup founders, where the truly amazing founders are at either extreme. I’d argue that the inverted distribution also reflects how people perceive polarizing figures.
Notice how basically nobody is sitting in the middle of the distribution. Human beings view polarizing people as falling on either side of this distribution, but never ever in the middle. I’d argue that most people perceive polarizing figures as more than what they are, either . Warren Buffett once mused that making more money doesn’t change you, it just makes you more of what you are. I believe public opinion does the same. As Thiel states:
People start out being different. They are nurtured to develop their already somewhat extreme traits. Those traits become more important, and they learn to exaggerate them. Others perceive that inflated importance and exaggerate in turn. The founders thus end up being even more different than they were before. And we cycle and repeat.
As the polarizing person becomes larger and larger than life, they tend to attract followers who form a cult of personality. This is what Max Weber refers to as “charismatic authority,” in which an individual’s influence rests on their exemplary personal traits in a way that other forms of authority do not. Ivan Szelenyi of Yale notes that “charisma is unstable and deteriorates if the leader cannot produce the changes he promises or when he confronts the contradictory logics and demands of the other types of authority.”
Thus, the collision of ideal and reality, when dealing with a cult of personality, can be catastrophic. When dealing with a polarizing, idealized figure, any reminder that they are human can be grating. Though followers are kept awed and enraptured, those who see the polarizing person’s flaws will become his or her opponents. To conclude with our The Last Five Years example, we might say that Cathy fell out of love with Jamie because she saw that he, in reality, was self-absorbed and adulterous; while it’s (somewhat) alright for a regular person to be flawed, any breaks in a heroic figure’s charisma can rapidly turn away followers. It is my belief that this happened in Jamie and Cathy’s relationship.
Also published on Medium.