The Office and its Portrayal of Status Anxiety, Insecurity and Fragile Narcissism: Psychology in TV and the Movies
This post is part of the Psychology in TV and Movies series of posts. I’ll be writing about the films and shows which capture interesting ideas and theories from the world of psychology.
From a period of time between 2005 to 2007 I was a stubborn person. 4 years prior I had fallen in love with Ricky Gervais’ series The Office (now known to most fans of this show as the ‘U.K. Office’ or ‘English Office’).
The Office can be summed up as a mockumentary about the employees of a mid-sized paper firm which followed the cringe inducing life of manager David Brent and his misguided search for admiration from his employees. The heart of the show sits in the relationship between salesman Tim and receptionist Dawn. The comic relief from ‘cringe-overload’ exists in the partnership that Tim and Dawn form to mess with the non-self-aware Assistant To The Regional Manager Gareth Keenan. The show was filled with near-perfect scenes of observational comedy that dealt with questions about how humans achieve respect and status.*
*Side note: a compelling recent review paper from Psychological Bulletin by Anderson, Hildreth and Howard hypothesis that this desire for status may be a fundamental human motive.
The Office (UK) Vs The Office (USA)
In 2005 I watched the first episode of the U.S recreation of the show. I was left feeling frustrated. It struck me as an inferior recreation with a script that seemed like it had been taken from the Gervais’ version almost word for word. It felt wrong to watch. I vowed to never view it again. Throughout 2006 I read a number of articles about the show’s critically acclaimed second season.
In 2007 I relented and watched the first 2 seasons of the U.S. version of The Office. It turned out that loved it and I hated myself for that. I realised that it probably took about 4 episodes for the U.S. version to find its feet and create a few points of difference from its U.K. counterpart. Over the course of the first 5 seasons of the U.S. version I started to conclude that it may be one of my favourite shows and stands alongside the U.K. version. It simply has a different tone to its humour and different take-away themes to the U.K. version.
The Office nails the life of a fragile narcissist
Both show are studies in the fragile narcissism of their managers. Fragile narcissistic characters did not get much attention before David Brent. Fragile narcissists differ from two other forms of narcissism, known as the grandiose/malignant type and the high functioning/exhibitionistic type. (Russ, Shedler, Bradley, & Westen (2008).
The grandiose/malignant type of narcissist tends to display seemingly no shame or empathy, can be highly manipulative, and has a strong thirst for power. It is thought that this subtype of narcissism has a strong associations with psychopathy. Think of a grandiose politician who rubs you the wrong way and you will be getting close. Claire Underwood from House of Cards may also be a good example.
The high functioning/exhibitionistic type of narcissist is generally quite articulate, social, outgoing, and have an air of self importance. Think here of people in your life who really like to talk about themselves, have an air of smug, but ultimately are quite harmless. Richard Roxborough’s portrayal of Cleaver in Rake provides quite a good example of this profile.
*Language warning on the video below*
The Office was able to capture quite beautifully the third subtype of the fragile narcissist by showing that at the core of the personalities of David Brent and Michael Scott were people who were achingly lonely, insecure, and prone to feeling shame. The self-importance and constant drive for attention and admiration in these characters seemed to function as a type of over-compensation for their shame. Both shows are able to have the audience member shift between sympathy/heartache and disgust for the characters by delicately moving between these sides of their personalities.
Ricky Gervais says as much when he wrote about creating the character of David Brent in the Wall Street Journal: “I like all the characters I play or create, to be honest. I don’t think you should ever feel above the role or sneery towards them. Comedy is, above all, about empathy in my opinion and I think as an actor, the more you empathise with a character, the more engaging he will be to an audience. It doesn’t mean he has to be perfect or squeaky-clean, but he must have his foibles planted somewhere in humanity. And at some level he has to be vulnerable. David Brent was certainly that. Insecure, eager to please, and needing constant positive feedback....His worst crime is that he confused respect with popularity. He wanted both but concentrated on the wrong one.”
How are David Brent (UK) and Michael Scott (USA) different?
I would argue that David Brent’s grandiose over-compensations are driven towards being admired - he needs an audience.
Take the following quotes:
"I suppose I've created an atmosphere where I'm a friend first and a boss second. Probably an entertainer third."
"When people say to me: would you rather be thought of as a funny man or a great boss? My answer's always the same, to me, they're not mutually exclusive."
“You will never work in a place like this again. It's brilliant. Fact. And you'll never have another boss like me, someone who's basically a chilled-out entertainer."
Rafaeli, Bernstein and Young (2010) describe the fragile narcissist in the following way that eerily fits the behaviours of David Brent “(to cope with feeling defective) one develops an arrogant, superior manner that hides his underlying feelings of inferiority… and also unconsciously sabotages himself, setting himself up for failure or embarrassment that reinforces his sense of inferiority”. There are so many examples of this littered throughout The Office: the most glaringly obvious is David Brent’s spontaneous dance routine when feeling upstaged by his future boss Neil.
On the other hand, Michael Scott’s fragilities and over-compensations are centred around being a person who is included in a world where he feels excluded. Psychologists examining human needs have had a lot to say about the seemingly innate need for belonging (a fantastic paper from 20 years ago written by Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary can be found here). The writers of the show even develop a back story explaining this behaviour from Michael when he shows the employees and their children his appearance in a kid's TV show from childhood.
“I want be married and have 100 kids so I can have 100 friends, and no one can say no to being my friend.” Young Michael Scott.
It then extends into adulthood:
“Make friends first, make sales second, make love third. In no particular order.”
“Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”
What is the best episode of The Office to jump into if I haven't seen it before
Both the UK and USA series are probably at their best when David/Michael are able to show a glimpse of their authentic selves without overcompensation.
For the US series (which streams on Stan in Australia), this occurs in the episode titled Business School (season 3 episode 16). Both of these episodes would be in the top 10 of my favourite TV episodes of all time.
What if I am dealing with a narcissistic personality in my workplace?
Really helpful resources about what to do and what not to do can be found at Out Of The Fog.
Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.
Anderson, C., Hildreth, J.A., & Howland, L. (2015). Is the desire for status a fundamental human motive? A review of the empirical literature. Psychological Bulletin, 141, 574-601.
Gervais, R. (2012). As ‘The Office’ Ends, Ricky Gervais Spills Secrets From the Show’s Start.https://blogs.wsj.com/speakeas...
Rafaeli, E., Bernstein, D.P., and Young, J. (2010). Schema Therapy: Distinctive Features. Taylor & Francis, London, UK.
Russ, E., Shedler, J., Bradley, R., Westen, D. (2008). Refining the construct of narcissistic personality disorder: diagnostic criteria and subtypes. American Journal of Psychiatry, 165, 1473-1481.
Patrick Sheehan is a clinical psychologist who works with adults and adolescents in his private practice located in Glebe, Sydney. If you want to enquire about an appointment, please head over to the contact page.