Mark Leary was a social psychologist at Wake Forest in 1995 when he was invited to write a book chapter about a topic he says he didn’t know much about: egotism.
He rounded up some undergraduates to help with the research. This wasn’t as easy as it would be now. It wasn’t yet possible to read academic papers online, and his assistants had to visit obscure corners of Wake Forest’s library to dig through arcane journals. By the end of the school year, though, they had a completed draft of the book chapter, which was eventually published with a catchy title: “Blowhards, Snobs and Narcissists: Interpersonal Reactions to Excessive Egotism.”
Leary was the lead author. And then came his research assistants: Richard Bednarski, Dudley Hammon and Timothy Duncan. Yes, that Timothy Duncan.
The book, “Aversive Interpersonal Behaviors,” was published nearly two decades ago. It has been so long that not even Leary remembers the paper clearly. But he still gets asked about it all the time.
“It’s a piece of lore inside social psychology,” he said. “He’s probably the best-paid person to write any psychological chapter or article ever.”
Leary was reminiscing about this book chapter on Monday afternoon because his co-author had announced he was retiring from the NBA after a remarkable 19-year career with the San Antonio Spurs that included five championships. But the reason that Duncan is such a basketball icon can be found in his own academic literature. It’s right there in the abstract of his research paper: “Simply put, we don’t like egotistical people.”
Duncan, whose retirement became official with a short press release from the only team he ever played for, was as ego-less as any player in the history of professional basketball. There has never been an NBA player, let alone a future Hall-of-Famer, who was less of a blowhard, snob or narcissist.
Duncan helped write Leary’s chapter as Wake Forest’s tallest and most talented psychology major. The research assistants would huddle with their professor every week to discuss what they had read. Duncan’s co-authors said he was exactly as shy as most NBA fans would believe—but only in the beginning.