Eccentric? If you feel you might be, contact Dr. David Weeks. That query, posted on public bulletin boards throughout Edinburgh in 1984, yielded a bumper crop of 130 self-proclaimed oddballs, recruited for the first scientific study of eccentricity. “No research had been done on the subject,” says Weeks, 42, principal psychologist at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, “because most psychologists are looking for crucial issues that cry out for immediate attention. I was fascinated by eccentrics because they provide an indirect approach for looking at four important areas: schizophrenia, nonconformity, creativity and the normal personality.” A native of Garwood, N.J., Weeks was educated in Scotland. A widower and the father of two children, he counts one certified eccentric in his family—a grandfather who was a passionate science-fiction buff. According to family lore, the grandfather became so agitated while listening to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 that he gathered his family and, hoping to escape a Martian invasion, sped to southern New Jersey and drove his car off a pier. Currently, Weeks is extending his search for eccentrics to America. He discussed his work with correspondent Dianna Waggoner.
Who qualifies as an eccentric?
Eccentrics are the most diverse people in the world and among the hardest to define. In general they are loners and nonconformists who are curious, creative, obsessive. They don’t give a hoot what other people think about them. They see the rest of the world as rather mundane and out of step with them. They will put up with ordinary life, but they don’t like mass culture—that is, believing what everyone else believes. They are also highly intelligent. The average IQ of those we studied was 115 to 120.
How does an eccentric’s curiosity differ from that of a normal person?
An eccentric’s curiosity knows no limits. If an ordinary person wants to know about electricity he simply reads a book on the subject. The eccentric might also call the local public utility and go look at a power generator to see how it works. Then he might knock on some professor’s door and ask him about it. One man I read about became so immersed in the study of Robin Hood that he legally adopted the name. He wears a green Sherwood Forest costume, carries a longbow and lives in the forest when he’s not installing bank security equipment.
How do you distinguish between eccentrics and psychotics?
Eccentrics have not lost touch with reality. They have insight into their behavior and usually don’t show any of the positive symptoms of illness, such as delusions and hallucinations.
How did the subjects of your study exhibit their eccentricity?
One woman, an artist, showed up for her interview with a plastic lobster on a leash. It was her mascot, a pet that didn’t need feeding. We discovered an ex-Royal Marine commando who has hiked along the Scottish coast barefoot, clad only in his pajamas. Sometimes he leaves home for a week to sleep in a cave. There is a woman of 66 who is a frustrated hoofer. After our interview she asked if she might demonstrate one of her dances. Before starting she stripped off her dress to reveal an Edwardian bathing costume. Another subject, though fiercely antiwar, lives in an apartment chockablock with his collection of scale-model weapons. We also studied a 43-year-old Scotsman whose favorite topic is the potato—its history, how to clone it, how to cook it and so on and on. Fortunately the man is well-suited for his work. He is a potato inspector.
Do eccentrics think differently from most people?
Most people think in words, but eccentrics think in pictures. They can leap from a problem to a solution without going through all the steps in between, because they can actually see the answer. The left hemisphere of the brain is where language resides, and most imagery is on the right side, which is vastly underutilized in most people, but not in eccentrics. They are similar to geniuses in this respect. The difference in many cases is merely a matter of education. Geniuses have better formal education, whereas eccentrics are amateurs.
Do eccentrics accomplish much?
Eccentrics have so many ideas—some far out, others not so unorthodox—that they find it hard to select among them. One man we interviewed proposed cleaning up oil spills by dropping small plastic-coated shavings of magnetized metal over the oil, then using a giant magnet to drag the slick to a disposal area. Eccentrics have a tendency to choose their most far-out idea and pursue it for years. We found another man who invented what he maintained was a perpetual motion machine, despite being told that the second law of thermodynamics makes perpetual motion impossible. His response: “Perhaps the professors are wrong and I am right.”
Do eccentrics see themselves as eccentric?
Oh yes. That’s one of the most intriguing things about them. As children, they were told by friends and relatives that they were different. Even if no one had told them, they would have realized it. You can’t go through life sane, particularly if you’re very intelligent, and not realize that you’re different. They have absolute insight into their own mental life. That makes them very good for study because they can tell you what’s going on.
Do eccentrics prefer the company of other eccentrics?
No. These people are introverts, not extroverts. They are individuals and loners; give-and-take would cramp their style. The happiest eccentrics seem to be those who are living alone and accepting it. A lot of eccentric behavior is on the cooler side of life, rather than the hot and emotional side. They don’t suffer fools gladly. On the other hand, they do like to talk about their obsessions. You can almost count on it that early in any conversation these people get into their main interest. If you try to walk away, they will go right with you. With no trouble they can become the world’s greatest bores.
Do eccentrics fall in love?
Yes. But their relationships are a bit tenuous. Their main turn-on is ideas. I suspect that their marriages are more like business relationships, with not a lot of emotional involvement.
Does eccentricity run in families?
In about 36 percent of our cases there was another eccentric in the family, frequently a grandparent. In one case we discovered an equally eccentric brother and sister. The woman had wallpapered a public ladies’ room in Scotland in order to brighten up the world, while her brother had a habit of sleeping in dumpsters. He’d find one he liked, move his mattress outside and sleep under the debris—not because he had to, but because he enjoyed it.
Did you find any differences between men and women eccentrics?
Not many. There were two men for every woman. Men were eccentric at an earlier age, say 7 or 8 years old. Women started much later, after their children were grown. But within six months their eccentricity was in full bloom, almost as if they had been planning for years. The women were also more likely than men to have a good opinion of themselves, perhaps because they hadn’t failed in life so much. The men had lost jobs and subsequently some of their self-image. Women eccentrics are also more assertive and less apt to be self-analytical and critical.
Are parents sometimes responsible for making their children eccentric?
Eccentrics receive far more attention from their parents than ordinary children, and the parents frequently emphasize how different their child is from what they would have liked. One person we studied was told when he was very young that he was bringing the whole family into ridicule by the way he dressed. On the whole, parents of the eccentrics we interviewed were rigid, hypercritical, strict, and moral disciplinarians.
Do eccentrics have much of a sense of humor?
Yes, but they have lapses in taste because they don’t pay as much attention to social conventions as other people. They are more extreme and exuberant in their sense of humor. One millionaire, whom we did not study, used to drive around in his carriage until he found a construction site, wait until the workers were on a break, then walk up and announce, “You’re all sacked, you lazy sods.” He thought this was a good practical joke.
Do eccentrics have any desire to be normal?
No. They only want to become more eccentric or better at it. They want people to be more tolerant of them. I saw only one person who was very unhappy, but he had just lost his job and his wife. He didn’t want to conform; he just wanted to have the normal things that people want. Without exception, eccentrics are happy in their eccentricity.