Monday, April 27, 2009

Programmer's Psychosis

For your consideration:
Programmer's Psychosis: an informal hypothesis

Everyone has heard or experienced these stories: programmers who stay at horrible jobs with abusive working conditions for months, even years longer than necessary. Eventually, many will quit, but only after painfully stressing and doubting the decision to leave.

A particular former colleague of mine has two children under the age of 6. He has worked more than 240 hours each month for the past year. His work has affected his marriage, his relationship with his kids, and his health. Yet he can't quit. Another friend stayed at a job he hated for more than a year before finally quitting. This was only after hours of conversation, the support of every friend he had, and enough IRC chat, griping about his working conditions, to publish a decology.

The only reason these poor bastards could give for why they stayed were:

1. I feel like I am letting the company down

2. I feel like I am letting my coworkers down

3. I feel like I am letting the project down

Or some variation on that sad theme.

This phenomena is well documented anecdotally in programmer culture, but it has no name, and little explanation. Based on my own experiences as a programmer, and the experiences of friends and colleagues, I have an informal hypothesis to propose.

Programmer's Psychosis, the undiagnosed mental illness of computer programmers.

I "blurted" out the term while chatting with the aforementioned friend, after he gave reasons number 2 and 3. But upon some investigation, it seems to fit perfectly.

A psychosis, as defined by Collins Essential English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, is:

"a severe mental disorder in which the sufferer's contact with reality becomes highly distorted."

The definitions of online dictionaries all define Psychosis as describing a loss of contact with reality, and distorted thinking.

What could be more distorted than the belief that quitting a company where you are ill treated is your failure. If an organization has let you down so completely, if your company has misused you so badly, that you feel the need to quit, to leave and never come back, how is that your failure?! If people are quitting, that indicates a failure on the part of the company. It is they that have failed you, and by extension your coworkers, by creating an environment that you found untenable.

I propose that belief to the contrary indicates a fundamental impairment of thinking, and a loss of contact with reality, and therefor, merits the term psychosis.

Programmer's Psychosis should be undertaken as a scientific study by mental health care professionals to determine its validity as a psychiatric diagnosis.


  1. problem is this: stereotypical nerds were never popular, and joining a company that initially respects you and likes you will get almost undying support from the nerd. So the nerd doesn't quite notice when the grapes turn sour, and still is a very loyal "friend" of the company.
    For a nerd, quitting the job is almost like you having to tell your best friend that you can't play any more. Even when your best friend is the one that always gets your in trouble it hurts like hell to say goodbye to the friend.

    I do wholly agree that it's a psychosis. But being a nerd myself I'd be damned if I let down my friends. They are hard to come by, and those that do come deserve second, third and fourth chances if they screw up, cause I know it's not because they hate me they have acted the way they do.
    When I project this upon my workplace, I quickly begin to act the way you describe in the article.
    Lucky for me my workplace is (still) a good one :)

  2. I appreciate the feedback, and you make an excellent point. A lot of workplaces sell themselves very well to prospective employees, and things tend to get gradually worse, which can make it difficult to tell when your company actually crossed the "I quit" line.

    The whole psychology of "unpopular nerd given respect at workplace" is a really interesting observation. Like Stockholm syndrome 'lite'.

  3. This has nothing to do with nerds, but with people who lack a strong personality and need constant group-recognition to get through a day. The minute you stop craving for tha recognitiont, you start making better decisions in all areas of life. Put your own goals in life first, others goals second. Good luck, nerds.

  4. What about the "Devil you know" syndrome? When you become so beaten down that you fear a job switch may land you in a worse situation.

  5. Not certain the "unpopular nerd" trope applies at all here.

    Those who I have seen exhibit this, myself included, seem to display no real correlation to popularity. Some are loners living with their Mom at age 27, others have lived very strong and healthy social lives.

    It's not even clear to me that this is primarily a grasp for recognition. The switch to reality came to me when I disposed of the valuation of the sunk cost. When I realized that I was accepting continued cost and what I was receiving in return these rationalizations go away. As such, it was more of a grasping at perceived worth in time and pain expended than anything else.

    But the core reason is likely different for everyone suffering from it. In the end we all ended up rationalizing our situation into something that seemed socially redeemable.

  6. I personally have a lot of pride in the code that I write. I take ownership of it and cherish my creations. Leaving all that code I wrote, neigh surrendering it to my coworkers, also seems like a difficult challenge. Or maybe I just don't have any good friends at work and look to the code as my companion instead? Luckily I'm still enjoying my job.