For the past few weeks, I have been thrust into the distinctive role of creepy-clown expert. While I have never been enamored with clowns, the circus or anything that remotely registers on the creepy scale, the calls and email requests for me to discuss the global creepy-clown phenomenon have become a daily norm.
In a whirlwind of print, internet and radio, my somewhat tranquil and predictable sabbatical life was turned it on its head. Several times a day (and yes, even in my sleep), I now find myself pondering creepy clowns and contemplating how I ended up serving as an academic expert on this topic.
The answer is quite simple, really: I volunteered for it. Interestingly, and despite the additional stress of radio interviews and time-crunched media requests (not to mention dredging up my own personal feelings about clowns), this experience has actually been beneficial for my personal confidence and scholarly perspective in my academic career. As it turns out, we can learn a great deal by forcing ourselves out of our personal and professional comfort zones.
Before delving into my lesson from this experience, let me set the stage for my 15 minutes of fame as a creepy-clown expert. When I was first approached to provide expert comment on that storyline in The New York Times, I hadn’t yet heard of the creepy clown incidents that had erupted in South Carolina, nor was I familiar with clown-related historical events like the 1981 Massachusetts phantom clown scare that had Bostonians on the edge of their seats. Honestly, the topic of clowns was just not on my radar screen.
Even so, a media consultant with whom I have worked closely over the past several years pitched the idea to me about commenting on the story. She noted that I might have an interesting and valuable perspective as a social psychologist. In particular, she wanted me to discuss potential social-psychological explanations for why the clown debacle might be spreading and to share my perspective with a reporter for an upcoming piece he was writing for the Times.
While I am no stranger to contributing psychological perspectives to articles in the news media, never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that my Ph.D. in social psychology would qualify me to speak on the topic of creepy clowns. The prospect of contributing to this topic and in such a widely read venue was intimidating, but it was also intriguing. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I was in Europe at the time (a perk of sabbatical) and could not do a phone interview in one hour’s time as had been requested. Hell, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do any sort of interview, as my mind ran through a list of possible personal and professional implications of being associated with an epidemic of creepy clowns. Would I ever be taken seriously? What would my colleagues think of me speaking on such an odd topic? How does one even incorporate “creepy-clown expert” into their CV?
Those questions and more gave me serious pause, but instead of denying this consultant’s request out of hand, I sat down and read a few recent reports on creepy clowns. As I began to type up a response for the Times, I was so glad I had taken time to seriously consider her request -- and here’s why.
Scholars are trained to focus on some minute aspect of a particular topic or issue and study it at great length -- often for many, many focused years of our professional careers. While that approach helps us to become comfortable with and learned experts on our topics of interest, this narrowed focus may actually lead to a diminished ability to envision the broader applicability of our professional knowledge and skills.
In my case, as a social psychologist, I have the training and expertise to use research and theory to help explain a diverse array of human social behavior. While I choose to concentrate on issues of health and health-related discrimination in my career, a myriad of other areas of human behavior would be just as readily explainable from my perspective as a social psychologist. Why hadn’t I ever considered my expertise and perspective to be relevant and valuable to understanding these other areas of human behavior before becoming a creepy-clown expert?
The real problem was that I had developed a sort of scholarly myopia and I needed to be reminded of how my expertise and skills could be applied to issues outside my specific research focus. It wasn’t until after I sat down to write an email response for the Times that I realized that I am not only qualified to speak on the topic of creepy clowns but actually have informed and valuable insights to share on this and many other topics.
Psychologists may be in a distinct position to speak on a wide range of topics, given the diversity of the field. But when we challenge our personal and professional comfort zones, I suspect many of us, in a wide range of disciplines, would begin to find that we have important expertise and perspective to share in surprising ways.
One example that keeps entering my mind as I write this essay is that of a medieval scholar studying social behavior during the Black Death in 14th-century Europe. How might the expertise and perspective of this scholar be applicable to and valuable for understanding modern-day catastrophic events like the African Ebola epidemic? We may never know unless these scholars are inspired to grapple with and apply their expertise to issues beyond their professional comfort zone.
Although I’m about through my 15 minutes of creepy-clown stardom, the broadened perspective I gained through contributing to this story line lives on. I continue to follow the creepy-clown news and am pleased to see an increasing number of contributions by colleagues in disciplines like literature and history. I cannot help but wonder if those scholars, like me, are also learning more about the breadth of their professional expertise by serving in the unlikely role of something like a creepy-clown expert.
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