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How to spot and protect against Knowledge Vampires
10 red flags to spot the Knowledge Vampire
I’m about to describe a phenomenon many of you have experienced or are currently experiencing. I’m introducing this concept and theory for the first time derived from my own body of knowledge about relational narcissism and analysis of an amalgamation of my and others’ lived experiences.
I hope this stimulates you as it has intrigued me, and I look forward to reading your reactions to this piece.
Firstly, let’s get on the same page about the word knowledge.
Knowledge is the compilation of information, facts and perspectives that can give rise to a practical or theoretical understanding of a specific subject. Knowledge is acquired through experience, training, reading, practice, transmission from others and research that develops through a continuous learning process.
Sharing ideas is something we naturally do in workplaces, peer groups and with friends. You never expect that knowledge that you shared in confidence or casually will end up in someone else’s curriculum, presentation, podcast or even in a book, and you’re shocked when it does.
By the time you try to reclaim your ideas, knowledge or information, it’s already out there under someone else’s brand and it’s too late to set the record straight without documents that constitute evidence of your original ownership.
Knowledge theft is defined as the deliberate act of claiming unjustified ownership of the work contributions of another. The impact on those who experience knowledge theft are loss of access to claim authorship of that knowledge and loss of acknowledgement or recognition for that knowledge by others.1
Not all knowledge theft is deliberate, pre-meditated or even a conscious act, which adds a layer of complexity to this phenomenon.
Knowledge Vampirism is the extraction of unique information, knowledge and practice wisdom that form the body of knowledge resulting from a Knowledge Supplier’s intellectual and scholarly pursuits by a Knowledge Vampire. They do this because their rise in success, social currency or professional status relies on preserving an illusion of intellectual prowess in that and other disciplines to maintain a competitive advantage.2
Knowledge Vampires are mostly unaware they are extracting knowledge from another person. Like Energy Vampires3, who employ traits along the narcissism behaviour spectrum to recruit an unending supply of emotional energy, Knowledge Vampires are able to retain a supply of targeted information through grooming methods that build trust and guarantee attention on their knowledge acquisition needs.
Knowledge Vampires are also naturally drawn to people who are generous and willing teachers by giving the person access to information that can help them make sense of a conflict, solve problems or resolve a longstanding issue. Those with the knowledge are drawn to Knowledge Vampires because they express willingness to learn, show vulnerability and are seemingly grateful recipients of their wisdom that bond both parties in a covert narcissistic dynamic.
A Knowledge Vampire has a natural ability to extract and absorb the embodied wisdom from the one doing the sharing as a survival mechanism to succeed in competitive contexts.
Relationships that Knowledge Vampires feed on include family members, friendships, professional peers and colleagues, practitioner-client and communities of practice that exist in face to face or virtual settings.
What makes the Knowledge Vampire narcissistic is their belief that they are intellectually superior and therefore entitled to the desired information in exchange for their interest or attention (ie. currency) on the Supplier, making them the rightful owner and author of that body of knowledge for having asked the right questions.
As absurd as it sounds, these subtle power grabbing tactics can dupe anyone who enjoys sharing their knowledge to satisfy curious minds and ease suffering, regardless of intellect or professional qualifications.
Depending on the level of trust and relational currency that was present in the relationship, the effect of this type of betrayal can be traumatic. Trauma, regardless of its cause can require ongoing support from a qualified therapist or health professional to process and heal from the experience, and repair the breach to self-trust and trust in others.
What’s the difference between a Student and a Knowledge Vampire?
In educational theory, knowledge appropriation is the desired outcome of knowledge transfer from teacher to student. It involves the construction of knowledge from internalised information about a concept. A hallmark of an effective teacher-student relationship is the student’s ability to apply the concept in other contexts to solve new problems.4
Relational conditions: Successful knowledge transfer centres on the existence of a trusting, safe and respectful relationship for the student to be receptive and motivated to want to learn and make sense of the knowledge the teacher is sharing. Both teacher and student are differentially motivated to enter into this arrangement which will impact on the degree of knowledge appropriation. The teacher has, or is perceived to have knowledge the student wants or needs, which creates a power differential that enables the teacher to influence what and how the student will learn.
Teacher qualities and skills: The teacher would be skilled at communicating their knowledge to help the student build on an existing foundation of understanding, challenge constructs and facilitate a new understanding while providing support throughout this destabilising and transformative process.
Emergence & Mastery: Often a deeper understanding of the relationship between the content and the student’s personal experience in the form of an a-ha moment is an emergent property of the knowledge appropriation process. This means that the student might come away from intense and frequent exposures to specific information with deeper insight about themselves and their own context, and awareness of how to apply this new knowledge to solve a problem or resolve an issue. When knowledge can be applied to make sense of diverse contexts and the student can effectively transmit the acquired knowledge to others with high fidelity, the teachers job is complete.
Honouring the Teacher: The respect for the teacher and what they facilitated continues as the student attributes the teacher each time they share this knowledge to honour the lineage of knowledge acquisition as well as model best practices for others.
The student is a Knowledge Vampire when they believe the appropriation of knowledge was the result of their own doing, ‘research’ online or their keen observation skills. Rather than recognising that they’ve been primed to now see what the teacher has been teaching, they believe they received the insight from direct experience and not the result of an emergent phenomenon of effective communication.
I hear you asking…
What if the stuff I just read happened in a peer to peer or friendship relationship?
This phenomenon can occur in any type of relationship even if a teacher-student relationship isn’t formalised or explicit.
The messiness occurs in informal relationships that want to embark on a new initiative or project together without formalising a different relationship to protect the existing one. The stake each party has in the relationship becomes altered when the new opportunity is accompanied by promises or hope of enhancing professional success, raising one’s status or economic situation. Without explicit agreements in place to protect the original relationship, the repurposed relationship is now required to fulfil a different function that will erode the respect and trust that was presumably present in the original relationship.
When one of the parties is a Knowledge Vampire, narcissistic traits of self-importance, superiority and entitlement establishes a power differential necessary to exploit the trust and respect that was present in the original informal relationship. This enables the Knowledge Vampire to gain increasing access to the Supplier’s body of knowledge, or knowledge currency, until the extraction process is complete and the Supplier is no longer needed.
Red flags you’ve been bitten by a Knowledge Vampire:
You will already have an established or perceived relationship of mutual trust and respect.
They will have disdain toward authority while simultaneously recognising your authority on a subject matter by listing your existing credentials, scholarly pursuits and qualifications. This might also include comments on the superiority of real world knowledge over knowledge attained in educational institutions.
The beginning of the knowledge transmission will be prompted by innocent inquiries about a topic of personal interest such as “Why do you think ‘x’ is this way?” and “How do you think ‘x’ happened?” questions. Even if you give a succinct summary response, you are not only giving them access to your body of knowledge but also insight into your thinking process, underlying theories, new theories you developed, contextual observations and practice wisdom from having applied this knowledge. You have given them information with Soul.
Initially, they will be wowed by what you shared with them. You might hear statements such as “I never thought of it like that before!” “You explained that so well!” Which translates to “I will now incorporate this into my narrative as if I always knew it.”
They will continue to employ the 3 strategies of grooming in diverse ways to maintain continuous access to your knowledge on the topic and reinforce your interest in sharing it with them, your trusted peer/friend.
Once they’ve extracted what they believe is enough of your (ie. their) knowledge, they will feel convinced that they have exceeded your level of knowledge on the subject and will begin to act as if they already had the same level of knowledge on the subject as you.
At that point, you will have fallen off the pedestal because now you’re inferior to them and they no longer have use for you. You might also notice that they’ve engaged a new Knowledge Supplier.
You notice that their story about what you’ve contributed to their knowledge base is incongruent with story they told earlier on in the Knowledge Vampirism process or has evolved over time. For example, they will gaslight you with narratives about the knowledge they originally had, which includes the knowledge they could have only exclusively accessed from you, inaccurate categories of your knowledge base, professional identity and role that you’ve played in their learning.
They will attempt to ‘teach’ you with a slight spin on what they accessed from you to preserve an illusion of originality and intellectual superiority, spontaneously fixing themselves in the teacher role. An occasional manifestation of this role reversal involves the Knowledge Vampire declaring ownership over this body of knowledge and imposing restrictions over your use of it.
When you attempt to question their version of this knowledge base, including their evidence, they will evade your question by accusing you of trying to hold them back or give a step by step story of how they’ve come to know what they know from sources that they never mentioned before, or suggest that you’re acting superior/arrogant/triggered rather than as equal peers.
Are you convinced yet that Knowledge Vampirism exists? The last part is the garlic!
8 ways to protect yourself from being bitten by a Knowledge Vampire
Take an inventory of your body of knowledge. Identify sources from theory, evidence, practice wisdom and lived experience - and how you integrated these elements to form your unique, contextualised body of knowledge and how you applied this knowledge to facilitate impact or meaningful change. Categorise what is information/facts, subject matter expertise, your areas of mastery and embodied wisdom. Remind yourself that this knowledge is valuable before you consider entering into a collaboration or giving others access to it.
Be skeptical when you’re asked “Can I pick your brain?”. Beware of people who want to ‘pick your brain' or invite you to have a conversation about your area of knowledge so they can learn about your perspectives on the topic, especially if they’re relatively new to the subject matter. This skepticism also applies to those who are in senior position, have (or believe they have) greater status in your field or are in a similar discipline for a shorter time and need a leg up to get promoted or discovered. Instead explore their existing ideas and help them consider it from a number of angles.
Be explicit about your knowledge inventory when entering into any arrangement that will involve anything from a casual sharing of ideas to a collaboration. In other words, know what you’re willing to share that is common knowledge vs. your own intellectual property (IP) that you intend to withhold. Being explicit about what comprises your intellectual property, the conditions of its use and what is already publicly available can be a deterrent to opportunistic Knowledge Vampires.
Ask the other party to undertake a similar process as outlined in the first point when you’re approached about a collaboration. Compare your inventories to consider complementarity of intellectual and other resources that are likely to facilitate a successful collaboration.
Negotiate an agreement (verbal and written) that preserves individual IP, describes how co-created IP can be used during the collaboration and beyond and rules about IP access should the relationship terminate before the project is complete.
Test out new ideas with people who are trustworthy outside of your discipline. If the idea is required for professional endeavours in your workplace, share it with a group either live in a meeting as an agenda item and in a group email with many witnesses, never 1:1. Explain where your idea came from, what research/work you’ve been engaged in that connects to your current intellectual or professional pursuits that led to the idea, and your plan for its implementation.
Document instances when you or others share your knowledge to keep a record that will safeguard against future attempts at your erasure from a project or collaboration that uses your IP.
Be discerning, especially with peers, friends or close connections you believe you know well or have had a long term informal relationship. If you feel uncomfortable or anxious about having conversations (as described in the earlier points) to formalise a project-based relationship, either because you’re afraid of their reaction or because they had a negative reaction to your attempts, these could be warning signs of trouble ahead.
Final words about Knowledge Vampires from a Narcissism Hacker
It’s helpful to have a guide that raises awareness about the subtleties of Knowledge Vampirism and narcissistic behaviours so that you can take measures to protect yourself from the tactics that people use to get ahead, regardless of their intent.
To hack your (and my) own narcissistic tendencies requires that we take an honest look at our own past and present actions, and consider the circumstances that could turn any of us into a Knowledge Vampire. This calls on each of us to check in with our internal ethical guidance system and our critical support team to ensure that we don’t engage in exploitative tactics that undermine our intent to do no harm and facilitate beneficial impact through our efforts.
May you have the knowledge and skills to protect against Knowledge Vamps and gain recognition for the fruits of your intellectual and personal development pursuits.
Thanks for reading, supporting and sharing,
Nathalie Martinek, PhD
The Narcissism Hacker
Zweig, D., & Damp, A. M. (2021). Knowledge Theft in Organizations. In Academy of Management Proceedings (Vol. 2021, No. 1, p. 13253). Briarcliff Manor, NY 10510: Academy of Management.
Original definition of Knowledge Vampirism and Knowledge Vampires by Nathalie Martinek, PhD. Dec 7, 2021. I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Danny Meyer to the naming of this phenomenon.
Fortune, D. (1971). Psychic self-defence: A study in occult pathology and criminality, by Dion Fortune. New York: S. Weiser - Energy Vampires were first described in 1930 by Dion Fortune and made popular by popular psychology.
Appropriation of knowledge - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appropriation_of_knowledge