It Pays to be Infamous: Psychopaths and the Media

I’m not alone in thinking that the NOT GUILTY verdict in the Casey Anthony trial, the young woman accused of killing her young daughter Caylee–like that of the O. J. Simpson trial before it–was a travesty of justice. What’s more appalling than when a clearly disordered person seems to be getting away with murder (at least in the eyes of a large segment of the public) is when she’s also getting paid large sums of money by the media  for her infamy. It’s as if the American media rewards those who seem to be, quite literally, getting away with murder.

Faced with a much-deserved backlash from an outraged American public, ABC news decided to withdraw their offer to pay Casey Anthony one million dollars for exclusive rights to her story. It’s a wise decision, although I can’t help but wonder what kind of message both the news and the entertainment media send the public when they’re even contemplating such an offer. Apparently selling scandalous news trumps any consideration to ethics or the public welfare.

Because of this priority, not that long ago, notorious (probable) psychopaths like Drew Peterson had a field day with the media, manipulating them to the point of ridicule and humiliation. When interviewed on Steve Dahl’s Morning Show about his proported grief for his missing wife, Peterson wanted to pitch instead his idea for a dating contest, Win a Date with Drew. Being desperate to get an interview with high profile suspected murderers, even the mainstream media–not only the tabloids–are turning psychopathy into a circus.

Here’s one of the latest stories about the outcome of Casey Anthony’s trial and the media offers for her story, from Marisa Guthrie in The Hollywood Reporter (July 8, 2011). I’m including below both Guthrie’s article and its link, since I believe this case has everything to do with psychopathy (and its rewards in the media). The media has become so motivated by the bottom line that, apparently, they are willing to pay any price for salacious news stories, no matter how much they offend the norms of human decency.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

How a Casey Anthony Interview Could Backfire on News Orgs

by Marisa Guthrie

Steven Hirsch, co-chairman of Vivid Entertainment, said in a statement: “It’s clear to me now… that there has been an overwhelmingly negative response to our offer and so we’ve decided to withdraw it. It has become obvious to us that Vivid fans, and people in general, want nothing to do with her and that includes a XXX movie. We want to make movies that people want to watch and we now believe that we underestimated the emotional response that people are having to the verdict. A movie starring Casey Anthony is not what people want to see.”

On Thursday, Hollywood agency Paradigm, Jose Baez hours after the company announced internally that it would rep Baez in TV, film and book rights.

Nevertheless, as Anthony is due to be released from jail on July 17, bookers for the broadcast and cable networks are camped in Florida working contacts in hopes of landing interviews with Anthony and her family. But the stench of checkbook journalism and the prospect that Anthony could profit from the death of her daughter is giving news executives back in New York pause.

One executive characterized any Casey Anthony interview as “hugely complicated.”

And a booker echoed that sentiment: “It’s complicated any time you’re paying somebody who everybody thinks is a killer.”

“It’s going to be one of the biggest gets,” said another booker. “But is it worth the bad press? Sometimes it’s not.”

News organizations are already feeling the heat for the widespread practice of licensing photos and videos from interview subjects. ABC News was revealed to have paid the Anthony family $200,000 in 2008 for what a network spokesperson has described as an “extensive library of photos and home video for use by our broadcasts, platforms, affiliates and international partners.” ABC News also paid meter reader Roy Kronk, who discovered Caylee Anthony’s remains, a $15,000 photo licensing fee. But it was not for a picture of the remains, rather it was for a photo of a snake. Kronk appeared on Good Morning America. He testified that the snake distracted him when he found Caylee’s skeleton. (ABC News did not pay Baez or juror Jennifer Ford.)

Now news organizations routinely disclose on-air if they’ve paid a licensing fee. And the practice has become so derided, that they take pains to disclose when they haven’t paid. Today host Ann Curry noted as much during her interview with Octomom Nadya Suleman on Friday.

News organizations dealings with Anthony, say industry observers, must be squeaky clean if they hope to preserve some semblance of journalistic integrity and also land what is sure to be a ratings bonanza. But Anthony, who is clearly estranged from her family and has no resources to speak of, has little incentive to grant a free interview.

“She’s got no interest in granting a regular news interview,” says television news analyst Andrew Tyndall. “She’s only got interest in granting a promotional interview, which is remunerative. Of course, news organizations should sit her down and say, ‘What’s your theory of what happened to your daughter?’ But that’s a news interview. There’s no prospect of an actual journalistic interview being done here, where real journalistic questions are asked and answered and we actually gain some insight into the circumstances of this case.

“Journalists, for their own self-preservation,” adds Tyndall, “should go a million miles away from this because there’s no information, just sensation.”

Evil Jokers: The Dark Knight and Other Psychopaths

Psychopaths often fool others with their mask of sanity. As we know, they appear glib and charming in casual contact, hide their wrongdoings from others and lie smoothly with no compunction. But usually they’re far better at fooling their buddies and professional acquaintances–those they have only superficial contact with–than they are their long-term significant others. For a number of reasons I’ve explored so far–including fear, dependency, a sense of helplessness, PTSD, loyalty and deep emotional attachment–women sometimes stay with known psychopaths. Perhaps a less obvious reason for this that I’d like to discuss today is a self-defeating fascination with evil. Many of us are intrigued by evil, partly because of it’s caused by human beings who are fundamentally different from the rest of us. Just as it’s impossible for psychopaths to relate to what’s good about human nature—they see conscience, empathy and love it as weaknesses–it’s almost as difficult for most people to understand what motivates psychopaths to harm others.

The film The Dark Knight (2008) was a box office hit largely due to the popularity of the evil character. The Joker kills not in order to become richer, as do the other outlaws in the movie, but solely for the sport of it. His characterization as a psychopath is plausible: except perhaps for the unfortunate fact that most psychopaths are much harder to identify. They usually don’t look as repulsive and don’t act as obviously crazy as the Joker does. Yet, fundamentally, all psychopaths are evil jokers. Their idea of entertainment, and of a life well-spent, is duping and destroying others.

Similarly, Dracula novels remain international best sellers for a similar reason. In spite of ourselves, we’re drawn to human vampires who feed upon our lives, to weaken and destroy us. Even crime shows that feature psychopaths are very popular. Evil individuals also tend to monopolize the personal interest and crime stories featured on the news.

Because most of us are capable of empathy and love, and thus can’t identify with those who completely lack these capacities, we imagine evil people to be far more complex and intriguing than they actually are. We may be initially mystified by the contradiction between a psychopath’s apparent charm and his underlying ruthlessness. But once we realize that the charm of evil people is purely instrumental, to get them whatever they want at the moment, this contradiction is resolved and ceases to intrigue us. In reality, normal people are far more interesting and less predictable than psychopaths. The depth and range of our emotions complicates, nuances and curbs our selfish impulses and desires. For psychopaths, however, nothing stands in the way of their absolute selfishness. Each and every one of their actions, including seemingly other-regarding acts, can be plausibly explained in terms of their quest for dominance.

Evil men may appear to be masculine, self-confident and in charge. They seem to know what they want from life and how to get it. Keep in mind, however, that it’s so much easier to know what you want when you’re considering only your own desires and are willing to sacrifice everyone and everything to satisfy them. Even animals manifest deeper emotions. They care about their young and bond with others. Psychopaths don’t. If decent men sometimes hesitate, it’s because they’re more thoughtful and other-regarding. They put other people’s needs into the equation before reaching a decision. Thus, paradoxically, it’s only because of their deficiencies and simplicity with respect to normal, more multidimensional, human beings that we consider evil individuals our “Others” and are intrigued by them.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

Why Do Sociopaths Waste (Our) Time?

In reading Donna Andersen‘s book Love Fraud, I was struck by how much time  and energy her sociopathic ex-husband spent inventing phony business schemes which were doomed to failure. Given his intelligence, charisma and powers of persuasion, he could have created enough successful businesses to last him several lifetimes. But he chose not to create a single successful business venture during his predatory scams of so many trusting and loving partners. So the question arises: Why? Why do sociopaths waste (our) time?

The main answer I’ve given before is that sociopaths don’t have any constructive goals in life. On the contrary, they aim to destroy people and their lives however they can: emotionally, physically and sometimes also financially. Their behavior fits into a pattern that destroys human life and its meaning largely by wasting our time. Nearly everyone I’ve talked to who has been involved with a sociopath expresses one main regret: I wasted my life, for x number of months or years, on a fantasy, on a total fraud.

The feelings of “love” a sociopath expresses are never real. At best, they express need for you (or, more precisely, for using you for their purposes) or sexual desire. The  so-called “truths” a sociopath shares with you are largely lies or manipulative bits of truth, intended to sway you in some way that serves his purposes. Often a sociopath will invest an enormous amount of time and energy to construct a web of lies. He will repeat to you the same false information, to lead you to believe that he’s trustworthy; that he shares your life goals; that he loves you. He will even get others to corroborate those lies or half-truths. He will pretend to be interested in your interests. Not only that, but he will mirror you consistently enough and for a long enough period of time to gain your trust. He will sometimes go so far as to ingratiate himself with your family and friends, to gain their confidence as well. He will also take great pains, for as long as you’re useful to him, to hide his bad behavior, including the cheating, web of lies, crimes and/or financial scams. He will put in his best effort to brainwash you into accepting his false version of reality. Even the energy sociopaths invest in demeaning their targets is enormous, given that to be effective they do it gradually, insult by insult, demand by demand, over time. If they became abusive upfront and at once, their victims would be much more likely to be shocked by the mistreatment and reject them.

Because they find no inherent meaning in human life–no higher purpose, no real feelings of loyalty and love–sociopaths perceive life as an empty stretch of time that they must somehow fill up with diversions, schemes and games at other people’s expense. Even most sociopaths who are well-educated and intelligent waste their natural abilities and their lives, on playing constant mind games, pursuing a string of vacuous and ultimately unsatisfying sexual relationships, manipulation, and often pointless deceit. Sociopaths lie to attain their short-term goals, of course. But they also lie when it doesn’t serve any obvious useful purpose, just for the fun of it. Deception fills their empty lives with sadistic entertainment and ephemeral pleasure. As Janis Joplin sings in Me and Bobby McGee, for them “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” In that sense, sociopaths are free.

Normal people, however, have everything to lose in becoming involved with sociopaths. For us, time is very precious and life is not something to be wasted. It’s filled with positive desires and goals, with the meaning we find in fulfilling emotional bonds with those we care about, with what we can accomplish for both ourselves and others. Because of the vast difference in our concepts of time, a sociopath has nothing to lose in engaging in empty diversions while we have nothing to gain from them. This is why victims involved with sociopathic predators describe their time together as wasted time: as months or even years that can never be recaptured and were essentially thrown away. Most sociopaths don’t commit actual murder. Wasting our time with their lies, intimidation tactics, manipulation and mind games is the most common way in which sociopaths waste our lives.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

Psychopaths and Boredom

Given that psychopaths tend to be relatively bright individuals who have the ability to focus intensely on their goals, one wonders why they’re not more successful. Because, as Martha Stout explains in the The Sociopath Next Door, psychopaths rarely achieve anything in life. They tend to be short-distance runners. They sprint really fast at first, but lose steam rather quickly. They also change direction frequently, which leads them nowhere.

Many start out showing a lot of promise as children. However, once they reach adulthood, most have little or nothing to show for it. They pass through life leaving behind a trail of failure: broken relationships, dysfunctional marriages, children they don’t care about or take care of (if they have any), an education they don’t bother to complete, jobs they don’t pursue long enough to thrive in them. Basically, psychopaths end up disappointing the expectations of all those who care about them. If they had any sense of shame, they’d be disappointed in themselves as well. The principal reason for their failure is not their devious and manipulative nature—since, after all, many bad people succeed–but their boredom.

I’m grouping together two of Hervey Cleckley’s (penultimate) symptoms of psychopathy–boredom and the failure to follow any life plan—since they’re closely related. If psychopaths generally fail to bring to fruition their life objectives, it’s because they’re so easily bored that they give up on them or move on to something new. Cleckley observes,  “The psychopath shows a striking inability to follow any sort of life plan consistently, whether it be one regarded as good or evil. He does not maintain an effort toward any far goal at all. This is entirely applicable to the full psychopath. On the contrary, he seems to go out of his way to make a failure of life.” (365)

Sometimes a psychopath will put on a mask of success. Neil Entwistle appeared to be a successful computer programmer, but in fact he wasn’t. Mark Hacking appeared to be a future doctor, but in fact he wasn’t. They both appeared to be loving husbands involved in happy marriages, but in fact they weren’t. For a psychopath, false image replaces real identity just as lies replace truth.  Going to medical school, maintaining a good job, nourishing a relationship, all take hard work, which may not always be exciting. Psychopaths prefer instant gratification and effortless results.

As we’ve seen, they also crave novelty and transgression. Which is why even when they do succeed in their work, they usually sabotage it. For instance, they may embezzle money from their company or engage in sexual harassment or some other kind of shady behavior at the peak of their careers.  “By some incomprehensible and untempting piece of folly or buffoonery,” Cleckley explains, the psychopath “eventually cuts short any activity in which he is succeeding, no matter whether it is crime or honest endeavor. At the behest of trivial impulses he repeatedly addresses himself directly to folly. In the more seriously affected examples, it is impossible for wealthy, influential, and devoted relatives to place the psychopath in any position, however ingeniously it may be chosen, where he will no succeed eventually in failing with spectacular and bizarre splendor.” (365)

This logic also applies to a psychopath’s personal relationships. Just when he was about to start a happy new family life in a lovely home with a doting wife and their beautiful baby, Neil Entwistle murdered his family and got himself life in prison. Love, duty and empathy motivate most people to be caring and loyal to their families. Psychopaths, as we know, lack such feelings. A sense of satisfaction for a job well done—as well as financial responsibilities—motivate most people to be honest and dependable in their jobs. Psychopaths don’t care about that either. Therefore, Cleckley reasons,

“If, as we maintain, the big rewards of love, of the hard job well done, of faith kept despite sacrifices, do not enter significantly in the equation, it is not difficult to see that the psychopath is likely to be bored. Being bored, he will seek to cut up more than the ordinary person to relieve the tedium of his unrewarding existence… Apparently blocked from fulfillment at deep levels, the psychopath is unnaturally pushed toward some sort of divertissement…  What he believes he needs to protest against turns out to be no small group, no particular institution or set of ideologies, but human life itself. In it he seems to find nothing deeply meaningful or persistently stimulating, but only some transient and relatively petty pleasant caprices, a terribly repetitious series of minor frustrations, and ennui.” (The Mask of Sanity, 392)

As we’ve seen, psychopaths attempt to alleviate their boredom by relentlessly pursuing a series of short-lived thrills. They move from one affair to another, one place to another, one job to another, one endeavor to another, one hobby to another and one vacation to another. Life, to them, represents a series of what any normal person would consider senseless activities, most of which are geared to dupe, con and harm others. Martha Stout notes that in viewing life as a game, psychopaths often sabotage themselves as well. They leave behind, like hurricanes, a trail of devastation.

In college, psychopaths are much more likely to pursue a lot of women rather than focus on their education. Their marriages are usually short-lived or one-sided because they get bored with their partners. When they last, it’s usually due to the gargantuan and self-defeating efforts of their spouses.  As we noted, psychopaths aren’t willing to work on improving their relationships and are incapable of any genuine self-sacrifice. They  prefer to deal with problems in their relationships by assigning blame to their partners and by diverting themselves through manipulating, lying and cheating on them. In addition, psychopaths don’t succeed in any positive sense of the term because their goals themselves are destructive.

For instance, a psychopath may “work” for years to persuade his wife to move far away from her family and leave her job and home, all under the pretext that he’s going to offer her a better and happier life elsewhere. Then, as soon as she agrees to do so or actually moves to that location with him, he leaves her for another woman or, at any rate, loses interest in her. That’s because his goal never was to build a better life together, as it would be for any normal person who wants a solid marriage. Instead, the psychopath wanted to isolate his wife from her family and job in order to get her under his thumb. Once he achieved this goal, he felt like he had “won” the match and moved on to a new challenge.

To offer a second example, let’s say a psychopath who engages in an extramarital affair asks his girlfriend to divorce her husband for his sake so that they can live happily together. Once she gives in to his pressure and asks her husband for divorce, however, the psychopath suddenly loses interest in her. His mask of “love” falls off and their relationship quickly disintegrates. To a normal person, he’s failed because the relationship itself has failed. In the psychopath’s mind, however, he “won” because he succeeded in isolating his girlfriend, bending her to his will, conquering her from her husband and perhaps even destroying her marriage. These were his real goals all along.

Whatever constitutes “success” for any normal person–a good, stable and lasting romantic relationship, love for one’s children and grandchildren, close friendships and professional achievements–isn’t likely to entertain a psychopath for long. Anytime the going gets tough in any aspect of their lives, psychopaths get going. They usually choose the path of least resistance and, above all, of most pleasure at other people’s expense.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction