News Fit for Psychopaths

You can tell a lot about a person by the lies he or she chooses to believe.  This is because it is a choice.  This is not true just in the Kierkegaardian sense, that all belief involves a choice to believe or to refuse to believe, to believe or to doubt.  As he himself says, sometimes the element of choice is nearly invisible, because it seems that all the evidence lines up on one side. To believe what is usually accepted as “believable” is easy; it takes much more willpower, much more conscious choice to believe that which goes against the normal ways we have of assessing truth.

Philosophers have long debated what “truth” is; but by and large most of us are pragmatists about it.  If our senses, our past experiences, the opinion of the majority and the results agree, we proclaim it “true.”  We believe the world is round because, mostly, everyone else does.  Few of us have first-hand experience of the roundness of the Earth, but it is a belief that is at least consistent with most of our experiences and can be reconciled with the others.  So it says a lot about a person if that person believes, against all popular opinion and scientific claim and even against the evidence to be gained first-hand from flying long distances, that the world is flat.  If may tell us that the person is ignorant, and judges the world to be flat simply because it feels flat, and if it were round we’d roll off in our sleep.  It may tell us that the person would rather believe the Bible than anything modern science or modern society can say.  But it certainly tells us something. It takes a lot of extra effort to believe lies; why would a person go to that effort?

This morning, as I was reading an article in Newsweek magazine, I came across a claim that made me ask this question.  Roger Ailes, the president of FOX News Channel, stated in an editorial meeting, “Listen, one out of every 25 people in America is a psychopath.”[1]  And that number is wrong.  The actual number is one in 100, one-quarter the number Ailes stated to his news staff.[2]  What does it say that the president of FOX News believes his audience consists of four times as many psychopaths as it actually does?  To put that in perspective, by Ailes numbers, there was likely at least one full-blown psychopath in the room, helping to set the broadcast agenda; but according to the groundbreaking research by Dr. Robert Hare, it is quite possible that I do not personally know one, although most likely I encounter them from time to time.

Let’s back up a bit and understand what a “psychopath” is, and is not.  Most are not in prisons, although there are certainly a lot of psychopaths in prison:  likely 20% of the population, and that 20% is responsible for over half the violent crime.”[3]  But most are what Hare and others call “subclinical.”  They are not violent felons or serial con artists.  Often they are co-workers, “Horrible Bosses,” politicians, neighbors, maybe even friends.  Who are they?

In “This Charming Psychopath: How to Spot Social Predators Before They Attack,” Dr. Hare writes, “Also, be aware that people who are not psychopaths may have some of the symptoms described here. Many people are impulsive, or glib, or cold and unfeeling, but this does not mean that they are psychopaths. Psychopathy is a syndrome-a cluster of related symptoms.”[4]  That is, psychopathy is a gestalt concept.  You may have some of the traits and not be a psychopath; but if you are a psychopath you have these traits:

Key Symptoms of Psychopathy

Interpersonal
Emotional
Social Deviance
Glib and superficial Impulsive
Egocentric and grandiose Poor behavior controls
Lack of remorse or guilt Need for excitement
Lack of empathy Lack of responsibility
Deceitful and manipulative Early behavior problems
Shallow emotions Adult antisocial behavior

As Hare points out, a psychopath can be charming and amusing.  He or she is often a good conversationalist, always ready with a reply or excuse.  He or she is egocentric and utterly self-confident.  This stems partly from the psychopath’s supreme belief in his or her abilities (particularly the ability to manipulate others), but also from the fact that the psychopath does not fear failure or punishment as much as the rest of us.  Most of us would feel terrible if we, for example, made bad loans that caused our bank to fail and thousands of people to lose their jobs or homes.  The psychopath doesn’t. First, the psychopath doesn’t think failure is possible; second, he or she is certain that the problem won’t be so big that one can’t talk one’s way out of it; third, he or she doesn’t care about all the thousands of people who get hurt along the way; and fourth, while most of us would be deterred by the thought of prison, the psychopath simply doesn’t care about punishment.  I’ll get out in a few years, and then I can start over. At the same time, of course, the truly clever psychopath knows that violent crime rarely pays well, so if he or she has the ability then he or she will likely choose something more subtle, and at least seemingly legal.

You can see where some of these traits would be highly desirable in a CEO or investment banker.  The psychopath is able to risk millions or billions of dollars in risky but potentially high-yield schemes without losing sleep or developing ulcers.  The psychopath is able to fire thousands of employees to cut costs because that will increase the value of his or her own stock portfolio and standing with the stockholders.  A psychopath is able to tell someone whatever he or she wants to hear with a perfect “poker face,” and is probably well-connected around the office.  A psychopathic politician is able to tell voters whatever it takes to get elected, and if caught lying can turn around and say “Well, my statements weren’t meant as factual” without feeling the slightest remorse or embarrassment.  A psychopath thrives on chaos and risk, and can seem to be the only cool head in a moment of crisis.  And in fact, some of these traits, in moderation, are the sorts of qualities we might want in a leader, either of a corporation or a nation-state.  It’s when they come together in a constellation that they become dangerous.

If I believed (to return to our original question) that I was trying to craft a news program for “normal” people, people with empathy and intelligence, basically good if properly informed, I would look for a certain kind of story.  I would want my stories to be true, and to inform my viewers of the crises and threats not just to them personally but to others, because I would believe my viewers cared about those things.  And I would believe they ought to care, if that concern is based on a true assessment of the facts.  If, on the other hand, I was crafting news programming for an audience that had a sizeable percentage of psychopaths, people without empathy who would truly not care even if they did know that innocent people were being executed or good people were starving, it would do no good to do this.  They aren’t going to change their minds, because they have supreme self-confidence in their current judgments; they don’t care about others and consider it weakness to do so; they crave excitement and they crave flattery.  The news that these people would want would reinforce their own sense of superiority and self-worth, while denigrating others.  When Glenn Beck worked for CNN, he went to the hospital and had a miserable experience.  He took this as proof that the U.S. health care system was fundamentally flawed.[5]  But less than two years later, when he was working for FOX, he suddenly became convinced that American health care was “the best in the world.”  If your target audience is psychopaths, that is exactly what you should say on your news channel.  Psychopaths don’t want to reflect, or question either their own morals or their own competence; they want to hear that they are already the greatest.  Leave aside the question of whether Beck himself shows the glibness, the easy lies, the remorselessness over harm he might have caused, or other traits of a psychopath.  We are not clinicians and it is very dangerous, Hare warns, to try to diagnose others without training.  But even without being psychologists, we can look at the traits of a psychopath, and see pretty well the sort of news program one would like:  self-aggrandizing, flattering to its viewers, disparaging of “those others” (so the 9/11 widows become “harpies” for example) exciting (lots of car-chases and emotional bombast, etc.), and so on.

It also suggests something about Ailes. The number of psychopaths he believes are in America is four times too high.  However, the number of psychopaths in his circle of friends is probably right on target.[6]  Roughly 4% of CEOs —- one in twenty-five —– is a psychopath.  There are four times as many psychopaths in boardrooms as there are in the population at large!  Add to that the effects of peer pressure:  in an office of any size you are going to meet multiple psychopaths every day, quite likely one is your boss and is telling you what to do to get ahead in the organization, your peers are talking about that guy who was such a jerk but always laughed at the boss’s jokes and took credit for his intern’s ideas and got promoted, and even “normal” people are going to start trying to act a little more psychopathic themselves, just to keep even.  They may hate it and hate themselves, which would show in increased stress-related illnesses like hypertension and ulcers; but if that’s the norm in the company then they’ll try to “play ball.”  And psychopaths are likely to assume that everyone else really is a hypocrite like themselves, though maybe not as good at it.  You could well expect a psychopath to overestimate the number of other psychopaths in the world.  (Of course, a psychopath might also decide that “everyone else” is just a fool and a dupe, and that he is the only one who’s “smart enough” to figure out how to exploit all the others.)

I’m not so self-confident as to say that Ailes definitely is a psychopath, or any more psychopathic than any other CEO of a major news channel.[7]  One thing is clear:  here’s a president of a news channel, which is supposedly a truth-telling, fact-sharing enterprise, who is fundamentally misinformed of a pretty basic fact.  One has to wonder about a news organization which is led by the misinformed, and the supremely self-confident misinformed at that.  Furthermore, the nature of his mistake is to underestimate human nature as a whole and, presumably, his target audience.  Misunderstanding your target audience leads to marketing to a particular group that may not exist.  If FOX is guided by the belief that a sizeable portion of its target audience are psychopaths, it will tend to craft its message to accommodate psychopaths.  This will drive some non-psychopaths away, and lead the rest to see the world through the eyes of a psychopath. 


[1] Howard Kurtz, “Roger Ailes’s Reality Show;” Newsweek Oct. 3, 2011, p. 33

[2] Robert Hercz, “Psychopaths Among Us,” 2001 (http://www.hare.org/links/saturday/html) accessed Oct. 10, 2011

[3] “Psychopaths Among Us”

[4] Robert Hare, “This Charming Psychopath:  How to Spot Social Predators Before They Attack,” Aftermath:  Surviving Psychopathy Foundation 2007 (http://aftermath-surviving-psychopathy.org/index.php/2011/02/24/this-charming-psychopath-how-to-spot-social-predators-before-they-attack/) accessed Oct. 10, 2011

[6] Jon Steward interview of Jon Ronson, (http://www.dailyshow.com/watch/mon-may-16-2011/jon-ronson) accessed 10/10/2011

[7] (except PBS/NPR; no one who’s interested in excitement and self-promotion goes into something with so little real visibility, so little reward, and so little excitement.  They may be pathological, but it’s probably a martyr complex or something similar).

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One Response to “News Fit for Psychopaths”

  1. Leslee Kirkconnell Says:

    Fox News is rich people paying rich people to tell middle class people to blame poor people.

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