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30th August 2017  /  Stephen Flett

Psychopathy and TV

This blog was prompted by a Horizon documentary about psychopaths. As a clinical psychologist, I interviewed prisoners on remand to assess them prior to court trial. One of those prisoners had murdered his girlfriend, chopped up her body and transported it in the boot of his car to bury elsehwere. He stopped en route at McDonalds for a burger. His appetite was undisturbed by the act of murder, as were his conscience and his emotional state. Psychopaths typically have extreme lack of empathy, remorse and conscience, compared to the social norm. However, as the Horizon presenter pointed out, not all psychopaths are killers and not all killers are psychopaths. There are degress and subtypes of psychopathy.  "Snakes in Suits", co-authored by psycopathy expert, Robert Hare, describes "corporate psychopaths" in business, politics, law, media etc. They exhibit several traits of psychopathy such as arrogance, lack of empathy and guilt, manipulation etc, but they are less isolated and extreme than psychopathic killers. They have sufficient connections and "superficial charm" to climb to positions of power. They used to be called "sociopaths" but the modern diagnosis would be Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD).

"Personality disorder" is not an illness with a definable start and finish. It is a collection of extreme behaviours and attitudes, often starting in late childhood or teenage years, which impact on several areas of life - work, relationships, study, risk-taking etc. Usually people with personality disorders do not seek help and do not acknowledge that they have a problem. They are often willing to lie in order to get what they want. The most common personality extremes in TV applicants are histrionic (all about drama and attention) and narcissistic (all about feeling special and entitled). The two patterns may overlap in the same person. Emotions are likely to be dramatic but superficial - childlike at times. They hate to be excluded or left out. They tend to reinvent history in their own favour - exaggerating their accomplishments, denying any faults or responsibility for problems and readily blaming others. Generally, people with Narcissistic and Histrionic personalities do well in TV, at least while things go their way. They enjoy the limelight and they enjoy and provide drama and entertainment. 

Those with anti-social personality disorder (ASPD) are more problematic. They tend to exhibit threats, manipulation, temper, verbal aggression and possibly physical violence - especially when confined, challenged, exposed or decieved, which can happen in many competitive reality show formats. They will usually need to be excluded unless the evidence of problem behaviours is more historical, temporary and situational. However, the TV contributor is not the only source of psychological risk

There are four main areas of risk I consider in TV psychological screening (1) contributor risks such as those described above and others eg self-harm, suicide, anorexia, drug abuse (2) production risks during filming eg intrusion, manipulation, pressure, deception, separation, rejection (3) publicity and social media risks for contributors and their familes during transmission eg press, Twitter, Facebook (4) reputation risks to the production and broadcasting company if anything goes wrong. Please get in touch if you need help in any of these areas