Journalism’s Armchair Psychology

While I’m not sure whether the AP specifically prohibits it, I would like to petition all journalists not to psychologize subjects when they have no evidence for their claims. If you don’t have personal experience of whomever you’re writing about, or the data or training necessary to make the psychological assessment—don’t. This is part of a more general taboo against writing about something for which one lacks evidence. Pseudo-psychological journalism traffics in simplistic and uninteresting pictures of other people.

Writers who believe that they are capable of conducting real psychology from their armchairs can, at least in their own minds, perform amazing feats of journalism. Questions that could take decades—or at least a few days of honest fact-gathering—can now be answered in thousand-word columns of righteous quackery. For example, for Charles M. Blow of the New York Times, there is no need for a sociological study of race in America: he has divined the psychology of a racial group. In his recent column “It’s All Rooted in White Panic,” Blow writes, “Everything that has happened during recent years is all about one thing: fear by white people that they will inevitably lose their numerical advantage in this country.” We are so accustomed to claims like this that it might not initially strike us as weird that one of the most powerful columnists on the planet is writing based not on evidence, but on assumptions about the psychology of a race. Isn’t that a bit dangerous or dogmatic—or, at least, just plain bad reporting?

Voter analysis is also quite easy when one has the power of mind-reading. This allows the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer to condemn an entire voting block. Trump’s “only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty,” Serwer writes. “It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright.” Serwer may believe that citing examples of Trump’s actions is sufficient evidence to say what motivates millions of people. But one does not need a PhD in psychology to recognize that his claim is not just incorrect, it’s not even wrong. Serwer observes two phenomena—Trump’s behavior and the existence of Trump supporters—and recognizes that there is a link between the two. Instead of talking to a wide range of Trump supporters about the diversity of reasons for which they support him, conducting policy analysis, analyzing historical voting patterns and so on, Serwer assumes a self-serving causal relationship. This is more the stuff of metaphysics or politics than empirical psychology.

This tendency is by no means specific to those critiquing the Right. Reviewing Joshua Muravchick’s Heaven on Earth: the Rise, Fall and Afterlife of Socialism for the Wall Street Journal, Barton Swaim writes, “The popularity of socialism among America’s young is, to this admittedly biased reviewer, primarily an aesthetic and attitudinal phenomenon—a gesture of defiance against the perceived materialism and hollowness of older wealth people.” Swaim has the humility to admit his perspective is limited, but one wishes that this humility would encourage him to take a more complex look at the situation. Isn’t it more likely that Swaim’s understanding of socialism’s popularity is influenced by his own bias?

Armchair pseudo-diagnoses range in seriousness and generality. In his article on male suicide for Rolling Stone, Stephen Rodrick confines himself almost entirely to a single individual. “What really killed Hemingway,” Rodrick writes, “Was one of the things killing American men today: a macho fantasy of a man who needs no one but himself.” While his comment is not quite as grandiose as those who would psychologize a whole racial group, Rodrick violates another journalistic taboo: reporting on the psychology of a long-dead person.

Finally, in her Refinery29 piece, “Ted Bundy Wasn’t Special or Smart. He was Just White,” Ashley Alese Edwards irresponsibly utilizes the theory of implicit biases to criticize how people understood a serial killer. “Bundy was not special,” Edwards writes, “He was no smarter than the average person; he did not have a personality so alluring that his female victims could not help but simply go off with him. He did not have a superhuman skill to be one step ahead of the police. What Bundy did have was the power of being a white man in a society that reveres them and has implicit faith in their abilities.” Evidently, once one’s own assumptions are taken as psychological argument, it is easy to psychologize an entire society.

When I make assumptions about what motivates people who I already don’t like, the picture I create is not very complicated. This is a personal fault. Journalists are making a profession of this vice. Of course, it is a vice that is easy to fall into. But part of the reason a book like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is so brilliant is that it seriously investigates the minds of people whom we might prefer to dismiss as freaks. One can only imagine the armchair psychological assessments journalists could make of criminals like Richard Hilcock and Perry Smith. Capote is a great journalist because he gave us an intimate portrayal of horrible people. He fights the tendency to be simplistic about others’ psychology. The journalists I’ve quoted above prefer to indulge their biases. Instead of expanding how we think about others, these journalists set pre-determined limits on our thought.

Writers are always going to think themselves capable of penetrating psychological insight. But, for good writers, this belief is coupled with the basic imperative: show don’t tell. Maybe, unbeknownst to me, my friends who love Trump are really just motivated by cruelty. It is also possible that my progressive friends are really just immaturely mad at the man. However, even if these claims were true—which I seriously doubt—it would take a lot more than a bias expressed in writing to prove them.

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7 comments

  1. There is a point in this. On the other hand, without any guesses, without any theories, journalism would become a bone-dry list of facts. The problems start when the guesses become extravagant and too self-convinced, or when they are just repeating the same dogmas, which are often the same cases.

  2. Of course, there is no way to “prove” the motivation of groups or individuals, for motivation is a putative internal state. We can only hypothesize and infer it on the basis of behavior, including verbal. A psychologist might acknowledge it as an apparently essential aspect of human interaction.

    But you already knew that.

    What caused you to write this article? Who knows. I can be confident in my inference that your motivation included a distaste for left-wing criticism of Trump, prior to any recourse to metaphysics. I can then link this to the similar gestures of others expressing a certain ideological bundle. Therefore I can observe that a motivation has common roots among a group with shared characteristics. Thus, group-level motivation. Most would agree in abstract that a plausible theory of why this motivation exists, and its relationship with other motivations and attributes, can then be formulated.

    But no concrete theory of motivation can be tested, nor can it be complete or comprehensive. It will inevitably rest on our other “world knowledge” and premises of human behavior. What this article comes down to is the author’s expression of an arbitrary and insufficient judgement that critics of Trump have made an arbitrary and insufficient judgement about Trump voters. It is not a useful article to write, when the author could more productively present an argument for alternative or complementary explanations, or even a meta-theory of rhetoric and persuasive examination of premises.

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    1. “What this article comes down to is [1] the author’s expression of an arbitrary and [2] insufficient judgement that critics of Trump have made an arbitrary and insufficient judgement about Trump voters.”

      I have split the previous sentence into two propositions, 1 and 2. Given that both are predicated on an “an arbitrary and insufficient judgement”, we must either accept both propositions, or, do as the author says and reject both. This leaves us with a contradiction, because we cannot accept both, since the authors proposition 1 rejects proposition 2, thereby making it impossible to accept both. But, if we reject both, we are, in a way, tacitly agreeing to proposition 1 despite neglecting it as well. Quite the puzzle.

    2. “I can be confident in my inference that your motivation included a distaste for left-wing criticism of Trump,”

      Problem is that tells you nothing. Is his distaste a distaste for the spectacle of left wing critics denigrating his hero? Is it a distaste for the spectacle of rank hypocrisy? Is it a distaste for glaring illogic? Is it a distaste for the particular moral principles against which as criteria left-wing condemnation is justified? etc?

      Until you can explicate in root detail the origin(s) of that distaste “a plausible theory of why this motivation exists, and its relationship with other motivations and attributes” cannot be formulated, still less generalized to an entire group.

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      1. If you believe it is unavailable for us to bootstrap an assessment of motivation I can respect that, as long as you stick with it. I suspect it’s difficult for most people to restrict themselves only to a behavioristic account of human events. Phenomenological language like “think”, “believe”, “feel” is omnipresent – see, I just used it earlier in the sentence!

        “I have split the previous sentence into two propositions, 1 and 2.”

        You didn’t label two propositions? I’m not clear on what you’re saying.

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    3. A better question is why journalists betrayed their profession to psychologize subjects when they have no evidence for their claims.

      1. They betrayed nothing. They simply change their profession. Now they all are “body language” experts. BTW, the Google search immediately returned me “About 3.300.000.000 results” for this term.

        Hmmm, you know, yeah…

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