Police Psychology: Fake News
by Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
My first TV show appearance was in March 1991, a couple of days after the Rodney King Incident in Los Angeles. The president of the police union I worked with asked me to go along on a TV interview because the deck was stacked against him with a member of the ACLU and civil rights leaders as the other guests. The attacks were vicious against the union president at first, then I spoke up and said that many mental illness protocols show that “jumping to conclusions” is a type of delusional thinking that comes with narcissistic, histrionic and borderline personality disorders, and even worse comes with paranoid psychosis where conspiracy theories play out. The fact was we didn’t have any knowledge of what happened before the videotape of Rodney King, the toxicology report on him, or even his history. I suggested we should wait for those results to draw conclusions. That was not a popular idea with the anti-police persons, but it did shut them up, and gave the PBA president something to play off. History confirmed my contention. As it turns out, when the opening ten seconds of the video that the TV Station KTLA had edited out were shown, the officers were acquitted in state court. The press caused a reaction, created news, and once created it was not destroyed. Essentially, if that video were not to have riled masses, causing riots which enabled part of LA to be held hostage, this would have probably been handled internally by the department with the same results. One officer was later found to have made six unnecessary blows after King was subdued and a second officer (the second was the supervisor) were found guilty of a civil rights violation in federal court.
“Fake News” is no stranger to people in law enforcement. Name the police administrator (or psychologist) who hasn’t been misquoted (or misinterpreted) by the media, and I will show you someone that hasn’t spoken to the media very much. It is not endemic to all media, but it does show up a lot. It has gotten extreme lately on both political sides. Russian collusion, traitors by email, selling the country to enemies either by hotel room profits or donations, it is getting hard to distinguish what is news and what is not. Is it just our innate desire to find the needle of evil in the haystack of life? Or is it being fed to us to draw delusional conclusions that border on mental illness? Either way, psychology is definitely involved here.
The first psychological concept working here is wish fulfillment. We all have desires of what we would like to see happen in this world and we try to fit what does happen into that wish. While humans are great deceivers of others, we are even better deceivers of ourselves. Wish fulfillment is why people tell stories that didn’t really happen that way, view losing games with some positive signs, and spend money they don’t have hoping that their wish comes in and rescues them. When a fan says their team won in yards gained, time of possession, tackles for loss, in fact in every way but on the scoreboard – that’s wish fulfillment. When a reporter asks you, ”don’t you think x, y, and z” and you say, “not really,” then you see x, y and z in print, that’s wish fulfillment and fake news. That is really increasing in the media interviews I had done a few years ago. Now that is mostly all the media is.
Next up, we have the goal of the news story being something different than to present the news. In law enforcement, your job is to catch the guy doing the crime and collect the evidence. Someone else makes the decision to prosecute and another party makes the decision to sentence a person. At least, that is the way is supposed to be. This is a psychologically dissonant way to exist, as the naturally tendency is to want to be able to follow through the entire process. We tend to want to solve psychological dissonance, but accept the alternate which is to have part of the process. The news’ goal years ago was to present the story and let the viewer or consumer make the decision where to fit it in their world. Now the goal seems to have changed and it is seemingly to catch views. The best way to catch views is to be disruptive. We have a president who is definitely disruptive and means to be, like it or not. They clash. Now it appears the news in America’s goal is either to crucify or canonize Donald Trump. Either way it is not serving the original goal of disseminating information in a non-evaluative form.
Next in line, power corrupts and total power corrupts totally. Influence is power, at least in today’s world. It is not the quality of viewers on your site that pays the bill, it is the number of views. Unfortunately, we have all known people who got in leadership roles whose personalities have been destroyed by the role. Well, having the power of being able to influence the masses with every word you write or say on TV is a total power. It is sad to say, narcissism frequently becomes their direction and the social good does not. Narcissism is a hard nut to break. And the worst part is when you become narcissistic, you don’t realize something is wrong. Being politically correct is a type of narcissism. It must be fought tooth and nail by the exact same people it is affecting (or infecting is probably a better way to say it).
The final psychological creator of fake news is just somebody wanting to make life more fun and exciting. Essentially, they are just out and out faking it. Remember the tabloids that used to tout “Elvis Child is Born an Alien Monster,” Or “Giant Eel Eats Parts of Asia.” Imagine how much fun those stories were to write in the 70’s tabloids. Well, take that concept to politics and we have political aliens eating the White House or the Singaporean trade deficit, or whatever. Some stories are just fun to write, so they get written. They used to not be published. Now they are.
For years, we suffered as societies with “Fake Science.” Drug companies that reported studies on their own drugs, treatments that didn’t always make sense, studies that could never be repeated. Many of them were the foundation of entire theories in science. Watson’s “Little Albert” study of fear acquisition is an example. Replication and variety of generalization paradigms fought against this “fake science” tendency, and now we don’t trust a lot of science that is out there. Well, we are back to the stone age with news. It will run its course, but it will be crucial that as consumers we look onto all news with a little skepticism and demand that reporters stick to their jobs of disseminating, not interpreting the news, or we won’t give them the views. That’s our power.
Site Administrator: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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