Why Bad Looks Good

The Psychology of Attraction

Likability Covers a Multitude of Sins

Why We Miss the Red Flags

Yesterday, ESPN.com reported that the Boston Marathon bombing is the most tweeted about sports-related event in the year 2013—according to Twitter. The incredible publicity surrounding the bombings reminds us of the anguish and frustration we felt when we tried to make sense of how no one reported seeing anything suspicious before the Tsarnaev brothers carried out their despicable plan.

Is it possible that no one saw anything because both brothers were so popular and likable? You bet. In fact, it is probable.

The Handsome, Likeable Young Man

Greg is a college student with many friends and classmates who share his love of sports, politics, and religion. Greg and his group of friends play basketball together after class, throw parties together, and even attend the same place of worship.

Greg is an excitable young man. Always up for a debate, he harbors some radical views about religion and politics, and is very vocal in sharing his beliefs. He engages in frequent, animated discussion of his ideology with his friends and classmates, vowing to change the world as soon as he can formulate a platform that will cause others to listen.

Loving an audience, Greg enjoys discussing his extremist views. No one, however, pays attention to his rhetoric. This is especially true if he is talking at a party, where his friends figure that he has probably had a few too many beers and is merely seeking attention by playing to a captive audience, pacified with intoxicants.

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Very few people notice that Greg doesn’t drink alcohol.

One day, Greg becomes particularly vocal and disruptive during a religious service he and his friends are attending. Challenging the speaker’s stated goal of world peace, Greg argues the value of violence as an attention-grabbing method of gaining a receptive audience. Having become accustomed to Greg’s histrionics, his friends quickly dismiss the incident—as do the other patrons, who are also familiar with Greg’s outspoken personality.

Despite his outbursts, everyone who knows Greg likes him. He is frequently described as just a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. Does this story sound familiar in any respects so far?

How about this: In addition to the disruption at his place of worship, Greg takes his radical ideological platform into cyberspace where he establishes a robust social media presence where he posts both text and videos. Nonetheless, no one seems to pay any attention to anything he has to say. That is about to change.

During a nationally recognized public sports event Greg sets off an explosion that kills several people and injures many others. All of the sudden, everyone is interested in Greg. Who is he? Where is he from? What does he believe?

Detecting the Ticking Time Bomb

Pun intended. Behind the editorial license is the story of Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who had lots of friends, a wife and child, and a robust social media presence where he expressed his views.

With the help of is younger brother, he planned a bombing, built the bombs, and set them off. All this, while he was already on the FBI’s radar screen.

So, did anyone see anything suspicious? Or did people ignore and downplay what they saw because they liked Tamerlan? And could Tamerlan’s wife, whom he lived with, really have not known anything about what her husband was planning? News reports indicated that investigators spent much time pondering that question after the attack. Perhaps like many other spouses, she saw what she wanted to see.

And how about his friends—both off and online? Wait—was no one following him online? We all know that some people who explode with violence often display some indication of their radical beliefs and emotions within their social media profile. So in Tamerlan’s case, who saw what?

Like many other young people of this generation, news reports indicate that the Tsarnaev brothers had a robust social media presence where they expressed their views on many subjects, including religion, worldviews, and politics. Other news reports indicate that older brother Tamerlan posted a video on YouTube about an al-Qaida prophecy. Was anybody following this?

The Clouded Lens of Likability

Ironically, despite the fact that both public gatherings and the Internet provide public forums where everyone can have a voice, when someone is well liked, there is no guarantee that anyone will take what they say seriously—if they pay attention at all.

Sadly, people pay the most attention to what a person believed after he or she has committed a crime or otherwise engaged in a serious breach of social norms. Perhaps we should all pay closer attention to alarming speech and extremist views on the front end—even when they are expressed by someone we know and like.

Certainly we should not jump to conclusions, turn into alarmists, or respond out of paranoia.  But it is wise to pay attention to potential warning signs. 




Wendy L. Patrick, Ph.D. is a career trial attorney and an expert in criminal law. She is co-author of the New York Times bestseller, "Reading People."


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