Asier Romero/Shutterstock
Source: Asier Romero/Shutterstock

By now you may have seen the disturbing video of ESPN reporter Britt McHenry belittling and berating a tow-truck company employee on that company’s surveillance camera. It is unsettling to see a successful, and very privileged, young broadcaster treating someone with so much less socioeconomic status with such disrespectful disdain.

It's easy for us to vilify McHenry—and other celebrities caught on video in similar circumstances—and to condemn their attitude and behavior. But while McHenry's actions were certainly inexcusable, if we are to be honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we all have had moments in which we have behaved poorly with others, and maybe even demonstrated similarly ugly behavior.

Three useful psychological theories can help us better understand how we all can end up acting like McHenry, given the right set of circumstances. And if we are aware of this fact, then perhaps we might have more understanding for her, along with our compassion for the berated worker:

  1. Social Comparison Theory

    Social comparison theory tells us that we are always evaluating ourselves by comparing our skills, talents, resources, place in life, and so forth with others. We constantly engage in both upward and downward social comparisons. As a rule, we feel great (or, in McHenry's case, superior) around those who have less than we do—and awful around those who have much more. We make constant such judgments about our appearance, intelligence, success, and other qualities in our interactions with and observations of others. This is one of the reasons why social media like Facebook can make us feel depressed and even worthless if we are constantly confronted with images and news of friends who show themselves at their very best through flattering online posts. Too often, other peoples' success and good news make us feel worse about ourselves as well as inferior. We hate to admit this fact but research suggests that it is true.
     

  2. The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis

    Research has shown that frustration leads to aggression. This is why road rage occurs more often in densely populated areas than in more rural spots. If you chronically frustrate someone, they will likely act aggressively when given the opportunity. We don’t know exactly what led to the interchange on the McHenry video, but it's likely that a series of highly frustrating events unfolded before she unleashed her awful commentary.
     

  3. The Conflict Between the Superego and the Id

    Freud, among others, articulated the constant struggle between our impulses, or how we want to behave, vs. the rules of society, or how we should behave. We have all sorts of feelings and impulses that are not flattering, and we have learned to keep such true thoughts and feelings quiet in order to get along with others and survive in the world. What we are thinking is often very different than how we might actually behave in public. McHenry might have felt superior in terms of appearance, education, success, and resources relative to the tow-company worker but stating this out loud to her face in such a disdainful manner is what got her, rightfully, into so much trouble. Perhaps many people under similar circumstances would have indulged in the same thinking, but resisted the urge to act on those impulses, instead keeping their views to themselves.

    We all have thoughts and impulses that would be seen as horrific if we acted on them. Keeping impulsive behaviors in check is one of the most important and most difficult things we have to do in life. Add extreme frustration, anger, or alcohol to the mix, and it becomes that much harder to control this ugly side inside all of us.

So, while it is easy to vilify McHenry or others in her situation, perhaps we can also remind ourselves that given the right set of circumstances, we might act just like her. If we can admit this, then we can be more compassionate and forgiving toward her and others who sometimes let their dark side get the best of them.

What do you think?

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Copyright 2015, Thomas G. Plante, PhD

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