Panic-Induced Foolishness

What do Martha Stewart and Chante Mallard Have in Common?

Posted May 06, 2011

Foolish behavior often occurs when one's critical faculties are short-circuited by rapidly unfolding events. In such a scenario, one's initial impulses may lead one down a foolish path, and it can then become very difficult to reverse course and extricate oneself from the consequences of the initial bad decision. Two examples of this can be found in the stories of Chante Jawan Mallard and Martha Stewart, individuals at the opposite end of the financial, educational and age spectrum but who both ended up in jail as a result of their inability to respond with sense and character to a challenging situation.

In October, 2003, the 25-year-old Mallard was driving home from a night out drinking and doing drugs in Fort Worth with her friends when her car hit a 37-year-old homeless man named Gregory Biggs. The impact was so great that Biggs became lodged in the windshield, with his head stuck inside the vehicle. Not stopping to call for help, Mallard--a former nurse's aide--continued to drive home, parking the car in her garage. She was quite upset by what had happened, and she periodically tearfully apologized to the still-alive man, both during the drive home and after she parked the car in her garage. It is alleged that Mallard had sex with her boyfriend during the time when Biggs was still lodged in the windshield. Sometime over a period of several hours, Biggs died of his injuries. Doctors testified that he would have survived if Mallard had sought medical help. Mallard's boyfriend and a male cousin helped her to cover up the crime by moving the body to a park and by destroying evidence.

Mallard possibly would have gotten away with the crime, but she brought suspicion on herself when she was overheard laughingly saying at a party that "I had hit this white man" with her car (this is another example of someone being done in by the imulse to be funny, a topic addresed in my last blog post). After a widely publicized trial, which I watched during my Court-TV addiction phase, Ms. Mallard was sentenced to 50 years for murder and 10 years for evidence tampering, with the sentences to run concurrently. This incident has been the inspiration for several TV episodes and films.

This event can be considered a variant on a hit-and-run accident, with the extra twist that the perpetrator brought the victim home with her. As with a hit-and-run accident, the motive was that Mallard feared that she would get into trouble, in this case because she had been driving while impaired. So instead of facing a likely minor penalty, Mallard wound up having to spend most or all of her life in prison.

The four-factor model helps to explain how Mallard could have made such a foolish trade-off. The situational component here is that having a man lodged in your windshield is a very rare and unique circumstance, which could not have been anticipated by Mallard, or anyone else. Once she made the unfortunate split-second decision to keep on driving (helped by the fact that it was late at night and there were no other cars or pedestrians around), the cognitive and affective challenges of the situation became even greater. That is because the fear of punishment from having an accident while impaired was now compounded by the fear of punishment stemming from driving off. Thus, affect (in this case, fear) was a big part of the equation. State also played a big role, as Mallard was in an intoxicated condition at the time of the accident and it is well-known that alcohol and drugs cause judgment to become impaired.

Once Gregory Biggs died, of course, the prospect of turning herself in became even more challenging for Chante, who also had the misfortune of turning for help to a boyfriend who provided the bad advice to cover up the deed rather than come clean. (Even at that late date, the punishment would likely have been much less severe had she gone to the authorities). In addition to striking me as not very bright, Mallard also seemed to have have a weak and dependent personality. Her behavior following the tragic accident, combined with the lack of perspective-taking implicit in blabbing about it at a party, showed a level of naivite and immaturity one might find in a young adolescent. For that reason, I feel that a 50-year prison sentence in this case was grossly excessive, even by Texas standards.

Another example of foolish behavior resulting from a panicked decision under ambiguous circumstances can be found in the story of self-made food and lifestyle guru Martha Stewart. In 2001, the taking of her company Martha Stewart Omnimedia public had made Ms. Stewart a billionaire and one of the most famous and wealthy women in America. This was all put at risk when she ordered her broker to sell her shares in a start-up drug-manufacturing company called Imclone after the broker's assistant had given her a tip that the stock was about to decline due to an unfavorable ruling by the Food and Drug Administration on Imclone's application for a new cancer drug.

By making this sale then, rather than waiting until the FDA ruling became public (and the company's stock declined by 16%), Ms. Stewart saved all of $45,000, but she wound up going to jail for five months for insider trading (actually, as is often the case, for lying to investigators about what she had known). In addition, she was removed as CEO of her own company, lost a substantial portion of her wealth (much of which she has been able to regain), and suffered considerable humiliation (for example, the British government blocked her from traveling to England to give a talk at a design college). Even after her action had become known, she could have avoided a jail sentence if she had been willing to come clean about what she knew and when she knew it. She compounded her initial foolishness in making the sale, saving what was to her chump change, with additional foolishness in which she persisted in denying any wrong-doing.

In trying to understand why Martha Stewart behaved so foolishly, all four factors in the explanatory model again come into play. The decision was made during the end-of-year holiday, while Ms. Stewart was taking her private plane to a vacation in Mexico. She learned of the Imclone problem during the plane's refueling stop, and she was unable to reach her broker, Peter Bacanovic, or her friend and Imclone CEO Sam Waskal (both of whom also eventually went to jail). Nor was she able to reach any of her legal and financial advisers, some of whom likely would have warned her of the risks of trading on this inside information. Thus, a situational element, often present when people make a foolish impromptu decision, was the lack of time to think about the decision or to seek wise counsel.

Cognition enters in when one considers the possibility that Ms. Stewart, for all of her brilliance, may have lacked the tacit knowledge that her action in selling the stock was improper. One fact which works against this hypothesis is that she had worked for a brief time as a stock broker on Wall Street early in her life. However, she resigned that position under a bit of a cloud, allegedly because of kick-backs to brokers for pushing a particular stock. So it is certainly possible that she was not as knowledgeable about securities law or ethics as one might think.

Personality likely played a major (perhaps the major) role in explaining Martha Stewart's foolish action. She was, by many accounts, at that time a highly arrogant and imperious person, who was determined to get her way in all matters large and small. It is very possible, indeed likely, that Ms. Stewart had a sense of entitlement and felt that society's rules did not apply to her, especially a rule (banning insider trading) that she knew to be frequently flouted.

Affect clearly entered into the equation in two ways: (a) in the panic and greed that set in when she learned that her investment was in jeapordy, and (b) in her rigid unwillingness to consider making any admission of wrongdoing. Basically, Stewart was facing a classic dilemma, in which she had to weigh the moderate risk to her image and business of admitting guilt, most likely to a misdemeanor, against the major risk to her image and business if she were to be convicted of a felony. She made what turned out to be a disastrously wrong choice. The foolishness of this choice inhered in the fact that the risks were both clear and potentially disastrous, and wisdom--not to mention moral character--should have led her to an action which minimized the potential risk.

                  Copyright Stephen Greenspan