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Libel in Fact Magazine: The Importance of Character Analysis

The evolution of judgment affects how we select leaders

Archeological evidence indicates that we human beings have lived in groups for at least 250,000 years of our evolutionary past. Each group had leaders, and our ancestors likely evolved a proclivity to scrutinize the character of those leaders. Good judges of character would have been better able to stay on a leader's good side or to challenge a leader when it was in their best interests. A good judge of character could also support the progress of the best among potential new leaders.

Group members who were good at selecting their leaders and had the freedom to do so would more likely promote their group's well-being and survival over time, compared to group members who were less good at assessing their leaders or who had less freedom to choose them.

Today, people remain intently interested in leaders' personalities. Pundits discuss a leader's political positions to be sure. In addition, such commentators consider a leader's personality. The columnist Christopher Hitchens mused:

"At my old English boarding school, we had a sporting saying that one should "tackle the ball and not the man." I carried on echoing this sort of unexamined nonsense for quite some time...when it hit me very forcibly that the "personality" of one of the candidates was itself an "issue." (see full post here)

Although a political candidate might change his or her position on a political issue, that same candidate cannot, in Hitchen's words, "...change the fact...that he or she is a pathological liar, or a dimwit, or a proud ignoramus...".

In the 2008 election, Mr. Hitchens endorsed Barak Obama by arguing that the personalities of Senator John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin were inadequate to the needs of the country. Hitchens wrote:

"Last week's so-called town-hall event showed Sen. John McCain to be someone suffering from an increasingly obvious and embarrassing deficit, both cognitive and physical. And the only public events that have so far featured his absurd choice of running mate have shown her to be a deceiving and unscrupulous woman utterly unversed in any of the needful political discourses but easily trained to utter preposterous lies and to appeal to the basest element of her audience."

Strong judgments about a leader often serve several purposes. First, such judgments provide information, interpretation, and opinion about a leader's behavior. Second, such judgments may be communicated emphatically so as to to motivate readers to support a leader or to withdraw support from him or her. Strong, smart commentary also is memorable and brings attention to the pundit who makes it. Careful scrutiny of our leaders -- including their personalities -- is in all our best interests.

There are, however, legal and ethical limits imposed by society to prevent people from recklessly spreading falsehoods about a leader (and other people).

Libel laws represent a citizenry's method for reigning in false statements that a journalist, commentator, or other party may make of a leader. When responsible individuals judge leaders, they contribute to society by guiding us to select trustworthy, competent leaders. A responsible person's judgments of a leader can sometimes go "off track" as well. Errors and mistakes are natural, but very occasionally such judgments rise to the level of being false, malicious and reckless. A libel trial is a contemporary method of last resort that societies employ to restrain such speech.

My recent posts have discussed an alleged case of libel: In 1964, Ralph Ginzburg hoped to help the American public choose a leader by analyzing the mind of Senator Barry Goldwater -- who was then running for president on the Republican ticket. Mr. Ginzburg potentially overstepped the social and legal boundaries of the time, which was how he found himself on trial for libel in 1968 (see post).

Each day brings news of people on trial -- for murder, corruption, terrorism, and many other offenses. Libel trials concern a special branch of human behavior of particular importance to psychologists: Such trials concern the communication of information about a person's character and actions, and whether such information is accurate or not. The trials also concern the impact of such information on those people who hear it.

Goldwater v. Ginzburg -- to which I will return more directly next week -- is all about the evolution of how we judge our leaders and how such judgments, carried out well, can help the society in which we live.

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Mr. Hitchen's comments can be found in Hitchens, C. (2008, October 13th). "Vote for Obama." Slate. Downloaded (12/28/09) from

Archeological evidence for living in groups...Tooby, J. & DeVore, I. (1987). The reconstruction of hominid behavioral evolution through strategic modeling. In W. Kinzey (Ed.), Primate models of hominid behavior. New York: SUNY Press.

Changes/edits: Paragraph ten of this post was slightly revised +12 hours after posting.

Copyright (c) 2010 by John D. Mayer