What Mental Health Professionals Might Add to the Discussion of a Public Figure's Personality

What can professional psychologists and psychiatrists add to commentaries?

Posted Feb 22, 2011

When psychologists, psychiatrists, and related experts author these commentaries, they will ideally amplify the benefits of discussions about personality. Professional commentary about public figures also opens a valuable two-way street along which psychologists and others inform the public, and the public (and the public figure) have the opportunity to respond with their own comments in the media. In this fashion, the profession can learn how espousing a certain responsible judgment about a public figure is perceived by others.

Relatively few mental health professionals comment publically on the mental lives of public figures. The ethics codes these professionals follow place their primary focus on therapist-patient relationships — as well they should. Ethics codes do, however, regulate comments made to the media, at least in passing.  The specific codes vary by profession, but in their collective brevity they leave many questions unanswered, such as the ethical underpinnings of their rules and more generally, the conditions under which such commentary might be good or bad.

To further explore these ideas, let me suggest a model of the transactions that take place among public figures, commentators and the public, shown in the figure below.

The depiction begins (upper left) with information about a public figure, perhaps reported in the media. Next, members of the media at large comment on the individual's behavior or thoughts (upper right). These comments often concern the morality, political sense or public-relations meaning of the person's acts. A specific category of such comments would include psychological commentary — whether by professionals, journalists or others (lower right).

A recent example can illustrate the process. On February 14th of this year, on the Dan Patrick show, Mr. Patrick interviewed Charlie Sheen, the star of the CBS show "Two and a Half Men," who has had alleged difficulties with drugs and alcohol in the recent past.  In the beginning of the interview, Sheen appeared to express an openness toward cocaine use for those who could manage it.  Twelve minutes into the interview, Mr. Patrick inquired, "...how long [have] you been sober?" Mr. Sheen replied rapidly:

"I've been off... well, I don't use 'sober' anymore.  I'm not in AA; I don't believe in it you know, um  —  it's off an' on — it's been — I was sober five years ago and just bored out of my tree and just decided this is inauthentic: it's not who I am and like that —  you know I didn't drink for 12 years and man, that first one Dan, wow...and its hard to say, cause then you got people arguing the disease model or the alcoholism model...

Some media commentators noted Mr. Sheen's apparent openness to drug and alcohol use. Mental health professionals in particular expressed concern for Mr. Sheen's well-being. Some commentators used the opportunity to discuss substance abuse issues, including several mentions on the Psychology Today website. (For examples, see here, here, and here, and earlier comments from Dr. Drew Pinsky here).

Commentary can be a two-way street. The fourth quarter of the diagram (lower left) indicates responses from the public and the celebrity him or herself. Members of the public replied to posts concerning Mr. Sheen in the form of adding comments to the experts' blogs and to related articles. Mr. Sheen himself called into Dan Patrick's program two days after his original interview, remarking in a general way on the controversy and expressing his gratitude to his coworkers at CBS for their support.

I already have examined the positives and negatives of commentary on personalities in general (here and here). I have not yet remarked on what professionals themselves potentially offer above and beyond more general media commentary.

The first benefit professionals potentially offer is to provide opinions and vantage points that are enriched by their training and experience.  Psychologists and psychiatrists contribute to public education by explaining psychological principles that may pertain to a given media event. Professonals are better trained to recognize the influence of mental traits such as sensation-seeking or extraversion and mental dynamics such as motives and self-control, on people and their behavior. Their understanding of these phenomena allows them to prognosticate about possible outcomes for individuals — that is, what may happen to a person in the future, as well as how that might impact the people around them. Their comments may have immediate application, for example, in identifying people who pose dangers to themselves or identifying dangerous national leaders on the international scene or at home.  These basics of personality assessment and psychiatric diagnoses are offered in a context in which people are likely to pay close attention because they are naturally interested in the event.

A second contribution of professionals might be to set an example of good judgment processes that others might wish to follow. In particular, commentators might be expected to model constructive and accurate commentary as opposed to over-the-top exaggerations or caricatures of analyses. They may not always succeed, of course, but some success is possible.

I mentioned in relation to the model above that commentary in the media could be a two-way street. I believe this has potential value both for the public and for mental health professionals. The public discussion of topics such as addiction and personality disorders provides a means to understand what the public finds most interesting about them, and also allows for feedback about what parts of psychological science are well understood or not. The public conversations could make clearer among scientists themselves their own assumptions and interests — not altogether a bad thing when considering human sciences.

I am not saying that the public ought to guide scientific research or arbitrate disputes; scientific considerations must be evaluated by those trained in the scientific method as it applies to the human sciences such as biology, psychology and sociology.  Rather, I am saying both that such conversations can involve interested members of the public and that their perspective is good for professionals to know.

Of course, there are costs associated with judging. Among these are potentially misjudging public figures, inappropriately damaging their reputations, and unnecessarily hurting their feelings. Misjudgments always are a possibility — but that teaches something about the fallibility of our now century-old field. I do not believe that psychologists and psychiatrists are likely to damage the reputations of public figures at least beyond what often happens in the press simply because other commentators often make strong moral (and other) judgments of the characters of public figures and all of us are limited by defamation laws.

Then, there are the costs of not judging. Judgment freeloaders are people who rely on others to judge, ceding the field and forsaking any obligation to comment. Judging others can be viewed as an obligation — involving a duty to educate and a duty to warn, in the case of dangerous figures. A "duty to warn" might be advocated according to deontological ethics (deon = duty).  Psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals are among society's assigned experts in human behavior and mental health. For them to remove themselves from such obligations can itself be viewed as ethically problematic. All told, then, there are some good reasons for psychologists and others competent to do so to join the public fray and comment on the psychology of public figures, provided they do so carefully.

To seriously contemplate commenting on others' personalities entails hashing out some guidelines for doing so scientifically and ethically well. To eschew such practices means never investigating how to carry out such commentary in a positive fashion. Unless we engage in public commentary, we cannot learn how to comment well.  

Please Note: The next post on this blog will be in two weeks.


Audio of Mr. Sheen was downloaded from: http://www.danpatrick.com/2011/02/14/charlie-sheen-talks-about-hitting-a...

Copyright © 2011 by John D. Mayer