The Psychology of the Casey Anthony Trial
To view the psychopathology of other people can be alluring. It makes us feel better about ourselves in comparison. It may school us on the type of people to avoid. It can satisfy the disturbing need to view a bloody wreck. Perhaps it is sheer voyeurism that makes the Casey Anthony trial so fascinating.
Other trials have caught the public’s attention. Dreyfus, Scopes and even Simpson appeared less concerned with psychological details than the Anthony trial. The psychological status of the defendant at the moment of the crime seems increasingly important in recent history. Perhaps it is a mitigating factor that should be considered. On the other hand, establishing the psychological status of a person in the recent past is difficult, let alone the distant past.
Neglecting the past altogether, it is difficult to capture the current psychological status of an individual. The use of multiple tests and informants greatly increases accuracy and reliability. This is assuming the defendant and informants have no motivation to deceive. Consider a situation where the defendant and witnesses have strong motivation to lie about their history and past psychological status. Now paint an accurate picture of the defendant’s psychological status at a specific moment in their past. Finally, avoid any bias in the interpretation of the defendant’s behavior, secondary to the awareness of the report’s possible ramifications.
Establishing causal links between past behavior and psychological status is fraught with error. Factors unknown to anyone, including the guilty, may play a role. Merely because an action is improbable does not make it impossible, and psychological tests search for the probable. The evidence of forbidden behavior may remain deeply buried within the brain of the guilty. It may be buried on purpose, or as a consequence of trauma. Depression and substance abuse may distort recollection, even when well-intentioned. Unfortunately, psychological tests are not able to completely pierce the fog of deception, examiner bias, amnesia and random acts of criminality.
The Anthony trial is certainly a compelling mystery. To watch it unfold before one’s eyes is to be quickly seduced. The public is invited to take a peek through the window of a family in free-fall. The tension is pleasant because we will not suffer any consequences. The public are free to be voyeurs that need not fear the police. We can slowly view the wreck in progress, without holding up the people in the rear.
Suicide, incest, murder and substance abuse have been mentioned as symptoms of this diseased family. The focus is not on the treatment of their malady. The focus is on the eradication or isolation of the pathological agent. The mission is less one of research and discovery, than one aimed at assigning blame. Punitive measures are employed rather than reinforcing the healthy bits that remain. The pathological agent will be destroyed or isolated, and the body of the family will be left to decay.
The Casey Anthony trial is a psychological phenomenon that invites a voyeuristic public to take a peek at this diseased family. The psychological factors that attract viewers may speak to a disease that infects the public at large. The degree to which diseased behavior in one person causes subsequent criminal behavior in another person is highly subjective. Making assumptions about this person’s psychological status at a specific moment in the past is nearly as subjective. Whether to watch the Casey Anthony trial is the most subjective choice of all.
Casey Anthony on our Brains
The women were sitting around the facility living room watching the Casey Anthony trial. The assisted living facility had recently installed a big screen TV, and it has been tuned to the trial since it began. The ladies were convinced of Casey Anthony’s guilt; that she murdered her daughter. An elderly gentleman stood in back of the couch on which the ladies conversed. One of the women asked the man if Casey Anthony was guilty. He replied that he was unsure. The women were in shock.
As voyeurs into this lurid spectacle, we are regaled with many incidental details. There is certainly no smoking gun, nor any other direct evidence of guilt. The bits of reality that float down are suspicious, but not damning. Even unimaginative people could use the available clues to invent scenarios that do not involve murder. The defense offered one such scenario, but failed to prove their contentions. Perhaps it was an unnamed boyfriend that directly or indirectly caused the child’s death. Perhaps it was a total stranger that directly or indirectly caused Kaylee Anthony’s death. Perhaps Casey was concealing her complete indifference, and never believed that she would be charged with murder. Perhaps Casey Anthony has no idea what befell her daughter. The various stories told to family and police may have concealed her indifference, as opposed to concealing a murder.
The low probability of discovering the truth produces tension and viewership. Few people would watch sporting events if the outcome was guaranteed. The frustration and tension produced by uncertainty compels the public to watch for clues that could reveal the truth. For most people, a state of uncertainty is intolerable over an extended period of time. People may actually express relief at hearing bad news, not because they are masochistic, but because their need to know has been satisfied. Since the Casey Anthony trial is unable to discover the truth, the uncertainty will remain, and so will the interest.
Humans naturally form associations between events based upon time, similarity and function. This does not mean these associations are accurate or even helpful, but it is the way our brains function. Not limited to associating bits of information together, our brains find reasons why the associations exist. For example, surgeons who stimulate brain regions while the patient is awake note particular reactions. If the surgeon stimulates a motor area that lifts their arm, the patient will reply that they “felt” like moving that arm. If a particular memory is aroused by electrical stimulation, the patient will find a commonplace cause for that particular recollection. Our brains are machines that form associations and causal links.
The women viewing the Casey Anthony trial believed their causal associations entirely, and could not fathom someone choosing to be uncertain. They latched on to the causal links formed by the prosecution, since it fit the few available clues. The defense failed to produce a story that fit the available clues. The public then had to choose between adopting the prefabricated causal links, or formulating their own conclusions. Since it is easier to buy off the rack than have clothes tailor made, the judgment of the public was a foregone conclusion. Do not fret at the passing of this news event. Like other unsolved crimes, interest will remain on a reduced level. Think Jimmy Hoffa and the Lindbergh baby. We can now add Kaylee Anthony to the list.