The celebrity analysis that killed celebrity analysis

Most ‘psy’ professionals are banned by their codes of conduct from conducting ‘celebrity analysis’ and commenting on the mental state of specific individuals in the media. This is a sensible guideline but I didn’t realise it was triggered by a specific event.

Publicly commenting on a celebrity’s psychological state is bad form. If you’ve worked with them professionally, you’re likely bound by confidentiality, if you’ve not, you probably don’t know what you’re talking about and doing so in the media is likely to do them harm.

Despite this, it happens surprisingly often, usually by ‘celebrity psychologists’ in gossip columns and third-rate TV. Sadly, I don’t know of a single case where a professional organisation has tried to discipline the professional for doing so – although it must be said that mostly it’s done by self-appointed ‘experts’ rather than actual psychologists.

A new article in Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law traced the history of how this form of ‘celebrity analysis’ first got banned in the US under the ‘Goldwater Rule’.

The Goldwater Rule stemmed from a scandal surrounding a 1964 publication in Fact magazine that included anonymous psychiatric opinions commenting on Senator Barry Goldwater‘s psychological fitness to be President of the United States. Fact, a short-lived magazine published in the 1960s, carried opinionated articles that covered a broad range of controversial topics. In the 1964 September/October issue entitled, “The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater,” the opinions of over 1,800 psychiatrists commenting on Goldwater’s psychological fitness were published…

Of the 2,417 respondents, 571 deferred from providing comments, 657 responded that Goldwater was fit to be president, and 1,189 responded that he was not fit. None of the psychiatrists whose comments were published had examined Goldwater, however, and none had permission from him to issue their comments publicly. In the article, Goldwater was described with comments including “lack of maturity”, “impulsive”, “unstable”, “megalomaniac”, “very dangerous man”, “obsessive-compulsive neurosis”, and “suffering a chronic psychosis”… Much was made of two nervous breakdowns allegedly suffered by Goldwater, and there was commentary warning that he might launch a nuclear attack if placed under a critical amount of stress as president.

Goldwater responded by bringing libel action against Ralph Ginzburg, Warren Boroson, and Fact… The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York returned a verdict in favor of the senator… The AMA and APA immediately condemned the remarks made in the Fact article after its publication. Individual psychiatrists also spoke out against the ethics of the published comments.

Most people who are subject to ‘celebrity analysis’ don’t have the luxury of bringing libel suits to defend themselves but it’s probably worth remembering that if someone is seeming to give a professional opinion on someone’s psychological state whom they’ve never met, they’re probably talking rubbish.
 

Link to article on ‘Psychiatrists Who Interact With the Media’

4 thoughts on “The celebrity analysis that killed celebrity analysis”

  1. I don’t understand this story. Why did they loath this guy so much? Did psychiatrists in the early Sixties already have the same liberal bias social psychology has today?

  2. Interesting.

    If it happened now, the AMA and the APA wouldn’t mind one bit, and every American public intellectual in ascending order of gravitas from Stephen Colbert all the way up to Cyndi Lauper would have a good laugh at the “impulsive”, “unstable”, “megalomaniac” rednecks who thought it was a problem.

    Which, hey, whatever. That’s the country we live in. Love it or leave it.

  3. Well hey! I’m glad celebrities are protected, but what about us peasants who are labeled, analyzed and abused publically day after day by psychologists, psychologists and the media as psycopaths and subhumans? I’m talking about Autism Spectrum Disorders.

  4. Well if the opinions were “anonymous”, doesn’t that mean the qualifications of participating psychiatrists was not verified? The quote doesn’t mention how the authors contacted them.

    Not surprising though, any of this i09 just covered a finding that among celebrity doctors (think Dr. Oz and such) around 50 percent (it may have actually been more) of televised medical claims are either flat-out wrong or not verified in the medical literature.

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