How Our Media Promotes High Conflict Personalities—and What We Can Do About It
By Bill Eddy, LCSW, JD
If we regularly listen to the radio or watch the news, it seems like the worst of times: Conflict! Crisis! Chaos! Polarization! Widespread anxiety! And yet, it’s the best of times in many ways: less hunger, longer lives, less war, more choices, low unemployment, high stock market, and so forth. Why is this?
I believe that today’s media is becoming increasingly driven by high emotions, which is skewing the news and increasing our sense of danger—and in the process promoting more people with high-conflict personalities. This means that the people, the problems, and the stories that we see and hear every day in our media are filled with fear, anger, hatred, helplessness, panic, tears, and rage. While this may be entertaining for adults, it’s training for children.
Face and Voice News
A hundred years ago, most of our world news, entertainment, and sources of information were written: newspapers, books, magazines, and letters. Then radio came on the scene. Stories of great danger could be told in such a convincing manner that a hysteria was created when Orson Welles broadcast his “War of the Worlds” drama on radio in 1938. People were terrified that there actually was a real war of the worlds occurring, given the panic in people’s voices that was broadcast far and wide.
Also, in the 1930s, Adolf Hitler was the first dictator to make widespread use of the radio as a tool to foment hatred and incite Germany’s hunger for war. He became an intimate voice in the homes of all citizens who owned a radio. And, these citizens watched him give intensely emotional speeches in the many documentary movies his regime produced.
Then, in the 1950s, Joe McCarthy used the new medium of television to broadcast his interrogations of government employees, Hollywood filmmakers, and even U.S. Army personnel. He successfully heightened Americans’ fear for several years until he was censured by the Senate and it was all brought to a halt.
This phenomenon continues with our modern media on screens of all sizes, whereby we watch the faces of newsmakers and listen to their voices of hysteria. The reason this is so significant is that our brains process faces and voices—especially those communicating high emotions—differently from logical information. Some brain researchers say that the left brain tends to be where we process language, such as reading and writing, and do much of our logical, linear problem solving. The right brain is apparently where we pay attention to tone of voice, facial expressions, hand gestures, and where we process our negative and intense emotions mostly unconsciously.
When we read a book, we can think about what we are reading and create an image in our minds of what’s going on. With face and voice media we simply accept the pace of delivery as we absorb one image and statement after another, usually with such fast editing so that we don’t even pause to consider the reality or absurdity of what we are absorbing. This is the secret of advertising. If it doesn’t grab our attention emotionally, we won’t remember it.
In the past thirty years, our sources of high-emotion media have multiplied exponentially. The Fairness Doctrine, which required a balanced presentation of any political views on television, essentially ended at the end of the 1980’s. This meant that in the mid-1990s, when Fox News and MSNBC and others were launched as Cable TV news stations, they could give one-sided opinions all day and all night. Depending on our political persuasions, we could absorb a steady diet of high-emotion news 24/7. Even though there would seem to be time for in-depth reporting, the focus is often on the faces and voices discussing the “issues.” In reality, the endless news has become endless emotions and opinions about other people’s behavior. And bad behavior has become the focus of attention and has received the highest ratings.
But Cable TV has also brought us wider access to more edgy drama with less restraint, with HBO and Showtime and hundreds of channels available outside of the mainstream. Dramas of crises and chaos and relationships in endless conflict can be seen day and night.
Court TV came into being in the 1990s, turning legal decisions into exciting high-conflict disputes. Judge Judy and dozens of others brought tales of good guys and bad guys and fast justice into our living rooms. C-SPAN also brought TV cameras to congressional hearings. With this came an escalation of high-emotion politics, as political debates shifted into name-calling. Newt Gingrich, a congressman from South Carolina, is credited with teaching politicians to use nasty terms on TV like “sick, pathetic, unpatriotic” to label opponents and to cast everything as a battle between good and evil. Because this approach has permeated politics and the airwaves over the last thirty years, it seems normal now.
Then came along the Internet and endless new sources of information. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other apps spread all types of stories which we are now learning can influence our moods and even elections. The Internet also made Netflix and several others into 24/7 sources of drama.
Thus, the competition is on to get viewer attention. And it’s an intense competition. In the 1960s and 1970s, Walter Cronkite was a CBS newscaster who was known as the “most trusted man in America.” He decided what was news for most of the country in those days. Today, it’s the wild west of news and drama, which means that news and drama outlets must be more and more extreme to get viewers—to get “market share”—if they want to stay in business.
High Conflict Personalities
All of these changes have created a need for the most exciting personalities—with the most dramatic and intense faces and voices—to present to the public. While we have always had high-conflict personalities among us, they have usually been contained by those around them because of their difficult relationships and behaviors. This is because of the four key characteristics of high-conflict people (HCPs), which are:
These characteristics are discouraged for children from early childhood, otherwise they won’t be able to succeed in an interdependent world. These edgy characteristics grab our attention exactly because they are troublesome and can become dangerous. This is what gets people excluded from social groups, what gets them fired, and what causes a lot of divorces.
But surprisingly, people with these personalities are exactly what high-emotion media craves. Bad behavior sells and the outlet with the most outrageous individuals is likely to get the most attention. Interpersonal conflict is one of our favorites to watch, but certainly not to live with. So, media that shows HCPs in conflict with everyone around them can really sell. This is why so-called reality TV has done so well. We have become a world of voyeurs of HCPs.
Unfortunately, this is not a good thing for our future. HCPs are becoming the most popular role models. Not surprisingly, today’s children and young adults are more depressed, anxious, and angry than prior generations. My belief is that this is because they are observing a world that is filled with too much conflict, crisis, chaos and fear. At the same time, they are learning fantasy skills (be tough, don’t compromise, look out for number one, never ask for help,) that don’t work well in the real world. This leads to another problem of today’s media.
Fantasy Crisis Triad
From world news to sit-coms to exciting dramas, the message that today’s media is promoting can be divided into three parts that I call the fantasy crisis triad: There’s a terrible crisis, caused by an evil villain, but there’s a superhero who can solve it without breaking a sweat. But it’s all a fantasy. Most things today aren’t a crisis, although some are problems to solve with rational thinking and group effort.
We promote heroes so much today that children and young adults feel bad about themselves if they haven’t been recognized as a hero yet. And today’s heroes are rarely portrayed as working with others; they seem incredibly powerful one their own. So, needing assistance can feel degrading when, in fact, its what we all usually need to solve problems in the real world.
This fantasy situation has become especially true in our politics. HCPs who want to be politicians must present themselves as heroes rather than as people who can take the time to understand problems and work collaboratively with others to solve them. But today’s media promotes HCPs who claim to be able to solve problems single-handedly. Because of the blurring of entertainment and politics, getting elected is no longer about governing but instead about entertaining. No leadership experience required.
What We Can Do
The problem of high-conflict personalities is increasing and needs to be addressed. HCPs aren’t happy people. They repeatedly lose friends, sometimes lose jobs, and generally live frustrating lives. Yet they don’t (can’t really) recognize that their behavior is a problem—especially when they see it promoted all around them. (And don’t tell anyone you think they are an HCP—it just makes things worse.)
We can address the problems related to HCPs by learning how to deal with them without encouraging their negative behavior. While it’s tempting to confront them or agree with them in their conflicts with others, this doesn’t help. Instead, we need to stay calm, focus on what our choices are now, and decide if we need to set limits with them in a respectful way.
The problems with high-emotion media can also be partly solved by learning skills. A healthy skepticism is needed, as well as the ability to analyze problems thoroughly without jumping to conclusions. We need to realize that what we see on the screen is a spin on reality and that we need to investigate issues from many sources, rather than believing what one TV personality has said (or one social media outlet or one upset person anywhere).
High-emotion media and high-conflict personalities are now becoming a worldwide problem, because our cultures are so inter-connected. Stories can fly around the world in seconds and the most emotional stories get the most attention (whether they’re true or not). The solution is to recognize high-emotion media and high-conflict behavior for what it is: entertainment and not reality.
We need to teach children and adults more critical thinking skills. And we need to realize that there’s no villain causing most of our problems—it’s us.
Bill Eddy is a therapist, lawyer, co-founder of the High Conflict Institute and author of WHY WE ELECT NARCISSISTS AND SOCIOPATHS – AND HOW WE CAN STOP!