Sheen, Madoff and Celebrity Psychology: Character Does Matter

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Charlie Sheen and Bernie Madoff are just two of the latest examples showing that yes, character really does matter. As I state in the title of one of my books, character disturbance is the phenomenon of our age.

Thanks to the reach of the major media outlets and the internet, by now almost everyone has heard of the latest outrageous pronouncements from both Charlie Sheen and Bernie Madoff. Mr. Madoff, now serving time for conducting one of the largest financial swindles of modern time, blamed the “greed” of his clients for the loss of their fortunes. He also accused the U.S. government of conducting an even bigger Ponzi scheme than he could possibly conceive because it promises trillions in benefits it can’t afford to pay except by using other peoples’ money to funnel benefits to an entitled few. All the while, he cast himself as basically a good person who may have made some mistakes but surely would have and should have been caught if only greedy bankers hadn’t been complicit, and inept regulators had done their jobs. Mr. Sheen, whose popular TV show’s production was finally put into suspension, launched a tirade against his detractors, calling some “fools” and casting his former bosses as reprehensible characters for not only breaking their agreements but also having the audacity to tell him how to conduct his life.

As I suggest in my book Character Disturbance, it’s the hallmark feature of the disturbed character to blame almost everyone and everything else for personal shortcomings and misconduct. But having witnessed the outrageous statements of Sheen and Madoff, one might necessarily ask oneself if such folks really believe the things they say or actually think in the manner they appear to think. As I discuss in my book, most of the time, externalizing blame is a tactical move that serves many functions. First, it puts the “accuser” on the defensive by making them take pause and wonder if there isn’t some truth to what the wrongdoer is saying. For example, there is actually some truth to the Madoff assertion that his clients’ greed got them into trouble. You see, most of his clients were not solicited in a direct way. Rather, the word was spread quietly among the well-heeled that there was a money manager out there making his clients incredible profits, even during a time when other funds weren’t doing any where near as well. So, the prospect of getting a huge return on investment led many to seek out Madoff to try and get in on the action. Second, externalizing the blame serves the purpose of exculpating the wrongdoer by insinuating that they engaged in the only rational response to someone else’s action. Third, the tactic serves to manage the impression others might form of the wrongdoer, casting them in the most favorable light. So, as I first noted in my book In Sheep’s Clothing, blaming others is a fairly effective manipulation tactic.

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My experience working for years with disturbed characters has taught me that most of the time, when they make their outrageous claims, they don’t really believe what they’re saying. They know, for example that it’s wrong to take others’ money under false pretenses. So, when they make their excuses or blame others, they’re simply engaging in manipulation — trying to get others to buy their story so that they can continue to do the irresponsible thing they’re doing and look good doing it.

Sometimes, however, they really do believe what they’re saying, as outrageous as it might seem. This can happen in two cases primarily:

  • when the character disturbance is extreme and the person’s sense of entitlement, superiority, or defiance is so great that they actually believe they’re in the right when doing what almost anyone else would agree is wrong;
  • or when they have become delusional about the realities around them (e.g., as the result of some biochemical imbalance and mental illness, drug intoxication, etc.) and literally can’t think rationally anymore.

Some commentators have suggested that Mr. Sheen’s outrageous and grandiose proclamations are due to mental illness. Others cite his history of substance abuse and wonder whether such use has altered his biochemistry and clouded his thinking. But regardless of the possible veracity of either or both of these suspicions, another more insidious culprit remains at large: character disturbance and the aspects of Western culture that encourage and enable it.

We’ve witnessed a seemingly endless parade of Hollywood celebrities and prominent persons who’ve made headlines in recent months because of their unsavory antics and run-ins with the law. Some would cast them as victims of the effects of drugs or the intoxication of stardom and/or power. But to the folks who would place the blame only on substances or biochemistry I would pose these questions: who among these rich and famous individuals could anyone believe has never heard of the dangers of drug use or the potential pitfalls of too much power at too early an age, etc.? What would lead someone who is well aware of the potential dangers to think they could defy the odds and engage in behaviors almost certain to lead to self and other destruction? And why would someone — long before they’d become completely dysfunctional — fail to heed the expressed concerns of loved ones and friends? The answer lies in character. And, as I boldly state in the title of my book, character disturbance is the phenomenon of our age.

Almost no area of our lives is not impacted by the phenomenon of our age. From the fact that we can’t trust a pastor or members of a church not to abuse freedom of speech (by parading with signs saying “God hates soldiers” because the armed services will no longer hunt down and expel gays) to the fact that some of our most prominent figures and role-models set incredibly frightening examples for our children to follow, every aspect of society is touched by this problem. We’re only now starting to wake up. It’s time we all stand up and admit that character does indeed matter. And as a society, it’s ultimately in our survival interest to stop “enabling” it by conferring money, prestige, and power upon those of disturbed and deficient character.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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