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Why People Love Hit TV Series Featuring Psychopaths, like Breaking Bad and House of Cards

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From http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnlafTs7nos: House of cards lead psychopath, Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey
House of cards lead psychopath, Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey
(image by YouTube)

In Netflix House of Cards series, Kevin Spacey plays Frank Underwood, a treacherous, murderous, conniving, lying, traitorous, vengeful politician who will do ANYTHING to gain power and influence.

The series is a huge hit. 
Of course, there's Walter White, the murderous, lying deceiving, drug kingpin brilliantly portrayed in Breaking Bad, one of the most successful TV series in history.

Clearly, both of these characters are psychopaths and clearly, these shows, built around psychopathic main characters, have been fabulous successes.

I'll take a stab at why the shows are so successful.

Experts estimate that only one percent of the population are psychopaths, and maybe eight percent include psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists, borderlines and anti-social personality disordered people.

Most people don't act anything like this pathological population. That's a good thing. But, and it's a big "but," a lot of people would like to be able to act like them some of the time.

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Psychopaths don't care. They don't experience empathy. That's very handy when it comes to not having to worry about guilt, when you do something wrong, even something profoundly evil.

A lot of people only think of psychopaths as nutcase psychopathic killers-- like Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy. And they exist. But they are just one segment of the psychopathic population. In a way, they are the easy ones to detect and identify. But there are many psychopaths who are smarter and who have better impulse control. That's what we see in House of Cards, in particular, and somewhat in Breaking Bad. Walt has a little bit less impulse control. In fact, having great ability to control emotional expression, to put out an impression of calm strength, even under high stress, is one of the characteristics of a psychopath. That's a characteristic that is desirable for anyone, as well.

Psychopaths are charismatic, very effective influencers who are great at dominating other people. Domination is a complex dimension of a culture that has many nuances. Some people are great at jumping into the role, playing the dominator, pushing the buttons of people who are accustomed to manifesting passivity and deference. Charisma and the ability to feel in control in social settings are also attractive characteristics.

Psychopaths and narcissists feel superior to other people. It can even be programmed into their DNA, literally, with genes that produce aggression, inhibition of fear, even grandiosity in some cases. (Some psychopaths are also bipolar, and grandiosity is a common hypomanic symptom.) Most people would like to feel self-confident.

The problem is the psychopath, with each of these at least somewhat desirable characteristics, adds up to a package that amounts to a monster-- a sometimes deadly, often suffering-inflicting predator who uses these "strengths" in immoral, cruel, vile, evil, hurtful ways. Even if they want to be good people they just can't help some of the mean, uncaring, selfish things they do and the guiltless way they feel about them. I've interviewed a few high functioning psychopaths and even though they want to be seen as good people, they can't help telling a life story that includes actions and decisions that can only be described as psychopathic.

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So... there are actually a lot of reasons why people admire psychopaths, or at least some of their abilities. And when we see the these stories about the most adept, smartest, most successful psychopaths, living incredible lives of excitement and success-- at least success by some measures-- we are fascinated by them.

But it's important to use these stories as teaching tools. First, many psychopaths are not stupid, impulsive, alcoholic or drug abusing killers. Many are much higher functioning. Clive Boddy, who literally wrote the book on Corporate Psychopaths, told me in an interview, that some financial organizations actually seek out psychopaths as employees. Part of the reason I became interested in psychopaths and sociopaths is I interviewed Thom Hartmann about his belief that it takes a sociopath to become the CEO of a major multinational corporation.

It's interesting that the writer of the House of Card series, Beau Willimon, spent time working on different political campaigns-- for Howard Dean, Chuck Schumer, Bill Bradley and Hillary Clinton. He described in an interview with Telegraph writer Chris Harvey :
"House of Cards is an extreme view of politics and power... All politicians are murderers or have to be willing to be murderers. Here you have a dramatisation of that thing in them which allows them to do the unspeakable, whether that is facilitating the death of a congressman or sending 100,000 troops to war."
Harvey reports,
"Willimon talks about the political dimension to the war in Iraq, how it was justified "by an outdated and erroneous piece of intelligence" and how there "had to be certain political advantages gained by such an endeavour", such as being seen to respond to 9/11 with a show of strength."I don't have the answer to this," he says, "but I ask the question: with thousands of American soldiers dead and hundreds of thousands of people abroad dead, is that more or less heinous than what we see Francis Underwood do?"

In my interactions and writings as a political blogger and commentator, many commenters have suggested, and I agree, that many politicians fit the profile of psychopaths. A series like House of Cards has the potential to be a very educational exercise in helping people to understand just how powerful and successful psychopaths can be, and that they can reach the highest echelons.

But series like House of Cards and Breaking Bad can also be problematic. One Huffington post writer, Maddie Crum in her article,  10 Fictional Characters Who Just Might Be Psychopaths, And Why We're Drawn To Them , says,
"On Valentine's Day, Netflix Nation's love for House of Cards' Frank Underwood was rekindled, and why not? He's ambitious, he's charming, he's Kevin Spacey, and he's... arguably a psychopath. He's conniving and continually reiterates the uselessness of feeling remorse, and yet, for some reason, we want him to succeed."

Hello!! I don't want him to succeed. I see a monster/predator, more dangerous and destructive than the green, long-clawed monsters we see in slasher horror stories. I see an incredibly dangerous, poisonous creature which destroys so much of what IT touches. Yet I am sure that there are many people who, caught up in the story, in the tsunami of power portrayed, begin rooting for Underwood, rooting for his helpers. That's not such a good thing.

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Rob Kall has spent his adult life as an awakener and empowerer-- first in the field of biofeedback, inventing products, developing software and a music recording label, MuPsych, within the company he founded in 1978-- Futurehealth, and founding, organizing and running 3 conferences: Winter Brain, on Neurofeedback and consciousness, Optimal Functioning and Positive Psychology (a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, first presenting workshops on it in 1985) and Storycon Summit Meeting on the Art Science and Application of Story-- each the first of their kind. Then, when he found the process of raising people's consciousness and empowering them to take more control of their lives one person at a time was too slow, he founded Opednews.com-- which has been the top search result on Google for the terms liberal news and progressive opinion for several years. Rob began his Bottom-up Radio show, broadcast on WNJC 1360 AM to Metro Philly, also available on iTunes, covering the transition of our culture, business and world from predominantly Top-down (hierarchical, centralized, authoritarian, patriarchal, big) to bottom-up (egalitarian, local, interdependent, grassroots, archetypal feminine and small.) Recent long-term projects include a book, Bottom-up-- The Connection Revolution, debillionairizing the planet and the Psychopathy Defense and Optimization Project.

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Rob Kall's Bottom Up Radio Show: Over 200 podcasts are archived for downloading here, or can be accessed from iTunes. Rob is also published regularly on the Huffingtonpost.com

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