Last summer, while searching the web for ponerology-related information and people, I came across a website discussing a movie called I Am Fishead – or, cleverly, I Am <Fishead(.
It said the film is about corporate corruption and the role that psychopathy may have played in it.
The title, supposedly, refers to a Chinese saying that a “fish stinks from the head,” implying that this movie might be an exploration of how the dysfunction of our hierarchical society originates from those at the top of the pyramid.
Well, of course, I was very intrigued as I have not only dedicated a great deal of time and energy to learning about this topic, but specifically to advocating for more – and more forms of – education of the public about it.
My interest grew even stronger since I related to the background of co-director/co-producer of the film, Misha Votruba, a former psychiatrist who moved on from that career to more creative endeavors, eventually circling back to focus on a psychiatric topic – psychopathy – from a more activist perspective as a filmmaker.
The other co-director/co-producer of I Am Fishead is Vaclav Dejcmar, an economist and businessman with a lot of experience in investing and the financial markets. This background makes him an ideal complement to Misha Votruba in making this film that includes a focus on the overlap of psychiatry and our economic systems.
I finally got around to watching the film and I have quite a bit to say about it. This piece is going to get quite into depth about the film so if you’d prefer to see it first before knowing too much about what happens, you might want to watch it (I’ve embedded it below) and then continue reading this afterwards. If you don’t plan to watch it or don’t mind going into it knowing a lot of what happens, then feel free to read on.
The titles of Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 in the sections immediately below are those from the actual film, but names given to other segments in this synopsis/review are my own.
I originally expected I Am Fishead to spend a good 45 minutes demonstrating various problems in our world and hinting at the sinister machinations hidden behind them before suddenly thrusting upon the viewer its ultimate conclusion – that psychopathic leaders are to blame.
But this is not that kind of movie.
Instead, I Am Fishead gets right to the point.
Our guide, prodigious actor and narrator Peter Coyote, starts by evoking for the viewer the visceral connection forged by psychopaths when you meet them but remain unaware of their true nature.
Then, within the first two minutes, he raises two extremely important issues at the heart of the matter – both of which are not often enough realistically discussed or recognized as possibly related.
- He asks “What are psychopaths? Do you know any personally?”
- He reminisces about the horrible pain and loss many experienced in the financial crisis of 2008.
He points out regarding the crisis:
“Did you make the mess? I didn’t. So who did? I think it makes sense to look for some explanation from the people who were in charge, at least for somebody to blame.”
So, considering those in positions of power, he asks quite directly, in a way that hits home and encapsulates what should be the focus of the film:
“What do we really know about people in power? We trust our lives to them. Their decisions affect millions. We know that some of them at least are not the nicest people on the planet. Could they be psychopaths?”
At moments during this opening sequence, the “I Am Fishead” logo quickly flashes in between images of despair and of people in power, a sort of visual tie linking everything together and to the underlying pathology in question.
All of this takes place within the first five minutes. So, as I said, this is not a movie that slowly leads up to the conclusion that those in power are psychopaths. It very openly confronts the viewer with that possibility before the movie’s formal “Part 1” even begins.
Part 1 – Psychopath
Part 1 of I Am Fishead does what I thought the whole film was going to do and does it well.
Corporate (and Other) Psychopaths
It starts with mention of Snakes in Suits and the coining of the term “corporate psychopath.”
People on the street are interviewed about what “psychopath” means, providing a nice representation of how large a segment of the public is aware of the term, but has only a vague idea of it as referring to someone “crazy” or a killer like in the movies or on the news.
Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, the authors of Snakes in Suits, explain what psychopaths really are and how they function and rise in the business world.
The differences between brain function during emotional processing in psychopaths vs. normals are not only discussed, but shown in brain images.
We then explore how psychopaths fool us, a crucial skill that enables them to get away with the devious things they do and the damage they cause.
Matthew Logan, a psychologist and detective who has assessed over 160 psychopaths, talks about how charming and likeable they are.
Babiak explains how they wear a metaphorical mask that hides their dark side when we talk to them. The consequence of this, he says, is that when we go looking for the kind of overt darkness we expect to see from psychopaths based on their portrayal in the movies or in the headlines and don’t find it, we conclude that psychopaths don’t really exist or that we haven’t met one, even though we almost certainly have met one and were simply fooled by their mask.
Hare talks about our false assumptions that everyone reacts to the world as we do and how the psychopath mimics outer signs of emotion without actual feeling.
Hare illustrates the latter by describing a scene he created while consulting to Nicole Kidman, who was preparing to play a psychopath in Malice. She needed some way to get across to the audience that behind her character’s mask of a sweet woman was really something entirely darker. So Hare had her show the audience how, during a tragic event, she studied the agonized expressions of the victim’s mother, only to return home and practice them unfeelingly in the mirror.
Coyote then says “OK. I get psychopath. What’s a sociopath?”
For this, Hare refers to Reservoir Dogs.
Logan demonstrates how psychopaths react almost gleefully when presented with a challenge to get something they want from another person.
Prevalence, Influence and Difficulty of Detection
Hare and Babiak explain how prevalent, how disproportionately influential and how inescapable psychopaths are to us. We will all, at some time, be affected. We’re then shown a crowd and watch as a sort of “find the psychopath” simulation is run, causing us to wonder “which one is it?”
Hare admits that even he can’t identify the psychopath just by looking or sometimes even after months of talking to one.
The Psychopathic Bond
The way that psychopaths create the illusion of deep connection is crucial to their entire mode of operating.
Hare and Babiak explain how our tendencies to judge people on appearance and believe in people too much work against us when interacting with psychopaths.
“We tend to be very forgiving in our interpersonal relationships with people. We’re often open to their explanations and their rationalizations and we give forgiveness. We also, when building a relationship with people, believe that they are real. What a psychopath does is they weave a picture of a person that’s really a dream. It’s a spirit. It’s not real.”
Coyote follows up, discussing the “soulmate” feeling they evoke.
“And you feel like you’ve discovered a soulmate. A deep intimacy. And you’re experiencing one of those rare, fleeting moments that makes life worth living. And before you know it you’re involved in a deep personal bond with a psychopath.”
Babiak talks about how those around the victim looking in can’t understand this intense bond, especially since it is only an illusion, a form of psychological and emotional abuse, and the psychopath will soon simply stop playing the game and seek a new victim. We see a bug trying to escape a bottle, indicative of such a trap.
How Psychopaths Succeed
Babiak and Hare explain how corporate psychopaths, in contrast with the stereotypical serial killer image of a psychopath, can use education and the “corporate look and language” to fit in and impress people, ascend the ranks and attain a very comfortable lifestyle. They are able to do this more successfully than ever in the last few decades.
The Decision Making Behind the Financial Crisis
We are reminded that the financial crisis involved decisions by actual people and asked to consider who these people were.
We’re told that the psychopath’s decision process leads them to fearlessly take huge risks on a whim that others would not take.
The extreme concentration of wealth and power at the top of our social hierarchy is demonstrated, with a Monopoly game metaphor to back it up.
Then Hare talks about Bernard Madoff, the ultimate pyramid scheme operator.
Studying Corporate Psychopaths
Hare then describes his study, the first empirical one using a well-validated measure, he says, investigating corporate psychopathy in high level management – VP’s, directors, supervisors – at Fortune 100 companies. He reveals findings of several individuals – more than would be expected based on rates in the general population – with very high scores on psychopathy measures, who, despite their dangerous traits and even poor performance were, nonetheless, viewed as commendable employees and being considered for promotion.
Being a Psychopath
Coyote explores what it’s like to be a psychopath, talking about how liberating it is since, with no inner restraints and nobody outside who can know what you’re thinking, you can get away with anything you want.
True Corporate High Performers vs. Mimics
Babiak then describes how psychopaths mimic high performers within organizations, so they access the trappings of success, and then go about manipulating and forcing out their rivals behind the scenes. Without a way to differentiate between the genuine performer and the devious mimic, these organizations both become saddled with dangerous people and lose the truly beneficial people.
The World Scale
Hare gets into the kind of material Andrew M. Lobaczewski focused on in Political Ponerology – the widespread suffering that has resulted from the influence of psychopaths in politics and government.
Conclusion of Part 1
Part 1 ends with Coyote saying:
“OK. So what you already subconsciously knew has been proven. That the world, to some degree or another, is run by psychopaths. So what do we do with that?”
At this point I thought the movie was going relatively well. It was a little scattered, but it had reinforced many of the most important facts about psychopathy and its influence so I was generally pleased. At the same time I was curious where they would take things next, since, after only the first part, Coyote’s closing lines not only said that we’ve already “proven” what I thought would be the ultimate conclusion of the film, but that the viewer really already knew it on some level.
What was coming next? I had some ideas and there were some great places it could have gone. But that’s not where it went.
Part 2 – Happy Pills
This is where I thought the movie went off the track somewhat in a number of ways.
- Part 2 deals with the role of overmedication with psychiatric drugs. While this certainly is a topic worth investigating, and few people agree more that we have a problem with overmedication (or have made life decisions more central because of that belief), I found it out of proportion to devote the entire segment to it. The manipulation of emotions and suppression and repression of authentic feedback on the whole would be a worthy subject. But overmedication is just one part of that larger issue and more a symptom than a cause, at that. I didn’t expect this to be where they took the film next and, when they did, I was rather disappointed because it seems too narrow a focus.
- I felt a big dropoff in the gravitas of most of the people featured in this part as opposed to the first part. After hearing from weighty, big name experts like Hare and Babiak in Part 1, I found the people featured in Part 2, other than the Philip Zimabardo, who is introduced here, disappointing. In fact, while I’ve heard at least one of the people besides Zimbardo in Part 2 has a high profile, I had never even heard of them.
That wouldn’t be so bad in itself if not for the fact that the message they are brought in to communicate is not really one I’d have found most worthwhile. I don’t mean to impugn these people at all. They may do great work and I might agree with much of it. And if you are going to zero in on the subject of overmedication, they are certainly people who have put in the work to be worth hearing from on the topic. But I found their appearances a stark contrast to those in the first part.
I think this dropoff in the gravitas of the interviewees may simply mirror the transition from Part 1’s focus on psychopathy, which draws the interest of people the caliber of Hare and Babiak because it is a truly root causal factor in our social systems’ dysfunction, to Part 2’s focus on overmedication, which genuinely systemic thinkers recognize is likely not a root causal factor.
Part 2 basically aims not so much to claim as to hint and speculate that possibly, just maybe, the influence of actual psychopaths and sociopaths is being reinforced by the overuse of psychiatric medications, which, kind of, sort of, might be turning non-pathological people into less extreme versions of psychopaths and sociopaths – as represented in an animation where figures are shown gobbling cartoon pills, causing one to suddenly transform into a devil, one of the film’s symbols of the psychopath.
It starts with Zimbardo telling a story of how a relative at his mother’s funeral was passing around valium to help people inappropriately drown out their grief. The story is a metaphor for what the filmmakers seem to believe is happening in society at large.
Much of Part 2 then consists of interviews with:
- Christopher Lane – Author of Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness
- Gary Greenberg – Author of Manufacturing Depression: The Secret History of a Modern Disease
- Charles Barber – Author of Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry is Medicating a Nation
The three take turns telling us about:
- The prevalence of antidepressant use in the United states
- The history of using medication to manage moods
- Our past ignorance of side effects
- The impact of the legalization in the 1990’s of television marketing of drugs
- The assignment of previously normal challenges to diagnostic categories
- How it has become “cool” to be depressed and use antidepressants
- The absurdity of using drugs with potentially serious side effects to “treat” somewhat unpleasant moods
All of this leads up to the message that many of these psychiatric medications “attenuate emotional life” so that people in situations where they should feel something cannot access their deeper emotions, instead remaining numb and indifferent to the larger world around them and unable to deeply empathize.
The link is then made that it is just this kind of person who would stand back and watch as economic bubbles grow and then burst, saying and doing nothing to stop it. We are told that people in financial markets taking antidepressants would lack gut feedback on the consequences of their decisions while trading billions on transactions. At the same time, we see an image seeming to imply that possibly maybe (isn’t that how everything is in this part of the film?) their PCL-R scores would be rising.
Now, there is no specific claim made that the medications are directly linked to the economic catastrophe. Just insinuation. The weakness of this statement is summed up in the fact that the quote, by Gary Greenberg, which is meant to bring it all together is:
“It’s possible to assemble a picture where it at least bears investigation what these two phenomena have to do with each other.”
Yes, it’s true that it does bear more investigation. And if the film had simply taken a few minutes to point this out and call for more investigation, I’d have been fine with that. But instead it spends the entire second part of the movie on this supposed relationship only for it to culminate in such a weak, speculative non-conclusion.
Greenberg, in continuing, even explicitly admits how weak this is.
He first says that the Golden Rule and similar ethical philosophies are supposed to underlie Western civilization and are based on resonating with other people. Nevermind that Western civilization has such a long and sordid history of violence and conquest that it led me to consider whether psychopaths actually were at the root of it from the start. But even if we grant him his premise, his next line is:
“I think we need access to our full range of emotional experience in order to do that [basically behave based on an ability to empathize with others]. So it’s a leap from saying that to saying the drug amplifies or even causes sociopathy. But it’s a very suggestive link because I just don’t know what else is gonna guarantee that we don’t just cream each other all the time.”
All of this talk with all of these interviewees just to come to a “suggestive link.”
Ponerology is by definition a science of “evil.” And the claims made in part 2 are, even the film itself admits, highly non-scientific
Oddly, immediately after Greenberg finishes talking about how Western civilization is supposedly based on the Golden Rule and the film implies the explosion of overmedication is throwing us off the track of this previously ethical way of life, we are shown historical images of destruction. Is the obvious implication that civilization has been plagued by aggression and indifference to the suffering of others on a massive scale since long before these medications rose to prominence lost on the filmmakers? I’m not sure.
Part 2 comes to an end with Coyote making two points:
- That it’s tempting to want to stop here and say that the problem – the ultimate fishead – consists of psychopaths at the top of the pyramid and people taking “happy pills” to deal with the psychopathic conditions. But he claims this avoids the main question of why the rest of us aren’t doing anything about it.
- That the connection between psychopaths and happy pills lies in empathy or the lack of it. Psychopaths, he says, don’t have empathy and happy pills kill it.
What’s so conspicuously absent here, for me, is any discussion of what went on in people’s lives before and around their initiation into taking medications. Parenting. Schooling. Media. We hear too little about the forces that affect someone leading them to even get to a point where they want to take these medications and have no, or such reduced, qualms about doing so.
If there is one word that sums it up, I’d say what’s missing is context. Overmedication, the tip of an iceberg, is treated as the iceberg instead of being brought up as one issue in the context of an overall systemic issue in development.
Part 3 – Empathy
Part 3 is a sort of meandering, scattered exploration of empathy.
We start with Zimbardo going over some of his usual talking points about:
- The Lucifer Effect and biblical metaphors for the punishment visited upon those who don’t blindly obey authority
- The Milgram experiment, an example of how most people will blindly obey authority and how role modeling is crucial in determining whether they go along or rebel
- How parents teach their kids to obey
- How all of this leads to a population vulnerable to psychopaths
We’re then shown more images of historical violence, some of them black and white as if to pound home how old they are, even after being told earlier by Greenberg that Western civilization was supposedly built on the Golden rule and overmedication is likely central in chipping away at it.
Zimbardo then reinforces this contradiction by talking about how totalitarian dictators have been preying on people’s vulnerability since long before the modern day corporate psychopaths (and presumably modern psychiatric medications too).
Finally, Zimbardo does focus in more on parenting, which should have been given a lot more attention in Part 2. He talks about how people’s desire, even as adults, to be praised as a “good child” leads them to be compliant to authority, a form of prolonged childhood.
One great point Zimbardo makes here is that children learn to obey authority growing up, but often without learning how to distinguish between just authority that deserves respect and unjust authority that deserves defiance. So political, religious, corporate and other psychopaths can don the mask of just authority and hijack our allegiance.
Here Logan returns to point out that humans are the only animal that ignores its instinct and how this can get us in trouble with pathological people. Of course, this fails to recognize that we are in a civilization that is based on repressing those very instincts, often violently and that following those instincts, within such a context, can lead to harm just as ignoring them can.
And now we are introduced to John Perry Barlow, who is identified as a poet, political activist and performing philosopher. Reading a little about him, he seems like an interesting guy, having written lyrics for the Grateful Dead and helped found the Electronic Frontier Foundation, among other things. But when he suddenly shows up in the film, I can’t get over the question “Of all the people in the world to comment regarding corporate and social psychopathy, this is in your top few?” I just didn’t get it.
Barlow says that the problem isn’t sociopathic leaders, but sociopathic systems. This is the start of the film’s apparent attempt to inject hope by alluding to the idea that it’s “as much us as them.” But this ignores the question of how the systems are maintained as sociopathic and that this often involves violence or ostracism for not playing along.
Coyote then jumps in to express a sentiment many have experienced about not wanting to allow in too much of their own empathy since it might force them to give up their comfort and aspirations even as others refuse to make that same trade.
Then suddenly Byron Woollen, a psychologist and consultant, shows up to take us down yet another path involving discussion of how the vast sums of money being made by those at the top of our hierarchy lead them to just want more and to lose psychological touch with limits. But didn’t we just hear that the problem isn’t those on top, but all of us?
Now we suddenly enter a segment where consumerism is critiqued. Barlow tells us to stop pursuing happiness through “more” (a message that would make Growthbusters proud) and Greenberg comments on the pathologizing of failing to be a successful consumer.
And then we suddenly enter yet another segment in which Zimbardo tells us that there is a gray line between villains and heroes and that nobody who does evil ever thinks what they’re doing is evil. I actually take issue with this as some sadists do know and like that fact. But this kind of “it’s not us vs. them” mentality is key to the direction the film wants to take as it moves towards its conclusion.
Then, suddenly Zimbardo brings up Vaclav Havel, a playwright, imprisoned during the Communist occupation of his native Czechoslovakia, who went on to lead his countrymen out of passivity and into resistance, eventually becoming president of his nation. And now we’re suddenly listening to Havel himself waxing philosophical about conscience and courage.
Cut back to Zimbardo pointing to moms telling their kids not to get involved in troubling situations as programming for egocentricism and ignoring evil. Again, unfortunately it is only after spending all of Part 2 on overmedication that Zimbardo, in Part 3, finally returns to the roots in childhood.
The whole progression is just very scattered and often seems contradictory.
Now Coyote makes it sort of official that the film believes we are part of the fishead after all. This, to some degree, contradicts his own statement earlier in the film where he said that neither he nor the viewer, but rather someone else, created the financial crisis. But even if we accept that we’re part of the fishead, he asks, what can we do? Is there hope?
This mention of hope instantly reminded me of Derrick Jensen’s frequent frustration that, when he writes about unsustainability, editors so often ask him to end on a note of hope, as if he should tailor the writing to a reader’s desired feelings rather than write the truth and let it lead wherever it leads. This raised a red flag for me that would soon be proven warranted.
In order to inject this hope, Coyote introduces Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, researchers whose work has illuminated the webs of interconnection between people, even strangers, as described in their book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives — How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do. Specifically, their work has shown that we have influence on others and they on us over three degrees of separation. In other words, we affect our friends, as well as their friends and their friends and vice-versa. This creates a sort of ripple effect of influence, which is demonstrated with some images of water ripples.
Fowler points out that this influence plays a role in spreading obesity, smoking, drinking, depression and loneliness, as well as happiness.
Christakis gets into the history of human social networks.
They then talk about how their work challenges individualism and free will, since it reveals that we are actually externally influenced in our decisions more than we realize. But Christakis says it also “lifts up free will.” This is portrayed as a very lofty, inspiring statement. But for me it was all very lightweight compared to the reality of the type of strategy necessary to counter pathocracies.
And then we get into the big idea – that social behavior can change through networks. Christakis says that networks magnify whatever they’re seeded with, healthy or unhealthy. Zimbardo talks about how having a social norm for what’s acceptable is important. As an example, he mentions how social norms around the acceptability of public smoking have transformed over the last twenty years so that now, rather than the non-smoker having to leave the room, as was the case in the past, it is the smoker that usually has to leave the room.
This network-based approach, I think, needs to be seen in relation to the fact that we live in an extreme hierarchy – a pyramid, as the film has put it – in which those at the top have massively more influence than others, especially when they are willing to use violence to enforce that.
Christakis and Fowler continue, talking about how if you are treated kindly, then you will treat those you interact with kindly and Fowler talks of how, since learning of the web of influence, he has tried to maintain a better mood so as to have a more inspiring impact on others in his network.
To me this line of thinking, perhaps useful in many cases, seems like a huge oversimplification when applied to systemic corruption of the type I Am Fishead deals with. We live in a world with exploiters. The entire first part of the movie focused on those exploiters. And now in Part 3, the world is being talked about as if they aren’t really there or can almost be ignored.
I haven’t read Christakis and Fowler’s work, so perhaps they address these concerns there. But I wondered how their ideas reconcile with studies of the prisoner’s dilemma. If their logic about kindness spreading in networks held true in terms of interpersonal game theory, wouldn’t it logically follow that, in the prisoner’s dilemma, you should always treat the other person kindly and they will almost always cooperate?
But, in fact, that is not what happens. Nor would you expect it to happen if you know anything about the co-evolution of exploiters and detection of them. Christakis and Fowler imply that if you do good yourself, you end up surrounded by goodness and good people. Am I to believe that the incalculable amount of aggression and violence that is the history of civilized human systems simply represents a failure of people to spread joy to those in their networks? I tend to believe there are some far greater structural issues involved.
Coyote then expresses another common concern, asking whether, if we do something for others, it will pay off and help turn the world around.
People on the street are then asked if being moral pays off. They say yes. This is just another example of how “fluffy” the film gets as it progresses. Earlier, this same type of “everyperson” character was revealed as a model of ignorance regarding the dynamics of social dysfunction when they had no accurate idea of what a psychopath is. Should we now find hope in the opinions of this same type when they claim that helping others pays off?
Not only do the anecdotal opinions of these people on the street tell us nothing about whether being moral really does pay off in reality. But, we already heard how psychopaths lie and wear masks. So, for all we know, one of these people advocating for morality could be a psychopath laughing on the inside while thinking about how easily they exploit those who actually think this way. As the film itself told us, we’d expect such a person to lie and promote altruism as a wise philosophy for others.
Havel now talks about how, early on in the Velvet Revolution, Czech dissidents were seen as fools for resisting the Communist authorities because people knew they wouldn’t succeed right away. But by doing it on principle, not because they thought they’d soon succeed, they eventually did succeed.
Then we go back to the street where more people pointlessly tell us how good it is to be moral.
Then back to Havel who waxes poetic on why we sometimes act with conscience.
Then Coyote comments on the paradox that earlier we considered why we shouldn’t just be psychopaths ourselves and now we feel motivated to do good.
Then in comes Barlow with another odd non-sequitir. He says that no matter how mad the world around you is, what matters is day-to-day life, which remains the same despite any larger-scale catastrophes. So we just heard from Christakis and Barlow how everything is connected and, earlier, Barber said that “indifference to the larger world” is a problematic side effect of antidepressants. Yet here, toward the film’s conclusion, comes Barlow telling us to focus on the day-to-day and not worry too much about the larger scale things.
Apparently now the larger scale things can be separated from the day-to-day despite the networks and webs and ripples. And the message from Barlow seems to be to take your focus off of the larger scale when it looks ugly and when it comforts you to do so. But didn’t we just learn earlier that if you don’t pay attention to the outside world, you’re indifferent and unempathetic, possibly due to psychiatric medication?
Then in another amazing oversimplification, Havel says we don’t have to invent visions of a better world. Just start behaving politely to those around you. I found this especially bizarre since we heard earlier that psychopaths usually do act this way, very charming as far as we can tell.
Havel then says:
“And it’s enough for them to do it in their own microworld. It can expand, it can spread like an epidemic, but it doesn’t have to. It stays forever in their microworld. But it’s always worth it.”
So now the entire “network, ripple, spread” concept, which was the entire source of hope, is deemed unnecessary. First we should be hopeful because good can spread in the network. But then, hedging the film’s bet, Havel says “But if it doesn’t that’s ok too!”
Christakis then says that if you are violent or transmit deadly germs or spread misinformation to someone, they will cut the ties and the network will disintegrate. He says altruism, love and happiness are required to sustain the network. This seems not to account for the fact that there are sadists and many masochists in these networks. It also contradicts what he himself said before – that networks will amplify whatever you put in, not only healthy things. In fact, he specifically said that, if seeded with them, the network will magnify germs, fascism, smoking and drug use. So, first he says both healthy and unhealthy things are amplified by the network. Now he says if you spread unhealthy things, the network disintegrates. Which is it?
Zimbardo then comes in with talk of the importance of heroes and how we need to promote those who step up to the task of calling out what is wrong and improving the world.
Coyote concludes by saying that we can deal with the fishead if we remember we’re in this together, stop looking at the top of the pyramid and look at each other. He says we need just 5-6% of the population to become aware because then nearly everyone will and asks what the viewer will do to get us closer to that goal.
What I Liked
I Am Fishead is a film that covers material that sparked some of the greatest epiphanies I’ve had in the last several years and, perhaps, in my entire life. In some ways, it does so rather well, especially in Part 1, which, though it didn’t blow me away, perhaps because I already knew most of the information, left me feeling relatively satisfied because:
- I thought it zeroed in nicely on some of the really central issues, such as the psychopath’s mask and how they are able to fool people
- It features and promotes to another audience some of the best known and most important names in this field of study – Robert Hare and Paul Babiak – along with their work. It was great to see Snakes in Suits, for example, serve so prominently as, really, the basis of Part 1 of the film. Hopefully viewers will be moved to check out the original research, ideas and books of these thinkers.
In addition, Babiak’s mention of the cost to organizations when psychopaths successfully mimic high performers while driving out the genuine ones provoked me to think about how systems might proactively differentiate between valuable participants and dangerous frauds.
I also found value in other parts of the film.
I felt the inclusion of Philip Zimbardo was merited and made sense and I especially found important his mention of how parents’ failure to distinguish between just and unjust authority leaves people vulnerable to being preyed upon by those unjust forces that portray themselves as just.
I learned a new fact in an area that I otherwise know pretty well when it was mentioned in the film that “Sibling Relational Problem” is actually listed in the DSM-IV – a likely absurdity of which I was previously unaware.
I was glad to see the film take on the issue of passivity amongst the public and its systemic role in enabling the perpetuation of destructive processes and advocate, through Havel’s story and Zimbardo’s discussion of heroes, for the moral courage that is a prerequisite for breaking out of this pattern.
One of the greatest strengths of the movie is that it brings such important ideas to life and drives their lessons home through visuals and audio in ways that books – the delivery mode in which I originally encountered most of them – cannot do.
For example, ever since I learned about it, I’ve believed that the fact of the distinct differences in brain structure and function, when processing emotion as well as during other tasks, between psychopaths (and those with certain other disorders) and normals is one of the most important realities in our world. I Am Fishead not only tells us about these differences, but, very early in the film, actually displays the stark contrast in brain scan images, making clear that, in the psychopath, we are dealing with a significantly different creature from the rest of us.
Sometimes the film cuts to a clip from another film that exemplifies a character trait being discussed, such as:
- When we are shown some footage from Nicole Kidman in Malice in conjunction with Hare’s story of creating the scene through which she could show the audience there was something else behind her psychopath’s mask by offering them a glimpse into her practice of mimicking.
- When we see a clip of Reservoir Dogs relevant to the brief mention of sociopathy
Sometimes I Am Fishead offers one of its stylized, quirky animations that, though frequently over the top, capture and symbolically represent central concepts. Early on, when the “I Am Fishhead” logo sinisterly appears in between images of despair and of people in power, it helps set a tone and make a point.
Other times Peter Coyote – whose presence and voice lend gravitas to the film – stares you in the eye or powerfully asks a question right in your ear.
This tactic is used right off the bat as Coyote opens the film by summoning up the deep visceral feelings of connection that a psychopath can elicit in us, a very appropriate way to begin since this talent lies at the heart of their ability to manipulate and maneuver as they do. This connection is later described as a “soulmate” feeling and called a “psychopathic bond,” a useful term I hadn’t actually heard before from this particular perspective and with which many who have associated intimately with pathological people will relate. At that point, the image of the bug trying to escape a bottle provides an apt visual metaphor for the experience of being caught in a psychopathic bond.
“Coyote power” is employed again later when the screen goes black and we simply hear Coyote convey the inner sensations of freedom that psychopaths, unrestrained by guilt and unrecognized by those around them, may enjoy – and which may even make us yearn to be like them. This rich description then continues as a symbolic image of a smirking, scheming man, representative of such a psychopath, fades into view.
Logan not only tells us about the “duping delight” psychopaths exhibit when challenged to mischievously outsmart someone, he demonstrates it.
We aren’t just told that 1% of the population are psychopaths. We’re taken through a brief simulation in which we are shown a crowd and then watch as a virtual search takes place on the screen in an attempt to identify who among the crowd is the psychopath. This really crystallizes, in a way that mere statistical data cannot, the fact that whenever we are in a crowd of any kind, a psychopath is usually in our midst and that we have no easy way of knowing who and what they are.
Interviews of the “man on the street” about what a psychopath is work well in demonstrating how unclear most of us really are on the subject. The viewer can relate to these people as they give vague or sensationalized responses and it raises awareness that they, too, don’t really precisely know.
When the concentration of wealth within hierarchy is discussed, a Monopoly game is shown to visually reinforce the message.
I even enjoyed how the words of Coyote’s explanation of what it’s like to be a psychopath were turned into a pretty catchy song that plays over the credits.
These types of approaches, which really engage the senses, may provoke deep consideration and help the material stick in the viewer’s mind.
What I Didn’t Like
Part 1 – Reducing Ponerology to Psychopathy
My only really significant complaint about Part 1 of the film is that it falls prey to the common mistake of treating ponerology (which, though it is never explicitly mentioned in the film by name, is certainly its subject) as if it is only about psychopathy. It shows images of corrupt bankers and world leaders and implies that they are psychopaths. In fact, some of them may instead have had Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), as was the diagnosis of Hitler in George Victor’s book. But these other conditions are not considered.
This leads to an oversimplified representation of the process of ponerogenesis, which more likely involves people with other disorders, as well as normals, in a complex dynamic strongly, but not solely, influenced by psychopaths.
Part 2 – Happy Pills Out of Context
While I had just one major complaint about Part 1, I make up for it with many complaints about Part 2.
In fact, in a way, I believe that the entire focus of the second section is extremely misguided.
Certainly overmedication is a problem. But I don’t think that it is the central problem that the film makes it out to be by devoting an entire part out of only three parts to it and then, in that part, illustrating it as it did. To claim that it is such a central problem is to focus on too narrow a slice of the bigger picture and to oversimplify an issue that is more complex and larger than this topic.
In fact, overmedication is, in my view, more a symptom of other deeper problems than it is a root cause of problems. After all, most people are not forced to take these medications. So why is society full of people who so frequently choose to take them? Of course, children are often forced to take them, but this just raises the question of why so many adults so willingly give them to kids. Finding answers to these questions requires us to climb further down into the rabbit hole.
Overmedication is a potent symbol of the emotional repression and suppression rampant in our culture. It is becoming a cause of problems. But it is not a root cause.
What’s really missing in Part 2, as I’ve said, is context. Overmedication is worth mentioning, but in the context of a larger problem, ponerogenesis, that has been playing out for a long, long time, since way before these modern “happy pills” came along and reinforced a number of dynamics that have always taken place in oppressive systems. It is misleading to imply that the medications were hugely instrumental in this process.
Such systems, hijacked by pathological people, routinely repress and suppress the emotional feedback that might lead to resistance in many ways, ranging from the use of patho-semantics to out-and-out violence. Parents, out of fear and/or blind obedience, through modeling and force, pressure their children to repress and suppress their authentic responses, as well (something eventually mentioned by Zimbardo in the film, but never in a way that puts the medication use in context along with it.) The culture at large also incentivizes these defenses. Such dynamics have been in operation for thousands of years and contributed to massive destruction and even world wars before the era of overmedication came about.
Medications are simply one newer, more modern means within this ancient mix.
The misunderstanding of this context is really conspicuously displayed when Gary Greenberg claims that Western civilization is based on the Golden Rule and resonating with others, as if to say that the impact of these medications is what threw it off of that foundation. Of course, Western civilization has, in fact, never been practically based on the Golden Rule. Its history is incredibly violent, bloody and genocidal – so much so that, again, I have even wondered if civilization itself wasn’t based on psychopathy from the very start.
And what makes this misunderstanding even more confusing is that the film itself contradicts Greenberg’s own statement just minutes after he makes it by showing a montage of historical acts of ghastly destruction. In Part 3, it shows even more of them, some so old that they are in black and white, even while seeming to argue that today’s catastrophes are in great part consequences of the overuse of psychiatric medications.
Now, given that the filmmakers did devote a whole part to overmedication, misguided and out of context as I believe it was to do so, how well did they make their statement about the topic and its importance?
I think the answer, even on this score, is extremely poorly, as evidenced, again, by the pseudo-conclusion of Part 2 uttered by Greenberg when he said:
“It’s possible to assemble a picture where it at least bears investigation what these two phenomena [overmedication and the irresponsible financial behavior resulting in economic crises] have to do with each other.”
This is such a weak major statement in a film that devotes an entire part to this topic.
I have often said that one of the things I frequently forget to take into account when strategizing about how to improve things is that millions of people are just plain drugged and emotionally and even cognitively unavailable. Overmedication is an important problem. It deserves attention and even its own film. Few people feel more strongly about that or have made more significant decisions in their life paths because of that belief than me. And the overmedication, like I said, is a powerful symbol of our irresponsible and self-destructive reaction to our condition.
But I just don’t think it is a root cause that deserves to be seen as one of three main contributors – two if you consider Parts 1 and 2 to be about problem description with Part 3 being about strategizing solutions – to our society’s unhealthy and unsustainable state. It is more like a piece of a larger part.
Part 2 should have focused on denial, repression and suppression as a whole throughout the entire destructive history of civilization. It should have talked about all of the many tactics and tools, with medication being just one, that have been involved for millennia in keeping people in line, unquestioning and unresistant.
Instead of waiting until Part 3 to have Philip Zimbardo talk about how parents tell their children not to get involved in troubling external situations, thus programming them to be egocentric and look away from evil, they should have included this message in a larger discussion of repression and suppression in Part 2. And the overmedication of children, enabled and encouraged by parents, could then be put into context as just one more expression of this age-old desire to keep children expressing the outward signs of feeling well even at the expense of their accurate perception of reality.
Just as a small closing note, I found it strange that, with all the discussion of corporate psychopaths in Part 1 and overmedication in Part 2, the two were never directly linked through consideration of whether psychopaths might be involved in the pharmaceutical companies or other entities with an interest in promoting the use of these drugs themselves.
Part 3 – A Copout of Strategic Thinking?
One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone attempts to spuriously sidestep or evade a problem – especially this one regarding the influence of the pathological on our systems – by conveniently taking the onus off of perpetrators simply because, as long as we admit they are responsible, we feel we have less control over the situation. It reminds me of when an abused child blames themselves rather than their abusers just because then at least they can believe in an internal locus of control, a mechanism that is an important survival tool for children but is inapproprate when used by adults claiming to seriously strategize about important threats in our world.
Unfortunately, Part 3 of I Am Fishead employs this evasive mechanism in spades. The entire part is based on the notion that “the problem is just as much our [the general public’s] fault as theirs [the pathological’s].” This claim is meant to evoke hopefulness because, if we are just as responsible for social dysfunction as the pathological, then we have the power to make a fundamental change without having to really confront them.
Zimbardo’s idea of there being a “gray line” between villains and heroes, though true in that there are plenty of people in that gray area, ignores the fact that there are some people that are far more in the solid black or white areas than others and is symbolic of this line of thinking. So is his idea that “nobody does evil knowingly,” which I think is patently false.
This is especially confusing given that, in Part 1, we were shown brain images of psychopaths and told about how their brain structure and function render them unable to process emotions or exercise conscience as others do. Did the film forget about that information by the time it got to Part 3?
It is also confusing given that, in Part 1, Peter Coyote mentions how it was not us that caused the financial collapse, for example, and that to understand how it happened we need to look not at ourselves, but at those in power. Apparently, in Part 3, that line of thinking was forgotten, as well.
Moving on, I found the “strategy” put forth based on Christakis and Fowler’s work to be a reach. If you recall, Christakis and Fowler showed that we influence and are influenced by people associated with us with up to three degrees of separation. They specifically said that the networks within the resulting web of influence transmit both healthy and unhealthy ideas and habits.
But then, suddenly, they start to speak about their work as if the very fact that we’re so interconnected makes for an inherently hopeful situation. They basically say that, since we’re connected in this way, we just need to go do good things and happiness and peace will spread. This struck me as a copout on so many levels.
- Obviously, as the researchers themselves stated, the networks can spread dysfunction just as well as they can health, so there is nothing inherently hopeful in the connections themselves.
- Our system is an extremely hierarchical one and that hierarchy is enforced with violence or the threat of violence. So if pathology is being forcefully exerted from above – from levels that, by definition, confer greater power than those below them – then the transmission of wonderful ideas and habits within the network on lower levels may not be sufficient to overcome that. And the tight interconnectedness can simply enable the pathology to spread even faster than it otherwise would.
- It excessively disregards the existence and nature of exploitation, a factor that, evolutionarily and in game theory terms, will always be incentivized to some degree.
- How can simply being good and polite to others be the answer when we spent significant amounts of time in Part 1 covering the fact that psychopaths simply mimic these behaviors. Nothing is said in Part 3 to address the profound implications of such deception even though they were so conscientiously communicated earlier in the film.
- We live in an economic system based on and reliant upon constant growth, itself a quite possibly psychopathic model. This economic system is not merely an idea, but a physical reality. It isn’t something that just changing our attitudes or the messages we send each other can resolve.
- We just finished Part 2, an entire part dedicated to claiming that one of the most central reasons for our unsustainable situation is that overmedication is so out of control and people so chemically numbed that it is likely directly contributing to economic collapses. You’d think the strategy put forth in Part 3 would have to address that. But no substantial link of this kind is really made between Part 2 and Part 3. We’re just told to be kind to people and that this kindness will ripple through the system without any explanation of how that can happen in a system full of overmedicated people unable to substantially experience their emotional feedback systems.
After the film competently set the stage in Part 1 by informing us of how fundamentally different from others psychopaths are, how hard they are to recognize and how skilled they are at insidiously influencing systems and driving healthy, constructive people out of prominent positions, this extremely weak “spread kindness through networks” conclusion was a huge let down. To be honest, it felt more like a pep talk than a realistic strategy session. I almost couldn’t believe the filmmakers would allow the film, after all the work that went into painting a complex and challenging picture of our modern dilemma, to climax (or anticlimax) with such an oversimplified idea.
To me the ending was full of “fluff.” Motivating people and building their courage to do “good” is a necessary part of the healing process. I certainly encourage people to influence their networks, as Christakis and Fowler advocate, with meaningful generosity, compassion and love. But if all this film does is convince people to do some vague “good,” without equipping them with the hard knowledge they need to successfully do so in an often paradoxical counterintuitive world full of and teeming with the values of pathological people and exploiters – of whom we must remain conscious and who, many times, we must confront – then it has done somewhat of a disservice. It might be forgivable in some other film to conclude with a feel-good inspirational message and leave the deeper education to others. But, by beginning with the provision of detailed information about the problem of pathological conditions within our hierarchy courtesy of people of Hare and Babiak’s stature, I Am Fishead sets itself up to be held to a higher standard.
This isn’t even to mention how the entire philosophy of just being polite and allowing it to spread as a main strategy for healing a dysfunctional world contradicts Havel’s statement that it’s “OK if it’s only your microworld” and Barlow’s that “day-to-day life,” not the big picture, is what really matters. If a person took Havel’s and Barlow’s approaches, as stated in those quotes, to heart, then the Christakis and Fowler strategy, which presumably is supposed to save us, might be dead on arrival
In fact, as we’ve seen, Christakis even contradicts his own message. As mentioned, he and Fowler describe how the network spreads both “good” and “bad,” whichever it is seeded with. But then, at another point, perhaps realizing how that view fails to support networks as inherently hopeful, he changes tack completely and suddenly seems to argue not just that the network can only transmit “good”, but that it can only even exist when seeded with “good” as opposed to “bad”. In so many words, he claims that the network relies on “good” to keep it going and that its very existence breaks down if seeded with “bad” because people will cut ties with those who spread “bad” things.
It’s painfully obvious from the state of our systems that networks do not only spread health and cheer. If they did, we would not see the spread of dysfunction in epidemic fashion like we do. Christakis was right with his first statement. Networks of these kinds can perpetuate and amplify both desirable and undesirable things. And, as long as that is the case, the simple fact of the connections’ existence does not imply hope.
Some of the people in Part 3, like Vaclav Havel, have done very impressive things in their lives. So you want to respect what they have to say. But, unfortunately, the line of thinking communicated in Part 3, from so many perspectives, just does not make sense or even feel serious to me in the end.
Even in part 1, the film is a bit scattered and contradictory. But later, it becomes far more so.
A good example is the huge contradiction between two overriding philosophies both expressed at different points in the film. One tells us that it is “important to focus on the larger world beyond ourselves,” and that not doing so is a sign of dysfunction and one of the most concerning side effects of antidepressants, while the other claims that we should “focus on the day-to-day and not worry too much about the larger scale.”
Most troubling, though, is the film’s seeming inability to make up its mind and take a stand. Is the problem psychopaths? Parenting? Medication? Are we all responsible or are most of us victims? It would be permissible if the film’s message was that all of these are part of the problem. But it fails to even explain in a coherent fashion how they each play their roles in an interconnected system.
Overdone, Misleading and Contradictory Imagery
I mentioned that the use of imagery (along with audio) to reinforce important messages is, at times, one of the most effective aspects of the film.
But, as gratifying as this is when I Am Fishead does it well, it is just as irksome when done poorly for a few reasons:
- Some, depending on their tastes, may find the imagery jarring and over the top.
- Certain visuals – such as the constantly reappearing sinister “I Am Fishead” logo – can be overused, eventually losing their impact.
- As well as the film’s images work to reinforce accurate information, they work just as well to reinforce unsupported or misleading messages that would be better forgotten. A good example is when we are shown an image of figures swallowing down “happy pills,” leading one to turn into a devil, implying it has become a psychopath, even while we are explicitly told that it is “a leap” to claim one causes the other. Another example is when, as antidepressant use among financial professionals is discussed, we are shown an image of a meter implying, even if not directly asserting, that their PCL-R scores are rising in conjunction with the medications.
Meanwhile, the display of images of historical violence from bygone eras, in stark contrast to the insinuation that modern overmedication is a root cause of dysfunction, offers an example of how the imagery and messages sometimes conflict with each other. In this case, it is actually beneficial to the viewer that the images remind them of what other aspects of the movie have unjustifiably overlooked. But it is an inconsistency that reflects poorly on the film.
In a world full of so many brilliant people who have done great work on the subjects focused on by I Am Fishead, I was confused as to why the filmmakers chose to include interviews with some of the people they did as opposed to others who might have made more sense. For example, when the filmmakers had the clout to attract people of the caliber of Hare, Babiak and Zimbardo, was John Perry Barlow really one of the more relevant people to interview? I have nothing against Barlow. He sounds like an intriguing person. But I just didn’t understand why he was high on the list of people to make part of this particular project.
I’m always on the lookout for a film I can recommend to people that, in one fell swoop, can convey to them a balanced, accurate, fact-based overview of the information about our world explored by ponerology. I had high hopes that I Am Fishead would be that film. Unfortunately, after watching it, I can’t say that it is.
Part 1 is certainly valuable to watch. It starts the film out on a worthwhile chain of thought and pretty competently lays out a summary introduction to the problems posed by the pathological among us enhanced with some audiovisual devices that help drive it home. Even for the newcomer to this subject, I wish it had discussed the other disorders that are relevant in addition to psychopathy. But it is more than enough to pique a viewer’s interest and point them in the right direction for further investigation. Thus, I can happily recommend Part 1.
It’s a shame that Part 2 and Part 3 didn’t keep pace with the quality of Part 1. In these later parts, the film becomes more scattered and misguided.
The filmmakers touch on different pieces of the ponerologic puzzle throughout those parts, but fail to explicate how they relate to each other so as to reveal a clear picture.
They don’t define the parts of the problem within a context that explains how they operate in conjunction with those covered in Part 1.
Where a sensible, meaningful, coherent strategy to address ponerologic problems is called for, they offer oversimplifications, apparently based on the premise that lack of kindness, rather than real structural challenges – such as those they themselves exposed in Part 1 – are involved.
As a result, I Am Fishead never takes a clear, focused stand on the problems of the day.
Part 2 and Part 3 are at best confusing and at worst divert people’s focus from the highest leverage point concerns and promote what I see as quite weak, naïve strategic advice.
These parts of the film, despite providing some relevant, interesting and inspiring information, are so misguided, in fact, that I feel that after recommending the film to people so that they could benefit from Part 1, I would have to warn them that if they plan to continue and watch the rest of the movie, they should take what is said in Parts 2 and 3 with a grain of salt and then look to other resources to round out their understanding of this subject.
I think that the reason the film turned out this way is that the filmmakers lacked an overall systemic framework, like that we can draw from ponerology, with which to help organize understanding of what is a very complex ponerogenic process. It looks a lot like a movie desperately in search of ponerology, but unaware of its existence. This makes sense since, when I briefly talked with Misha, he told me that, once people started hearing about the film, a number of them had made him aware of ponerology, but he didn’t seem to have known about it at the time it was being made. And this is also a great example of a situation that, by creating and promoting this website, I aim to prevent from happening again. I hope that the next people who set out to tackle this important and challenging subject will do so with the benefit of realizing that this field, which has so much to offer them and their audience, exists.
In the end, it’s somewhat disappointing. We badly need factual, grounded, non-conspiracy theory driven films to educate the public on this topic. But an unrealistic perspective in terms of context and solutions, no matter how well-intentioned or motivational, can undermine even a relatively successful basic education. And this is how I believe I Am Fishead ultimately failed.
The film, to its detriment, I think, tried too hard, in unjustifiable ways, to manufacture a sense of hope about our situation. And as a result, I come away from it without much hope that this movie will make a significant impact because it sets up a strategic challenge and then spends the rest of its runtime evading its implications. It may educate some people about the problem, but it may also do even more to lead them down a road of futility based on unsupported approaches to thinking about the situation.
Perhaps I’m wrong. In fact, I’d like to be wrong. I’d be glad to discover, to my surprise, that Votruba and Dejcmar’s proposed strategy – although I was so confused by the seeming contradictions that I couldn’t quite put a finger on what that is – works. But I’m highly skeptical.
Still, I’m glad this film was made because it may serve as an impetus for future filmmakers to take on this subject matter, which I Am Fishead explored with some success, and see it through to the extent that it deserves.
I Am Fishead, after its credits end, fades in with the famous quote from Albert Einstein:
“…the world is a dangerous place to live;
not because of the people who are evil,
but because of the people who don’t do
anything about it…”
While I believe that those who are “evil” actually are a large part of the reason that the world is dangerous, we presently have no simple, feasible and ethical solution available for eliminating that factor. So Einstein was at least correct in implying that our leverage point lies in encouraging the rest of the public to take protective and transformational action. I Am Fishead may make us aware of the need to do that. It may even help inspire us to want to do it. But it fails to tell us how to effectively do it. And that is where, for all the good it contributes, it falls short.
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