(alterations of cognitive factors due
to deliberate destruction of reputation)

by Andrew Phelps

Senior Project Paper

U.C. Berkeley Psychology Dept.

December 1977


The possibility of researching character-assassination as a social psychological phenomenon is investigated. Character assassination is slandering another person intending to destroy public trust in him. Following a brief exposition of the context of the topic, three hypotheses are proposed. These give prominence to (1) the manipulations of the agent (3 variables are proposed), (2) the cognitive "blind spot" developed in the victim, and (3) the discrimination of the audience as parties to the assassination. Sample experiments to test these hypotheses are proposed. The tentative conclusion is reached that it is feasible and worthwhile to research this topic.


The god is dying. Appealing to the dying god, sacrificing to help him, the people find in his demise a source of strength and purification and rejuvenation. The dying god, and by extension, those who are sacrificed in his cause, perform the function of scapegoat. Frazer (1955) illuminates the cultural. roots of this notion, the source of its fascination to us. It was the Aztecs, Frazer says, who raised this practice to its extreme, who sacrificed the lives of multitudes, especially young people, in an effort to keep their gods young and vital. (1)

In our own history as with the Phoenician sacrifices to Ba'al - the ritual of scapegoating, and victimizing individuals, is of great antiquity, both in its symbolic form (the Eucharist) and in full (the Inquisition). In America, in Salem, Massachusetts, 20 persons were destroyed in 1692-3 who were alleged to be witches. These victims were in effect scapegoats for the dying god of that era, Jesus Christ. (2)

Parallel to this historical tendency of scapegoating is the process of destroying one's enemy or rival through deliberate malicious slander. The fathers of the church such as Athanasius, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria made terrible personal remarks about one another in the course of their doctrinal polemics. (3) More recently, enemies of Abraham Lincoln and his emancipation policies spread wild rumors and fabrications as to his character and personal life. (4) In fact it is a conundrum of American politics that one way to beat an opponent is to smear him. Another example is the campaign of Sen. McCarthy in the 1950's to brand large numbers of Americans as "communists." (5) The kind of bloodletting in these examples is to a large degree permitted by the general public - quite in the spirit of the dying god as scapegoat.

In psychology scapegoating has wide currency also. For instance much blood has been spilled in the argument over the split between Freud and Jung. Reputation as in the case of social psychologist Stanley Milgram (his "provocative - and ethically troublesome - experiment" (6)) has become a focus of discussion.

Important studies of victimization and scapegoating (Allport, 1954) and of those who promote it (Adorno et al., 1950) are classics in the literature. Brown (1965) develops the social psychology of lynching. Zimbardo uses the image of being in a prisoner-of-war camp as one that "describes the dilemma of all human relationships." (7) Whether this dilemma is universal or not, we can certainly see how a shy person is one that is fearful that his character won't wash, is one excessively conscious of the possibility of his being scapegoated in some untimely way.

Concerning Reputation

Reputation is the esteem in which a person is held by others. Reputation as an aspect of personality is generally acknowledged but only occasionally studied. (8) Traits - "is likeable," "is trustworthy," "gets mad easily" - are assessed by the person's associates; verbal or scaled pro-files on an individual may also be constructed.

Character assassination is the attempted ruin of reputation. The dictionary gives, "the slandering of another person (as a public figure) with the intention of destroying public trust in him." (9) Plainly this is to be distinguished from destruction of reputation due to cause (else it would not be slander) or the same on a personal or occasional basis (it would not be public and intentional). As to slander, "to injure by malicious false report," (10) plainly our definition above will require the incorporation of actions that are technically libel (a synonym of slander that refers to written defamations).

Structurally, a character assassination requires for its commission three parties, the character assassin or agent, the public whose estimation is to be altered or audience, and the person targeted or victim. The study of character assassination is a study of the methods and the psychology of the agent; it is a study of the credibility of the agent's slanders to the audience - that is, an attitude change question; and it is the study of the responses and the adaptation of the victim.

Two major themes emerge. The first is the psychology of the process of character assassination. The agent conducts a slander campaign, which involves a distortion of the truth. He maliciously attempts to defame, which involves the seriousness of his intention. He does this in the public view, which involves a political climate for his action. The esteeming of the victim by the audience, the "favorable opinion, founded on supposed worth" (11) establishes his reputation. The "stigma" attached to the victim (12), represents the way in which he accommodates to the fait accompli of the character assassination.

The second theme is the structural setting of a character assassination. What encourages an agent, what sort of person is likely to take this role? What makes an audience ready and able to victimize certain people, as against others; when indeed are they able to get away with it? (13) And how does it happen that the victim fails to assert his good character?


Allport and Postman (1947) in discussing rumors, offer an appealing theory of distortion, one originating in the experimental work of the Gestaltists F. Wulf and J.J. Gibson. Distortion as a process has components distinguished as leveling, sharpening, and accommodation. These authors use this as a model for how rumors alter in transmission, but this same analysis could be applied to character assassination. The esteeming of a person is a kind of hearsay process (or at least this process predominates over the firsthand relation between victim and audience). Thus it is reasonable to assume that reputational cognitions will condense in a good form (by the law of Prägnanz) - and that the agent may indeed be able to influence the adoption of a form such that it suits his defamatory purposes.

As to intention, the court of law admits slander without overt proof of malice, proof being required that the act was intentional and the occasion not privileged. (14) The seriousness then of a character assassination attempt given that no special circumstances intervene ("privilege") is measured in the efficacy of the act. Thus Tuddenham (15) in showing that the reputation test "frequently reveals problems making for social maladjustment much earlier than they are ordinarily detected by adult observers," establishes that a reputation test can be hoped to be effectual in reflecting the seriousness of intent.

Heilman (1974) illustrates a manner of political condition in a reputation experiment. A behavior typical of public figures, threatening and promising (via a confederate acting as a role partner) is performed. The threats or promises are either implemented or not, in the context of whether or not the partner had a history of implementing one or the other, with credibility the dependent variable. This illustrates how political climate (manipulations of trust) can be well-defined in experimental study.

Hypothesis 1. Character assassination is a process of attitude change whose dependent variable is reputation and which is governed by three independent variables, viz. distortion (according to the law of Prägnanz), seriousness of intent, and political climate.

A person who has adapted to an assassinated character lives in a social environment where his esteem from others is diminished (1) in a way which distorts the truth (2) which has a serious impact upon him and (3) so that the trustworthiness of himself to others is impaired. By accommodating these crippling role demands, he undergoes a kind of stress. (16) (1) here may be seen as a kind of person-induced stress where the person adapts to having backed down under social pressure; (2) and (3) are environmental stresses.


Hypothesis 2. An individual whose character has been assassinated suffers from a cognitive "blind spot," which affects his habits significantly arid leads to distrustful relations with other people.

In terms of the setting, the bottleneck is in the discrimination of the audience. The agent is limited to what he can convince the audience of. For instance in Goebbels' "Big Lie" technique: "make some utterly baseless and mind-boggling statements about those you wish to vilify, it is more likely to be believed." (17) Here the average citizen is held to be reliably unable to discriminate the tissue of falsehood from an ordinary fabric of truth: they are equally authoritative sounding statements. Now the victim has no function in protesting what is not anyway discriminable to the audience, or his pleas will be guaranteed to go unheeded. Perhaps this explains why the Rosenbergs declined to bring out their political beliefs in their trial, as they might have supposed this would be a clear loser in that anti-cornmunist climate. (18)

Hypothesis 3. The discrimination of the audience in esteeming the victim delimits the effect of the setting. The manipulations of the agent, the proneness of the audience to lower its esteem when influenced, and the helplessness of the victim to fight back are all conditional upon this.

These hypotheses differentiate character assassination from related phenomena. The hospitalization of mental patients against their will distorts the view others have of them as people, is often seriously defaming (though there is no presumption of malice, none is required by the definition) and is injurious to a person's public trustworthiness. Normally, however, the doctor-patient relationship of which this is an extension is considered privileged. People found falsely imprisoned for crimes cannot claim slander either, the courts intend justice which again constitutes privilege. Likewise the scapegoating as in witch trials is (by the explicit social sanction of the process) privileged.

Victims of prejudice are indeed slandered, but their trustworthiness to the public is not changed in the same way. They are suffering injury to their characters in a group way; they develop a group ethos in addition to a personal response to these attacks. In a related way the distortion of their characters is likewise cast in terms of external characteristics, not personal ones.

Does the society need bloodletting? We can't say - but when we investigate character assassination we must chasten ourselves with this vista of the social order. And what do we respond to the person who naively asks, "how do we know the Rosenbergs were not atomic spies?"


An Experiment Testing the Manipulations of the Agent

The purpose of this experiment is to test hypothesis 1. The experiment is an attitude change experiment whose dependent variable is reputation (esteem). In the simplest version, a fictional victim in constructed. This story character is supposed to be a role model, like a milkman who delivers the milk promptly and efficiently. Three independent variables - distortion, seriousness of intent, and political climate - are tested. Presuming that the interaction of the variables is not of prime concern, a minimum of five (5) conditions will do. In condition A, all 3 variables are operative; in conditions B1, B2, and B3 respectively one variable each is elided. (Thus, in B1, distortion is elided and only seriousness of intent and political climate are varied.) Finally, condition C is a control, where none are varied. The experimenter acts as agent. Outcome is measured by a reputation test of the victim by the audience. The hypothesis is that large effects in reputation change will occur in condition A only and small or no effects in B1, B2, B3 as well as C.

As to the first variable, distortion, the role model in the distorted condition is to be described in a way that slanders his role enactment. The experimenter develops this story from a base story (given the control) in accordance with the laws of form.

As a problem in attitude change, what enhances the presentation of hearsay evidence? It will be compelling to present the distortion with the prestige of authority. It will be more convincing, should the good side of the victim's reputation be given a brief advertisement also. (19)

The second variable, seriousness of intent (malice) is measured against a criterion for amount of reputation change in the predicted direction. A feature of the test itself is evaluated, e.g. some traits might be considered pivotal and weighted more, others irrelevant and weighted less, for this evaluation.

How are large, definitive changes in attitude distinguished? As to how compelling the reputation judgment is, we must beware the "sleeper" effect where differential presentation is washed out over time. We can make the effect more convincing by "inoculating" the subjects with refutations of the estimable aspects of the victim. (20)

The third variable, political climate, calls for the manipulation of the subjects in a given condition as a group. A simple manipulation would be to make the political climate condition one where the subjects talked together freely about their opinions of the victim, versus a condition where they arrive at their opinions privately.

Experiments like Asch' on conformity - where subjects identify which line of several is longer in front of disagreeing confederates - illustrate how such a simple manipulation can have a strong effect.

To sharpen this result, a third, intermediate value of the variables should be tested (viz. intermediate distortion, seriousness, political climate). Another way to improve the experiment (and increase the cost) is to use confederates for victim and agent. This would enhance the impact on the audience.

Experiments Testing the Cognitions of the Victim

A path is sought to establish the victim's "blind spot" postulated in hypothesis 2. The difficulty, common to psychological studies of the less fortunate and less privileged roles, is that experimental induction of them is liable to be injurious to or at least painful to the subjects. Three ways around this (dampened effects, post hoc studies, and field studies) are examined.

One experimental direction is to use analog victimization studies, where the impact on the subject-victim is greatly diminished. Of course this has the drawback that it is not so incisive a result or decisive an experience, but we can search for effects in the desired direction.

For example, suppose you employ a token economy situation. Distribute colored badges to (small) groups of subjects. In each group the person with the green badge say is to be in the victim condition. One person, the experimenter' a confederate, is in the agent condition. The rest are in the audience condition.

Now assign role tasks to subjects equally. The agent can distort by misrepresenting to the audience the victim's fulfillment of tasks. He can demonstrate the seriousness of his intentions by depriving the victim of certain rewards. A political climate can be established by linking esteem to badge condition. Then the subjects may be tested in various cognitive tasks such as doing anagrams. The victims, being accustomed to bad reputation, may be contrasted to and should do worse than the other subjects. (A more strict control would be to run the same experiment but without any confederate.) Run a number of these small groups of subjects so as to get an adequate sample of victims.

Other analog experiments might also be devised. For instance using intellectual games with extended practice, where some social reward (rather than a token reward) being denied will materialize the subjects' low esteem, might do.

A second angle would be reconstructive historical case studies. For instance, the following was received from an informant who (over many years) has lived down his assassinated character:

"I do not mean to understate or laugh off a phenomenon such as McCarthyism. Of course it was a disgrace to our society, and very stressful to undergo. For some, it meant disgrace, poverty, ulcers, heart failure, and death. For me, it was by no means so bad. My loss of academic status forced me to go out again into "the world" for some years and hence to have many varied and interesting experiences." (21)

Case profiles can be drawn up, victimised individuals can be both interviewed and tested (as, with the MMPI). You could hope to illustrate the common thread of cognitive "blind spot" running through these data.

This work can be sharpened by contrasting it to many extant studies in parallel dimensions, e.g. privileged situations such as mental illness. beatures of these situations reflect defective social relations. One study, e.g., in defects of trusting, claims that paranoia and naivete (the "blind spot") commonly coexist, that bland ignorance as to which situations are trustworthy can be a significant feature of paranoid cases. (22) Lemert (1962) likewise says, "delusions and associated behavior must be understood in a context of exclusion which attenuates this relationship and disrupts communication." * Another study illustrates the difficulty of depressed patients in learning social skills, due to their reputation as being depressed patients. (23)

Visibly, a considerable mass of material could be arranged around the hypothesis of cognitive "blind spots" and its relation to character assassination.

A third angle, requiring much painstaking work, could be correlational studies of character assassination and related victimizations. An ongoing instance of widespread defamation could be utilised, such as say the efforts of some parties to drive the street people off Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. Or again, diagnostically comparable groups of differently treated patients might do. The difficulties, aside from the expense of field work, would be to identify "blind spots" characteristic of these several situations and contriving a battery of tests and observations suitable to detect their presence.

Experiments Testing the Discrimination of the Audience

Testing hypothesis 3 is first of all making precise the notion of audience discrimination and second a matter of relating it to the psychology of agent and victim.

The first type of experimental procedure would try to define units of discriminability ("just noticeable differences") in the distortion, seriousness and political climate variables. We use the types of materials of our test of hypothesis 1. We take a series of stories about characters together with a reputation test. We test conditions B1, B2, and B3 against condition A (as a control). We keep two variables effective and vary the third from an effective "standard." Note we are here testing the audience response to the agent's manipulation, rather than vice versa.

The proneness of these audience subjects to respond to an attempted character assassination should not be assumed automatically to generalize from these stories to all audiences and social circumstances. But hopefully it can give an example of an estimate of a j.n.d.

A second investigation is a case study of the psychology of the agent. Adorno et al. (1950) as well as others have studied the authoritarian personality in general. There is a lot of general psychology relating to malice (evil); some people like Lorenz even assign this aggressiveness to a "territorial imperative."

An accessible case study for example is that of Judge Irving Kaufman, the judge of the Rosenberg case. Numerous FBI documents recently released show his conscious conspiratorial role in helping to prosecute these people. Plainly the jury and the general public did not discriminate his activity as a prosecutor and persecutor from his role model as judge. Other such case studies, where no abuse of privilege is at issue potentially, could also be used.

The investigation of the general psychology of the victim could also proceed by case methods. We want to find out why the victim doesn't resist, or accommodates himself to submission. This is relevant to the "double bind" conception which is the subjective experience typical of these victims. Also just as groups as victims of prejudice develop cultures of resistance, victims commonly retain an orientation toward resistance. But broad studies such as Zimbardo's shyness paradigm (1977) point to the generality of the "victim outlook" as part of the mentality of normal people. Ethology also provides many instances of animals programmed to submit under certain circumstances to unequal relations with their fellows.

An illustrative study here (there are many) is Sanford's article (1953). He says:

"The emotional implications of such strife (the California Loyalty Oath controversy) go very deep, divisions within the social group or body politic leading inevitably to divisions within the individual personality." (25)


The field of character assassination has been little investigated in psychology. This paper shows that and somewhat also shows how it might be developed.

This construction is primarily relevant to social psychology. It touches on personality however in raising questions about the study of and measure of reputation. In its close kinship to the doctor-patient relationship in hospitalization-which it fails to incorporate only in the matter of privilege - it must potentially offer a new metaphor for clinical psychology too (much as Zimbardo has used shyness).

Due to an oversight in research, the question of "media specialists" has been neglected. Here you have a group of people today who make and break politicians by the use of character assassination professionally. Surely a lot can be gleaned from them and corroborated by interviewing them. Also ignored has been the topic of brainwashing. For instance character assassination might be viewed as a form of brainwashing the audience. This omission was not an oversight, rather it arose from a conviction that social brainwashing is too much linked to controversial questions of values, and that the subject would stand on its own. It stands to be enriched by making this linkage.

Why is this subject little pursued? No definite answer emerges, but one is impressed how unsteady on their feet walk the social psychologists, how much reputation (of psychologists) is a volatile subject even itself.

This paper has shown that interesting questions in psychology are raised by the study of character assassination. These include deepening the study of reputation, an angle on the "double bind" phenomenon, and a new direction in victimization studies. It is also topical, as the post-war studies arising from the social practice of psychologists in the war (Allport and Postman, 1947) or trained in the war (Sanford, 1953) speak to parallel concerns of today (e.g. Watergate). As to what it would take to pursue this topic, the key link would be building the reputation to hold the work together. This is easier said than done.

1. Frazer, p. v.

2. "Salem," World book encyclopedia, 1977, v. 17, p. 54.

3. Personal Communication from R.S., 1977.

4. Cf. "Lincoln, Abraham," World book encyclopedia, 1977, v. 12, p. 286.

5. Personal Communication, op. cit.

6. Smith, 1969, p. 390.

7. Zimbardo, 1977, p. 81.

8. Cf. Tuddenhamm, 1952 and Heilman, 1974 for studies where reputation is the dependent variable.

9. Webster's Third International Dictionary, 1976, p. 376.

10. Webster's Second International Dictionary, 1961, p. 2359.

11. Ibid., 1976, p. 376.

12. cf. Goffman, 1963.

13. For an interesting case of a failure in an atempt to ruin the reputation of a victim belonging to an unpopular group, see Dubois, 1977.

14. Webster's Second International Dictionary op. cit., pp. 23-9.

15. Tuddenham, 1952, p. 7.

16. Lazarus and Cohen, 1976.

17. Persona1 Communication, op. cit.

18. This analysis was actually applied in the case of the "Oakland 7" in 1968. They made a point of convincing the jury of the credibility of their case.

19. Borscheid and Walster, 1969.

20. Ibid.

21. Personal Communication, op. cit.

22. Grunebaum and Perlman, 1973.

23. Coyne, 1976.

24. The "Kaufrnan_Papers', no date.

25. Sanford, 1953, p. 29.

*. Lemert, 1962, p.3.


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