Nicholas Carroll

The Psychology of Defamation Victims

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This is not a clinical research paper written by professional psychologists or psychiatrists; rather it is based on years of ethnographic research resulting from writing the book Fighting Slander, which led to many hundreds of conversations and email exchanges with readers about their slander or libel situations. Call it an ethnographic study (non-statistical field study); it is hard to see how defamation could be studied in a laboratory setting anyway.

Nicholas Carroll
May 5, 2013

The First Stage of Defamation is disbelief, amazement, and then bewilderment. These three phases happen so rapidly they're not worth separating into separate stages. First the victim literally doubts they heard or read correctly, and will re-read the words, or ask the person to repeat what they said, if only by saying "What?" That's immediately followed by wide-eyed amazement, and then confusion.

The Second Stage of Defamation is curiosity. As the accusation sinks in, their mind begins to function, and they want to know where the accusation originated. This is often where the victim enters a Kafkaesque world, as the person who told them says "I can't tell you that."

The Third Stage of Defamation is usually dismissal, as in "no one will believe that!" That stage usually doesn't last long – in fact it only lasts until the victim hears the rumor for the second time. At that point one of the dumber feel-good pieces of nonsense we were taught in childhood – "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me!" – quickly disintegrates.

In the Fourth Stage of Defamation it has sunk in that defamation really can be harmful, and depending on their frame of mind, and the severity of the defamation, victims either:

  1. hang on to their ability to reason
  2. start to succumb to natural feelings of anxiety and persecution

As psychologist Viktor Frankl (1) observed in his classic Man's Search For Meaning (2), it is normal to act abnormally when faced with an abnormal situation – anything else would be strange. (Frankl also noted that in the Nazi concentration camps that gave rise to his book, the verbal taunts of the guards were psychologically more damaging than their physical blows.)

So Group #1 struggles with anger, depression, and paranoia – all reasonable emotions at this point – and then starts to think it out: Will it go away if I do nothing? Will suing them shut them up? These people will usually reach the Fifth Stage (further down).

Group #2 comes unglued. When we hear from them it is either hysterical phone calls to customer service (who can't do much but listen sympathetically), or deranged-looking emails filled with capital letters and exclamation points. Many of them look like kidnapper's ransom letters in old black-and-white movies, where the letters would be made up of letters cut out of magazines and glued to a piece of paper. They are routinely in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, studded with exclamation points, and frequently begin with "HELP!!!"

Some of the group #2 calm down after firing off a few emails; others do not. At this point the victim may be at the mercy of their emotions as much as the defamation, and may eventually harm themselves more than the slanderer or libeler.

The Fifth Stage of Defamation – for the victim who is able to stay rational – is positive action. This may be a thought-out plan of public relations including positive statements about the facts of the matter, hiring a lawyer, or even moving on* from their current job or neighborhood.

(* It is not unique to defamation that victims refuse to move on. In relationships, career paths, and business ventures, one can observe people continually returning to a playing field where they've already lost, hoping to "leave winners.")

Typical Behaviors of Defamation Victims

"Learned Helplessness"
99.5% of those who email or call my publisher's customer service department haven't read the book Fighting Slander, and they never order it either. Since it's a customer service department, not a sales department, the employees don't try to sell these people the book – but they are puzzled by this gap between complaining and action. So am I.

This is in contrast with those who buy the book with no previous or further contact, only occasionally emailing later on to report social or legal success. The most clear-headed reader I ever spoke to said "Well, I can get mad, and I am. But I figure the first thing to do is get myself informed, otherwise I'm just a little bird standing on a rock flapping its wings."

Claiming Innocence
"The Piece of String", an old short story by Guy de Maupassant, is as timely as the day it was written, and is extremely relevant reading for people who are starting to proclaim their innocence too loudly. It may be fiction, but it's a good portrayal of how people become their own worst slanderer.

"The Piece of String" is also a good portrait of how supposedly adult human beings degenerate into mass stupidity when in a group, fabricating the most amazing theories to keep the defamation alive and spreading. It would be easy to dismiss the short story as an outdated portrayal of French peasants 200 years ago. It's not outdated at all; in fact it's still a relevant description not only of the victim's trauma, but how supposedly adult humans can couple the cruelty of children with the reasoning ability of a chimpanzee.

Which leads into....

Suggestions for Fighting Defamation

1. Read "The Piece of String" as a perfect model of self-destructive behavior. It's tempting to vent to other people, and I've watched it happen first-hand, when defamation victims buttonhole neighbors, work colleagues, and strangers in the supermarket line to tell their troubles to – people who would never have heard the defamation on their own. It can't help you. It can hurt you, so: don't.
    (It can help to vent to trusted and understanding friends or family – but be aware that defamation is not like divorce, which most people understand at least second-hand. "Understanding" is a key word, because most friends won't dive deeply enough to understand what defamation is like.)

2. The first thing that disappears when defamation rears its ugly head is the ability to think analytically. That you're reading this at all puts you in a small 10-20% group of defamation victims who are thinking even half-clearly. The cheerful post-defamation emails I receive from readers suggest that you're one of the people who will solve their defamation problem (rather than let it rule their lives).

This might mean seeing a psychologist, or focusing on your hobbies, or walking on the beach. One way or another, cutting down on the time you spend obsessing about the defamation.

3. Don't deny, assert. Telling neighbors or the world that something is untrue has the effect of reminding lazy thinkers (most people) of the exact claims you're trying to squash.

So don't say "I never stole a penny from the company!" The listener may just remember "I stole."

Better: "The company's audit showed there was no money missing." But a listener might only remember "money missing." This is why air traffic controllers never use the word "takeoff" to pilots until it is time to take off – the pilot might miss the word "don't," and take off at a dangerous time. So avoid all denials that repeat the defamatory words – never say "... no embezzlement" or "... no child molesting" or "... no sexual harassment."

So, best: "The accounting has always balanced perfectly ... and I'm still happily working there."



The Psychology of Oppression. E.J.R. David Ph.D., Annie O. Derthick, Ph.D.‎ Springer Publishing Company, 2017.

Kinds of Power: A Guide to its Intelligent Uses. James Hillman. Crown, 1997.

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