Skip to main content

Why we're obsessed with the Anthony trial

By Frank Farley, Special to CNN
  • Frank Farley says Anthony trial is both a psychologist's dream and nightmare
  • Lack of concrete evidence means we rely on emotions and subjective judgments, he says
  • Farley: Factors of fascination include uncertainty, lying, children and family involved
  • Also, he says, courtroom and police dramas, and fascination with the dark side contribute

Editor's note: Frank Farley is a psychologist and L.H. Carnell Professor at Temple University, Philadelphia, and a former president of the American Psychological Association.

(CNN) -- Casey Anthony is on the couch, and everyone is analyzing her. It's a crowded couch that includes her family and a band of witnesses, alleged experts, one or two lawyers in need of charisma and possibly additional training, and investigators who seem to need investigation.

The jurors are beginning deliberations in this first great media trial of the 21st century, a trial that is both a psychologist's dream and nightmare. The lack of definitive, incontrovertible evidence in the death of toddler Caylee Anthony means jurors will likely rely on their feelings and subjective judgments about human behavior. These kinds of observations will probably dominate discussions. This is the old movie "12 Angry Men" remade, but with less concrete evidence and a better gender balance.

PDF: Read jury forms

In the Casey Anthony trial, circumstantial evidence is all over the map -- and with the apparent lying, significant contradictions and flip-flops of testimony, and questionable or bizarre theories of human behavior, it is little wonder that this nation has been glued to the tube. This is O.J. all over again, but with less forensic and more psychological features. The glove didn't fit, but in the Anthony trial, few things fit.

What are the factors that, combined, explain our national fascination and obsession with this trial? Let me, in the tradition of this trial, speculate.

Uncertain behavior, where the truth is unclear and the picture is always changing, is a source of fascination.
--Frank Farley

Uncertainty: Much of our national interest falls under this factor. We are interested in uncertain outcomes -- never give away the ending of the movie! Uncertain behavior -- where the truth is unclear, the events are clouded, and the picture is always changing -- is a source of fascination, or even fear, depending on the person and the situation. It's the heart of mystery novels and crime stories. We often want to fill in the gaps, complete the picture, or find what's on the other side of the mountain or the curtain. It can lead some to take hard stands in order to get personal control over the uncertainty and the ambiguity.

Lying: This could fall under uncertainty, but for this trial warrants special mention. This trial challenges all of us to figure out who is lying. It's the central psychology of this whole courtroom experience.

Casey Anthony case goes to jury
Anthony private investigator opens up
  • Casey Anthony
  • Media
  • TV Dramas

Children: The body of an adorable child, the essence of human innocence, was tossed into the bushes. Nothing will engage the attention, motivate and anger Americans more than this.

Family: A family's influence is forever. The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy said "All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The Anthony family's issues include lies and allegations of abuse and adultery. We watch wondering if a meltdown is imminent. This is the train-wreck motive, involving our most important institution.

The "Perry Mason" effect: This crime and courtroom TV drama attracted a nation in the 1950s and '60s. Since then, we have seen dozens that whetted our appetite for the culture of the courtroom.

"CSI" and police TV dramas: We have watched so many, with so much interest in the detailed solving of crimes, that when it becomes real, and seemingly insoluble, we can't turn away. We find it unbelievable that it took investigators months to find Caylee's by-then decomposed body within walking minutes of her home.

The dark side: Humans have, for millennia, been interested in evil, violence, hate, and horror. We understand normal life. But why an individual will kill or deliberately inflict horrific pain on another remains largely a mystery. We have theories, some good ones, but certitude eludes us. So our curiosity compels our attention to life-and-death adjudications.

These are my closing arguments for our fascination with this trial. The nation's interest will wane as this case is resolved, probably with all the likely appeals, and particularly if the final resolution serves certainty and justice. The next spectacular media-aided court case will come along. Maybe it will be one that improves on the many problems of this one.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frank Farley.

Featured Deal |