Apply It: Personality in Media

 

One of my favorite television shows is JAG: Judge Advocate General.  My father converted me into a fan last year while watching reruns.  I purchased the entire season on DVD to watch them from the beginning.  My apply it discussion comes directly from Defending His Honor (Szwarc, Greene, & Levine, 2002) originally airing during season seven.  This episode provides explicatory information relating to both personality represented in television viewing, as well as potential strengths and weaknesses of objective and subjective information and sources.

Relevant Synopsis of Episode.  Captain has an automobile accident on the way home to care for his sick wife.  He is accused of road rage, running a young mother and her infant child off the road.  The mother survived, but the infant did not.  The In classic JAG style, the senior officer is forced to defend his career in an Article 32 hearing.

Personality.  While watching JAG I am often reminded how much the legal system relies on character witnesses when defending the accused, both in fictional characterizations as well as in real-life events.  In this episode, the defense puts Admiral Chegwidden on the stand to provide a character (personality) reference for Captain Sebring.  The Admiral states the Captain is calm, rational, and controlled, even in situations others would have lost their tempers.  This characterization is based on his subjective (interpretative) observations of the Captain’s behavior in many situations.  Proving the unreliability of subjective observations and judgments, the prosecution cross-examines the Admiral regarding a specific family incident witnessed by the Admiral wherein the Captain did, in fact, lose his temper and had to be restrained.  The prosecution reveals the Captain’s wife has been struggling with cancer for several months and her nurse quit, without notice, the day of the accident.  The Captain had to return home quickly to care for his wife who had been left alone, which is when the accident took place.

The defense presents arguments for the trait and behavioral aspects of personality (Friedman & Schustack, 2012), essentially that the Captain’s behavior is the result of consistent traits, possibly learned or reinforced through his military career.  In contrast, although the prosecution recognizes the trait aspects of the Captain’s personality, it is argued situational influences such as his wife’s illness, his wife being left alone, and the Captain’s perceived helplessness may have directly influenced his inability to control his temper (Friedman & Schustack, 2012).

In the end, it is not the personality traits of the Captain that results in an acquittal, but the combination of subjective and objective information obtained throughout the investigation of the case.  For instance, in a subjective interview with a witness the prosecution discovers the mother had been depressed.  That information suggests to him to she may have been suffering post-partum depression.  He discovers objective evidence in the form of prescriptions for depression medication proving she was suffering from depression.  In fact, when the prosecution first puts the mother on the witness stand and questions her, she lies.  This is a significant problem with subjectively gathered information.  You typically cannot force a subject to be truthful, and without objective information to confirm the veracity of the subjective information, you could be at a standstill.  However, in this case, the prosecutor was able to present the mother with the prescription bottles and receipts.  She confesses to the depression.  Further, she confesses to purposely driving on the wrong side of the road in an attempt to kill both herself and the baby.

 

 

References

Friedman, H. S., & Schustack, M. W. (2012).  Personality: Classic theories and modern research (5th ed.).  Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Szwarc, J. (Director), Greene, L. (Writer), & Levine, R. (Writer).  (2002, May 7).  Defending his honor [Television series episode].  In Paramount Pictures (Producer), JAG: Judge advocate general.  Hollywood, CA: CBS.

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