It’s not the truth — it’s a tell
Motivation, Personality & the Depp/Heard Trial
Raise your hand if you’ve ever fallen in love with a charming, manipulative narcissist who makes you feel on top of the world, at first…
And then over time, devalues & gaslights you to the point that you question your own sanity. [raises hand]
Let’s face it — if you’re a functioning adult, you’ve probably run into some flavor of this personality in your personal or professional life.
And right now, this personality type is on full display in the Depp/Heard defamation trial — which has been streaming LIVE these past few weeks, playing out like a celebrity-studded psychological thriller.
This trial has it all:
- a who-dunnit he-said she-said storyline
- lurid details of debauchery
- B-level over-acting complete with heaving, tearless sobs.
But the reason I’m hooked isn’t the sheer jaw dropping spectacle of it all.
It’s the slow narrative reveal of the underlying motivations that drive behavior — especially behavior that challenges our assumptions & norms.
A Masterclass in Psychological Assessment
After some horrific testimony about the toxic interpersonal dynamics of this high-profile couple, we heard from Dr. Shannon Curry, a brilliant & articulate forensic psychologist who gave a mini-masterclass on personality disorders.
She explained the basic components of personality, and teased out the crucial difference between mood disorders & personality disorders. Then, she reviewed the forensic & testing methods she’d used to perform a court-ordered diagnosis of Amber Heard, and produced a diagnosis: Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) plus Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD).
BOOM. That felt like seeing the rainclouds part after a storm.
Up ’til that point, all we’d listened to a weird, upsetting jumble of story fragments, media clips & conflicting accusations.
Dr. Curry’s description made it all fit together like a puzzle.
Especially when she started talking about the MMPI — Minnesota Multphasic Personality Inventor — a standard psychological test that Dr. Curry used to diagnose Amber Heard..
I have an undergraduate degree in Experimental Psych — & during my training, I learned how to administer & score the MMPI.
I saw up, up close & personal — the power of the MMPI to reveal not just someone’s own self-report — but how their intentions & motivation are shaping their answers.
As Dr Curry says, it’s impossible to get this kind of insight within a therapeutic or relational context. That’s what makes the MMPI so powerful.
Let’s listen to a bit more of Dr. Curry’s explanation of the key characteristics of two personality disorders — BPD & NPD
Love is Blind: the limits of interpersonal assessment
I have.. a rather personal story to share about the power of the MMPI.
Back at UCSD, I learned how administer & score the MMPI while doing my Senior Honors Thesis at the Veterans Hospital.
At the time, I was dating a brilliant, quirky computer scientist who (like me) loved collecting & interpreting data.
One day, he said “Hey, you know that MMPI test you’ve been telling me about? Wanna give it to me?”
Of course I said YES. Who could resist getting data-driven insights into a complex & fascinating person? So I got a copy of the test & administered it.
I sent it off for scoring. When the results came back, I saw his personality — charming, competitive, self-aggrandizing — right there in the data.
But something else was in the data. The MMPI has 3 scales that tell you how to interpret the rest of the data, with well-established patterns to reference.
The pattern that popped out of his scales was labelled: “a cry for help”
At that moment, I felt kinda stupid, and a bit embarrassed. I’d missed it. Hadn’t seen that side of him (which frankly he was pretty good at hiding).
But once I understand that about him… all his confusing behavior made sense to me… like the pieces of a puzzle clicking together.
That knowledge empowered me to let go & move on from that relationship on a positive & compassionate note.
Just like characters in a novel, or narrative, humans have wildly different motivational drivers.
What motivates me isn’t necessarily what motivates you.
This can be a hard concept to get your head around — because we naturally assume that our own lived experience is “the truth.”
If you’re motivated by achievement & status, for example, you’ll naturally assume that everyone else is too. And if someone denies that, you might think they’re fooling themselves… or even lying.
But to see the larger truth of human behavior, you need to step outside of your introspection & look at the data.
The VALS model: Thinkers, Believers & Experiencers
There’s a well-known model called VALS that outlines three motivational drivers humans can be grouped into: Thinkers, Achievers, & Experiencers.
Achievers are motivated by status, accolades & external rewards.
Thinkers are motivated by strongly-held philosophical ideas & beliefs.
And Experiencers are motivated by self-expression & the joy of creation.
These “motivation paths” give us a simplified way to understand & categorize behavior & motivation.
And knowledge… is power.
Motivation is NOT One Size Fits All
From that experience — plus many others — I’ve come to appreciate the deep power of understanding someone’s core motivation — rather than projecting your own lived experience onto the world.
So remember — the next time you hear someone say:
“Well, deep down everyone is driven by status…”
It’s not the truth. It’s a tell