The Joker, Part II — Three Primary Strategies

Idaho Fire

Wildfire outside Kamiah, Idaho — Braden Pezeshki, Photo

(Just in case you’re new to this blog, I post pictures intended as scenic relief — don’t read too much into it.)

In the last post, we explored some of the manipulation techniques of the Joker, performed unforgettably by Heath Ledger, in the movie The Dark Knight.  The Joker, in this movie, is portrayed as the ultimate psychopath — which in our world of high-performance team formation means that he is THE iconic relational disruptor.  In the last post, we explored how the Joker, instead of wanting to kill the Batman, actually needs the Batman.  The Joker is actually ATTACHED to the Batman, though in a disordered way.  Interaction with the Batman actually helps the Joker construct his own self-image, as well as gets him off.

The Joker also cleverly uses our mental models against us — creating conditions that turn on OUR empathy, which then allows him to create chaos.  I highlighted how the psychopathic mind has a disordered sense of time, which the most clever will use to their advantage.  And how we can’t think like a psychopath (unless we are one).  We can only attempt to predict what they’ll do.

So how can we predict the unpredictable?  The Joker always seems to be one step ahead of the Batman, especially when it comes to initiating events.  So, in many ways, when it comes to superficial, or surface-level actions, you can’t out-guess them. You have to focus on underlying dynamics.

Though there’s got to be a ton more — no claim of exhaustive search or knowledge here — I’m going to talk about three dominant ones today.  These are, in no relevant order:

  1.  Social Isolation/Depriving of Agency of a Target.
  2. Triangulation of Authority/Target Intersection.
  3. Defining the Landscape of Irresponsibility

Let’s go through these, one by one.

Social Isolation

How does an High Conflict Personality (HCP)/empathy-disordered person isolate a target person in a relational system?  There are many ways, but one of the key techniques is using what is called gaslighting.  The standard definition of gaslighting is when the HCP/psychopath makes an individual doubt their own perceptions of a given event in their life.  The Wikipedia definition is actually pretty good.  But it leaves out the relational dynamics which are so important about understanding how relationships are disrupted.

Let’s say you and I have a cup of coffee on Tuesday.  We have a great conversation about a new project, and the event seems relatively agreeable to both parties.  I see you the following day on Wednesday.  “That was a nice cup of coffee we had on Monday, Sue,” I say.  “But Chuck — it was Tuesday.  Remember?”

Now the gaslighting occurs — “Sue — why are you being so difficult? I’m sorry you can’t remember.”  Still feeling the positive experience, you might reach into your purse and pull out your phone.  “See — right here, on Tuesday, Chuck!”  I don’t relent.  “Sue, your phone is all messed up.  Let’s go down to the AT&T store and get that fixed.  I’ll drive you!”  You walk away, disturbed.

Let’s say you’re married.  You go to your husband.  “That guy Chuck,” you say.  “The strangest thing happened at work with him.  We went out for coffee on Tuesday, and had a great exchange on getting this big project going. But when I saw him again today (Wednesday), he said we actually met on Monday.”

What your partner is likely to say is this:  “Are you sure you just didn’t mishear him?”  You resist and protest.  “No, I’m sure…”  — but are you really?

The most pernicious gaslighters don’t do anti-social things, like inappropriate behavior that could readily be called out.  They do ordinary things that distort reality — and here’s the relational system edge.  They use things that deprive you of the fundamental empathetic grounding that occurs when we coordinate our activities with other people.  It’s not surprising, for example, that I use the time for a coffee conversation.  Who would expect that as an avenue for control?

Let’s say I see you again, and a similar situation occurs.  How likely are you to go talk to your partner about it?  I’d argue, unless you have a way to explain it (and now you do!) you’re very unlikely to even bring up problems with me with your partner.  Because it makes you look crazy.  And that starts the process of social isolation that will enable me — the HCP/psychopath/gaslighter — to grab control of your grounding circuits.  Which means that I’ll soon be able to assert abusive control.

Narcissistic leaders do this too — by gaslighting their own performance, or more typically, by praising one employee or a group uber alles.  HCPs/psychopaths often do this cleverly in groups by working with various ratios of teams, by coddling, say, 1/3 of a team, while punishing the other 2/3s. Often, the HCP/psychopath will pick the people out who are either most susceptible to control, or other HCPs like themselves and reward them, keeping their allegiance tight (remember what Machiavelli said about holding your friends close, and your enemies closer!) and punishing the rest, because they know that their histrionic friends will be quick to defend them, while the other, more healthy people will become depressed, and are much less likely to protest the dominant order.

Triangulation of Authority

There are literally hundreds of permutations of this standard conflict scheme, but it is much more commonly used by HCPs/psychopaths where large institutions are in play.  Anonymous complaint processes are rife for this kind of abuse as well.  Here, the HCP/psychopath makes an accusation against the target to an authority about an indeterminate act — one that there is no clear evidence for, but obviously transgresses social mores.  The authority is compelled to act against the accused. The end result is that the HCP steps out of the triangle after the accusation, and then lets the accused deal solely with the authority.  The accused is usually faced with an either/or situation — accept the false accusation as true, and negotiate with the authority, or fight with the authority, which usually has much greater resources than the accused.

Another Triangulation technique often used by HCPs is an innocent bystander is triangulated into the system, taken hostage as it were, and then an untenable situation is created for the HCP’s real target.  The target is then placed in a position of judgment whether the innocent is going to be hurt or spared, with blame and responsibility centered on the target.  The HCP doesn’t necessarily have to limit themselves to one target — in the following scene, the Joker sets up two ferry boats full of people as his ‘social experiment’, one of ordinary citizens, and one filled with convicts, each rigged with explosives, and with each holding the detonator.  The Joker gives both a deadline of midnight to figure out if they’re going to blow up the other boat, with the threat that he’ll do it if they don’t.  Classic triangulation/relational disruption!

The Landscape of Irresponsibility

One of the arguments made for making sure everyone has a title in a team is that responsibilities are clear-cut, and that ought to improve efficiency.  But there is also no more fertile ground for irresponsibility than the creation of titles.  And particularly when there are HCPs/psychopaths in play.  When one wants to manipulate the people on your team, one of the primary tools is the Landscape of Irresponsibility.

What does that landscape look like?  A given project or situation is mapped out so that the HCP has no responsibility other than pointing out that he/she is not responsible.  And they do this in compelling ways — in the above scene from the Joker’s Social Experiment, either boat is set up to be responsible for blowing up the other boat.  In the execution of both Harvey Dent and his fiancée, the Joker is once again not responsible.  And on it goes.  Creation of fragmented effort offers tons of opportunities for finger-pointing, as well as relational disruption in teams.  And a good leader can spot a victim/blamer, creating the seeds for this kind of chaos, a mile away.


If there is any scene that sums all of these up, it’s the following scene of Batman interrogating the Joker in the jail cell.  So here’s your pop quiz — can you identify the three disruption strategies at work in this final clip?

Further Reading:  One of the great canards is that the Joker is psychotic, as opposed to being a psychopath.  It’s the ultimate piece of gaslighting, but one that unfortunately probably informs too many people’s ideas on mental health in this country.  This article, written about a psychiatrist, Vasilis K. Pozios, M.D, who analyzes comic book criminals for fun and speaks at Comic-cons, is well worth the read on both the Joker and this phenomenon.

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