Psychology Archive


Trailer for Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee

Catch the full documentary on Showtime starting September 24.


Showtime to Premiere Documentary GRINGO: THE DANGEROUS LIFE OF JOHN McAFEE, 9/24

Gringo imageIn non-M370 news (click on “Aviation” in the banner above if you want to avoid stuff like this) I’m very pleased that Showtime is going to air a documentary that I’ve been working on for the last year or so. “Gringo” will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11 and then be broadcast two weeks later. Here’s the press release:

Showtime continues to expand its slate of bold documentaries under the Showtime Documentary Films banner with GRINGO: THE DANGEROUS LIFE OF JOHN McAFEE, a new feature-length film making its world television premiere on Saturday, September 24th at 9 p.m. ET/PT on SHOWTIME. Oscar nominee and two-time Sundance Film Festival winner Nanette Burstein (American Teen, The Kid Stays in the Picture) delivers a deep investigation into the mysterious life of visionary anti-virus entrepreneur John McAfee. The film has been selected to make its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival next month.

GRINGO: THE DANGEROUS LIFE OF JOHN McAFEEpresents a sordid, stranger-than-fiction tale of violence, sex and money as Burstein looks at the unfolding and bizarre life of the millionaire businessman. Years after creating the ubiquitous McAfee anti-virus software, McAfee relocates to Belize in 2008 and adopts a quasi-gangster lifestyle that spirals into increasingly unusual behavior. After the mysterious death of his neighbor, he flees to Guatemala in 2012, before returning to the U.S. to seek the 2016 Libertarian Party presidential nomination that was ultimately won by Gary Johnson. Burstein’s expansive examination, highlighted by interviews with McAfee’s former gang associates and girlfriends, and cryptic email exchanges with McAfee himself, reveals new details of the unsolved murder investigation, while uncovering new allegations against him for crimes that were never prosecuted. The film is an Ish Entertainment Production, and is produced by Chi-Young Park, and executive produced by Michael Hirschorn, Jeff Wise and Wendy Roth.


MH370: Suicide or Spoof? Part 1 — Psychology


MH370 Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah: the face of a mass murderer?

It’s an exciting time for those of us who are trying to crack the riddle of MH370. By establishing that the plane did not wind up where an autopilot-only flight would have taken it, the Australian-led search effort has dramatically reduced the number of possible scenarios. In effect, only two remain: first, that one of the pilots (most likely Zaharie) took control of the plane and steered into the southern ocean on a suicide mission; and second, that sophisticated hijackers commandeered the plane from the E/E bay and tampered with the Satellite Data Unit so the plane only appeared to be flying south, when in fact it was flying in some other direction.

Given the scarcity of data in the case, how can we discriminate between the two possibilities? In the next few blog posts, I’d like to look at the case from a number of different angles. Today, I’d like to start by looking at the psychological aspects of the case. What do the actions of the perpetrators reveal about their psychology? Does Zaharie fit the profile of a mass murderer?

As has been noted here many times before, during the initial phase of the disappearance, whoever took MH370 seems to have been motivated primarily by the desire to evade and deceive. Electronics were turned off six seconds after the plane passed the last waypoint in Malaysian airspace, during the narrow window between saying goodbye to Malaysian air traffic controllers and saying hello to Vietnamese controllers. Its disappearance from secondary radar led searchers initially to look for the plane in the South China Sea. Only later did the Malaysian military find a radar track showing that the plane had turned 180 degrees and headed west, hugging the Thai/Malaysian airspace boundary before dashing across the Malay Peninsula and disappearing again over the Andaman Sea. The search was therefore moved there. Only later still did Inmarsat reveal that signals its satellite received suggested that the plane had flown south for six hours. These signals were received only because the satellite data unit had been turned back on again—a procedure that most airline pilots don’t know how to do. Thus, the plane didn’t just disappear once, but three times.

Wondering whether this kind of elaborate planning was common among people bent on suicide, I reached out to Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University who has written 54 books, including Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers. Below is an edited condensation of our conversation.

Read the rest of this entry »


Nautilus: Fear in the Cockpit

Nautilus TransAsia artThe morning of Feb. 4, 2015, was drearily normal in Taipei. With the sky blanketed in low clouds, pushed by a moderate breeze, the day was neither hot nor cold, neither stormy nor fair. For many of the passengers that filed aboard TransAsia Airways Flight 235 at Songshan Airport, the journey ahead promised to be similarly workaday: not a jaunt to some exotic clime, but an hour-long puddle-jump across the Taiwan Strait to the city of Kinmen, where many of the passengers had family and work obligations.

At the front of the plane, 42-year-old captain Liao Chien-tsung and 45-year-old first officer Liu Tzu-chung strapped themselves into their seats and ran through their pre-flight checklists. Shortly after 10.30 a.m. the last of the passengers settled into their seats and the cabin crew closed the doors. As the plane started to move, passenger Lin Ming-wei had a hunch that one of the engines sounded funny, and requested that he, his wife, and their 2-year-old son be seated on the right side of the aircraft.

With practiced efficiency, Liao guided the ATR 72-600 along the network of taxiways to Runway 10. After receiving permission to take off, he rolled forward and swung the plane over the centerline. Engine throttles full forward, the twin turboprop engines roared and shook as each machine’s quadruple blades chopped the air. Liao released the brakes, and the plane leapt forward. The airspeed indicator slid past 116 knots as the plane’s nose, then main wheels, lifted from the runway.

This moment—when a plane transitions from ground vehicle to air vehicle—is the most critical in aviation. It is the part of each flight when a plane has the least altitude, is moving the slowest, and carries the heaviest mass of fuel. Given how much happens in a short span of time, it’s also the most mentally demanding. As Liao felt the seat press into his back, his eyes flitted from the instrument panel to the runway and back. Simultaneously he had to keep the plane centered on the runway, monitor its speed and acceleration, pay attention to the radio, and keep alert for signs of malfunction.

Normally this critical phase is over within a few minutes. But every once in a while something goes wrong. For TransAsia 235, that day was today.

Read the rest of this entry »


Success: The Impossibles

The Impossibles ARTAlli Rainey was clinging to a sheer rock overhang 120 feet above the ground when she felt her fingers go numb. She’d spent the last 40 minutes painstakingly working herself up a route called Madness in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. Now at the most difficult part of the climb, she realized the muscles in her hands were about to give out. She looked down at the emptiness below her and screamed in terror as her grip slipped and she tumbled from the rock face. Fifty feet down, her belay rope pulled taut and she bobbed in the air, dangling in her safety harness. The crazy thing was that Rainey has an incapacitating fear of heights, yet she’s chosen rock climbing as a full-time career. Then again, doing things she believed to be impossible has been a constant theme of Rainey’s life. And she’s not alone. There are people who’ve figured out how to do things that they believe, that they know, are totally beyond their capabilities—and then do them anyway. I call these people The Impossibles. Are you one, too? If you say no, don’t be so sure—someday you could be.

Read the rest of my story from the January 2014 edition of Success magazine, available online here.


Success: Better Than Smart

Alan Meckler’s drive to succeed has never flagged. In grade school, he taught himself to read by poring over his father’s newspapers. In high school, he earned spots on multiple varsity teams, and at Columbia University he made the dean’s list. He went on to earn a doctorate in history before launching a prosperous career as an entrepreneur. Today, at 68, he’s the chairman and CEO of the Internet content consortium Mediabistro.

Not such an unusual trajectory for a successful executive, perhaps. But there’s a twist to Meckler’s story. Throughout his life, Meckler labored under a secret shame. He struggled to understand things that his peers grasped easily. His grade-school teachers wanted to hold him back. His father bluntly belittled him as “stupid.” Even after he’d been accepted into an Ivy League university, Meckler says, “I was very worried that I would be found out, that I really was stupid.”

His College Board scores were so low, in fact, that after he’d made the dean’s list, school psychologists asked to test him so they could figure out how he’d done it. But they were stumped. “They had me do puzzles,” he says, “and they said that I couldn’t solve problems that most 7- or 8-year-olds could.” College Board officials wanted to study him, too. “They seemed to think,” says Meckler, “that I was some kind of freak.”

The story appears in the September, 21013 issue of Success magazine. Read the rest here.


Signs of the Times


Why is it so hard to catch even glaring errors? That’s one of the questions addressed in “Your Bleeped Up Brain.” Viewer John Chismar sent me this picture of a shop near his home. He writes, “Your program reminded me of a photo I took a few years ago of a printing shop around the corner from my house. I took the photo a few days after they beefed up the store’s appearance. To be honest, I never noticed anything was wrong until a visiting friend pointed out the error.” Thanks, John!


Your Bleeped Up Brain

Don’t trust your brain–at least, not before you watch our new four-part miniseries on why your cognitive machinery is predisposed to be fooled. The show airs Saturdays at 10pm on H2. You can watch the whole first episode here.

Here’s the teaser for episode 2:



New York: Too Many Geniuses

G+TThis article ran in the July 8-15, 2013 issue of New York.

Long before summer’s first heat wave, temperatures were running hot among the parents of New York’s 4-year-olds. A series of gaffes by the test-publishing company Pearson undermined the ­credibility of the city’s gifted-and-talented testing program and forced families to hang fire over their kindergartners’ academic fate. Then, just as that problem seemed close to resolution, an NYU mathematics professor named Alexey Kuptsov, along with three other parents, sued the Department of Education, claiming the admissions process was flawed, causing more delays and rousing the ire of New York parenting blogs.

Like any system that creates an elite benefit and doles it out to a lucky few, New York’s G&T program has long been a lightning rod for anxiety and resentment. Alongside some 70,000 places in standard-track general-education kindergarten classrooms, the DOE offers about 2,700 seats in G&T programs, which originated to serve the small percentage of kids so brilliant that they’re at a disadvantage in a normal classroom. Within each school district, certain schools maintain gifted classrooms open to the children living there. In addition, a handful of elite public schools are open to top-scoring students from anywhere in the city. To qualify for either type, kids take an aptitude test and receive a raw score and a percentile ranking. A child must rank in the 90th percentile or above to be eligible for a district program, 97th or above for citywide.

At first glance, the system looks highly selective, but the numbers are misleading. A child who’s ranked in the 99th percentile hasn’t outperformed 99 percent of actual fellow test takers but a mathematically generated hypothetical national population. Twenty percent are in the “97th percentile”; 40 percent are in the “90th.” Read the rest of this entry »


Psychology Today: Dancing With a Madman

Psychology Today McAfee illoThis story appears in the June, 2013 issue of Psychology Today. Read it online here.

June 2007, near Rodeo, New Mexico: Enchantment on the Mesa

An evening breeze carries the smell of the surrounding desert across the patio of John McAfee’s ranch. Now that the sun has ducked behind the mountains, the scorching heat has mellowed to an embracing warmth. McAfee, the 61-year-old former software pioneer and multimillionaire entrepreneur, is contemplating new ventures with a gregarious band of misfits gathered around his table. They include a half-dozen ultralight pilots and McAfee’s 27-year-old girlfriend, Jen Irwin.

I’m here to write a story about the freewheeling new sport McAfee has invented. Called aerotrekking, it involves flying tiny aircraft at dangerously low altitudes above the desert floor—low enough, he jokes, to catch the occasional cactus spine in the undercarriage. Maybe he’s not joking. McAfee’s avowed mission is not to take himself too seriously. The conversation around the table is a never-ending stream of wisecracks, and no one gets more laughs than McAfee.

At the moment he’s ribbing me about my plans to get married. “Why would you give up the most important thing in your life—your freedom?” he asks. I protest that some of my best friends are happily married. “If there was a pond filled with alligators, and you saw someone swim across it and get out safely on the other side,” he asks, “would that make you want to swim across, too?”

I laugh along with everyone else. Is he pulling my leg, I wonder, or is his épater-les-bourgeois stance for real? There’s no way to know, and I still don’t know today, six years later, after McAfee became a suspect in his neighbor’s murder in late 2012, then triggered an international manhunt when he went into hiding. There’s no way I could have guessed, chuckling in the New Mexico dusk, that I’m embarking upon the strangest journalistic relationship of my life, one that will lead me to view McAfee as something like a friend and ultimately as a nemesis. Read the rest of this entry »