“This is my stage, this is my theater, you are my puppets!”
That’s how former WWE star C.M. Punk turned on his fans, just after he’d won a major independent title early in his career. As the cheers of support that echoed around the auditorium turned to boos and jeers, he went on circling the ring, sadistically taunting the people who had paid good money to see him in action.
“When I pulled those marionette strings, and I moved your emotions, and I played with them, honestly it’s ’cause I get off on it. I hate each and every single one of you with a thousand burns…”
It’s widely understood that in the musclebound melodrama of pro wrestling, the “heels,” or villains, are a vital part of the entertainment, cranking up the emotional stakes for fans and allowing the good guys to appear heroic even as they’re delivering flying elbows to the testicles. But do wrestling heels really get a thrill out of being despised and insulted by hundreds of people, as Punk claimed?
“It’s like a badge of honor to get heat with the crowd,” says Tom Clark, a wrestling writer and podcaster who regularly appears on Bleacher Report. Clark characterizes the skulduggery and vitriol of the classic heel not so much as a performance but a state of mind. “A good heel isn’t fazed by hate; he craves it,” he says. “A heel justifies his actions in his own mind, so no one around him has the potential to be right. Getting booed only validates his actions.”
But the urge to play the heel — to rile up a docile public and actively seek out vilification — isn’t confined to wrestling. “I don’t mind people hating me, because it pushes me,” Cristiano Ronaldo, a Portuguese soccer player seen as one of the greatest in the world, told a U.K. newspaper in 2015. “I need the enemy. … They start screaming when I touch the ball. … It is not a problem for me. It is a motivation.”
Nor, of course, is it confined to sport. Here’s the political provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos speaking to ABC’s Nightline last year: “I like to think of myself as a virtuous troll. … If my rudeness provokes people into saying, ‘Oh what a monster, blah blah,’ and then 20 percent of people start talking about what I was actually saying, I will consider my career to have been a terrific success.”
And here’s fellow right-wing firebrand Ann Coulter in a 2010 syndicated column, casually inviting a formal declaration of war upon herself: “At the risk of violating anyone’s positive space, what happened to Canada? How did the country that gave us Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Martin Short, Dan Aykroyd and Catherine O’Hara suddenly become a bunch of whining crybabies?”
Granted, in the real world as much as in pro wrestling, you can earn good money from belching out bad vibes. But it takes a special kind of psychology to not only withstand the heat your heelery generates, but to bask in it. Most people find it hard knowing that they’re hated even by a single random person, so what’s going on with those who seem to revel in revulsion? Do they lack the kind of emotional awareness that tells the rest of us to recoil in the face of public outrage and condemnation?
Nathan Heflick, a social psychologist at the University of Lincoln in the U.K., warns against applying speculative diagnoses to individual cases. “There are people who have personality disorders like narcissism,” he says. “But I don’t think that’s the cause for all people who seem to thrive on making these shocking statements.” Instead, presenting themselves as figures of hate could be an easy way of achieving recognition — of getting their voices heard and their names known. “The appeal of having people love you can go hand-in-hand with having other people hate you,” Heflick suggests. “And it’s possible that the appeal of that stardom, of being a hero, counteracts the hatred of being the enemy.”
The case of the English media personality Katie Hopkins is instructive in this respect. Since she first popped up as a strikingly venomous contestant on the British version of The Apprentice in 2006, her career has spun into a dizzying vortex of line-crossing and trigger-mongering. In 2015, she attracted the ire of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights when she likened immigrants to “cockroaches” in a newspaper column. And in May she went too far even for her fellow shock-jocks when her calls on Twitter for a “final solution” in the wake of the appalling terrorist attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester got her sacked from London talk-radio station LBC.
Yet, despite her hyper-antagonistic M.O., Hopkins has often presented herself as the victim. She has actually described herself on Twitter as “the Jesus of the outspoken”:
In a revealing interview with Jon Ronson, journalist and author of bestseller The Psychopath Test, Hopkins agreed to run through the test — formally known as the Hare Psychopathy Checklist — with him. While she scored highly for a general lack of empathy or remorse in her pronouncements about fat people, poor people, elderly people suffering from dementia, the list goes on—in other respects, according to Ronson, she didn’t fit the standard psychopath profile. Throughout their discussions she referred to the cascade of vitriol that comes her way daily as “noise,” and toward the end, she offered her own verdict on her mental state: “‘I was thinking about our little chats, about the different labels I might fall under — psychopath or narcissist or autistic,’ she says. ‘I think I’m none — just tough.’”
This notion of toughness points to a possible explanation for why some people feel they’re pushed into high-profile heel behavior. The idea behind reactance theory — an unconscious effect first proposed in 1966 by American psychologist Jack Brehm — is that people are more likely to double down on a negative or self-defeating course of action whenever they feel their freedom is being threatened in some way. And according to Heflick, in a climate of heightened political correctness and moral outrage, this bid for mental freedom could lead some people to feed off others’ disapproval and feel empowered by their loathing.
“Many people are sick of being told what they can and can’t say,” he says, “and I think a lot of shock-jock-type behavior is a way of asserting that you won’t be told what to do. If someone [in a gallery] says, ‘Don’t touch the art!,’ it’ll make a lot of people want to touch the art even more.”
From this perspective, Hopkins is the Vincenzo Peruggia of reactance. “Every time you get banged back down it makes you tougher,” she told Ronson in 2015. “It’s just a relentless tidal wave. I think even Twitter does it to me on a daily basis. You’re called so many things. It makes you stronger and more powerful. I don’t know what could knock me now.”
But there is perhaps another, subtler reason for adopting the persona of a strutting heel. Heflick points to recent research into how we perceive our enemies by Mark Landau at the University of Kansas, which suggests that there might be a psychological reward from knowing you have people out there baying for your blood. As Heflick explains, identifying specific groups as enemies can, curiously enough, make the world feel like a safer place: “We all have a limited amount of cognitive resources at any given time, and we tend to prefer to see things most of the time in as simple and clear, black-and-white a manner as possible. We typically try to avoid uncertainty. When we have a clear enemy, it makes things very straightforward.”
According to Landau’s experiments, some experience a psychological benefit from “enemyship” because clearly drawn battle lines can give a stronger sense of meaning in life. One study in which participants were given a briefing on al Qaeda, for instance, indicated that picturing a vague but powerful enemy “can significantly bolster one’s perceived control over the environment.”
“If we become the enemy ourselves, a similar thing happens,” says Heflick. “In the case of trolls and shock jocks, they not only can carve out precisely who their enemies are, but gain a following and attention, and even [a sense of] belonging from knowing who loves them.”
“When you become the shocking voice,” he adds, “you create a very clear worldview that makes it obvious who the good guys and bad guys are.” And with that simplistic clarity comes a measure of security: “Life has a very, very clear meaning.”
Seen in those stark terms, it looks like a worldview that C.M. Punk would recognize. And Tom Clark acknowledges the clear parallels between the bear-pokers of politics and social media, and the villains of the wrestling ring: “The point is to get noticed. So in that way, it’s very similar. Coming out to complete silences is a death sentence for any talent; getting a reaction is the most important thing.”
It could be that on some level we’re all craving the cartoon clarity of a WWE line-up. We may find them offensive, distasteful or just a distraction, but we all might be relying more than we realize on those death-wish trolls who run toward the pitchforks, if only to give our own view of reality clearer lines and sharper meaning.
“The world would be much better off if everyone treated each other honestly and decently,” affirms Clark, “but pro wrestling would be far less entertaining.”