Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Psychology at the (Home) Movies: HBO’s The Wire

Although I’m more than a decade late to the party, a recent fortunate prime membership has gifted me with access to HBO’s acclaimed series the Wire. For the last two months I’ve been watching the show weekly, digesting its contents in small consistent doses. My background as a middle class ivory tower academic makes the Wire foreign territory to me—I don’t have much personal experience with drug culture, or poverty, or oppression, or Baltimore (the primary city in the story) for that matter. Nevertheless, there were many themes in the TV series that align well with contemporary research in the social sciences. With an eye towards these themes, I bring you a look into HBO’s the Wire by linking it to our current understanding of basic psychology. As with any piece of film-making, the nuance and detail will not be completely captured in this post, and I welcome comments here or on twitter (@mwkraus). Also, SPOILERS!

I find it challenging to summarize the plot of a long-running television show because I always feel like I either give too little or too much detail. The Wire is basically a show about cops and criminals, but when you watch long enough you start to have trouble differentiating the two: Cops and politicians break laws as much as criminals in the series, and everyone is harmed by the chaos that ensues. I was reminded a lot of films like The Heat (the Bob Deniro one) or maybe Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven because of the way the characters in the series grapple with the gray shades of moral conflict on both sides of the law.

While the cops v. criminals angle of the show is great, the Wire is best when it takes on social issues. For a series started in 2002, the Wire does a remarkable job of navigating issues of gender, race, and class.  Here are a few notable examples:

There is a great (for me anyway) scene in the first season of the Wire when D’Angelo takes his son’s mother (Shardene) to a nice dinner in downtown Baltimore [this scene plays out a second time when middle school students in the West Baltimore at-risk class win a dinner at Ruth’s Chris in season 4 with their instructor]. D’Angelo is a low level corner dealer and so he feels uncomfortable at the restaurant – like he does not belong. He even asks Shardene at one point, if she thinks the staff knows they don’t belong downtown? This is an excellent example of the nuances of social class in interactions. According to research in the social sciences, including psychology, people bring their class backgrounds with them into interactions, and so when cross-class interactions occur, people can sometimes feel awkward, misunderstood, or negatively judged by others. D’Angelo wondering if the staff sees him as a fraud is the Wire’s acknowledgement that class signals can be accurately transmitted and perceived in social interactions.

Gender and race are important themes in the Wire. Research in psychology suggests that we tend to erroneously essentialize these social categories—viewing them as stable, fixed, and biologically determined. We often base our judgments of others on their membership in these categories—believing that people who belong to these categories are more homogenous and conform more to stereotypes than reality would suggest. The Wire, in its rich character portrayals, knocks down any essentialist beliefs about race and gender: Good and evil have no essential race, gender, or sexual orientation. Snoop and Kima Greggs are two of the toughest people portrayed in the series (both women). Though it is widely known that Omar is gay, he garners equal measures of disgust and respect from the drug traffickers that he robs on a regular basis. Male and female characters show equal amounts of ambition and deference in political negotiations. To judge the characters in the Wire by their group memberships would be to miss the series entirely.

Recent research on status attainment indicates that there are two distinct routes to high social status in face-to-face social groups: The first is the dominance route—the ruthless person who seizes power by force attains status in groups through dominance. The second route is prestige—the competent leader attains power by being valuable to the group s/he serves. Marlowe Stansfield represents the dominance route to status attainment in the Wire. Marlowe seizes territory and influence in West Baltimore through intimidation, aggression, and ruthless zero tolerance of weakness. The counterpoint is East Baltimore’s Proposition Joe—who cuts deals with adversaries, trades information, and shares assets in order to demonstrate his value to other members of his group. In the Wire both men attain status through distinct means of dominance and prestige.

In season 3 of the Wire officer Prezbo, responding to a radio call of shots fired, accidentally and irresponsibly shoots and kills an out-of-uniform police officer. When it is revealed that the officer happened to be black, the department launches an internal investigation to determine if Prezbo’s accident was racially motivated—and in particular, whether Prezbo showed a history of racial discrimination at his job. The viewer, having watched the series, knows that Prezbo regularly works with black police officers, whom he respects and admires a great deal. How then, could Prezbo make such a grave error in the line of duty? The Wire seems to be highlighting the importance of implicit racial bias: People develop automatic associations in memory between constructs that have the power to influence spontaneous thoughts and actions. With respect to racial bias, studies in psychology have shown that implicit negative biases towards African Americans make it more difficult for individuals to accurately determine if black targets are carrying wallets/tools or firearms. In Prezbo’s case, his implicit negative bias towards blacks may have influenced his gut reaction in the field.

In the Wire, the police department responds to political pressure to reduce crime by doing what they call “juking the stats” – artificially lowering crime by reducing (on paper) what is defined as a crime and what isn’t. For instance, a little reasonable doubt might lead a police officer to categorize a murder as a death by other causes, particularly if there are no known suspects. I might start calling questionable research practices in psychological science “juking the stats” from here on out!

Do you have other psychological observations from watching the Wire? Let us know in the comments!


  1. Great read, and this is coming from a fan of The Wire ! Another fascinating point is the depiction of the effects of poverty on individual's decision making processes: as a young aspiring scholar in this field of research, I loved how vividly the show portrayed the struggles of low-income populations.

    First, the struggles of Bubbles tell us more about drug addiction: it also tells us about self-control and ego depletion, temptation goods and avoidance strategies, commitment mechanisms, peer pressure...

    Second, the story of Dukie, as heartbreaking as it is, is an amazing depiction of how lack of opportunity, a violent environement and a lack of perceived control over one's life can lead to a state of learned helplessness. This theme is also present in Dennis' story: after seeing how hard it can be to survive in the ghetto without turning to self-destructive violence, he decided to start a boxing club so that youngsters could turn this violence into something they could be proud of.

    Finally, I believe that other scholars in organizational behavior would have a lot to say about the dynamics of groups and institutions depicted in The Wire.

    1. Great points all around! Thanks for reading.

  2. The scene where Bunk extracts a confession with a fake lie detector made out of a copier and some wire illustrates the bogus pipeline technique:

    1. Yes! Great memory Roger, and thanks for reading!