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The Psychology of the Casey Anthony Trial

The Psychology of the Casey Anthony TrialSo Casey Anthony was found not guilty of murder, meaning we can go back to our everyday, regular lives. On July 5, the jury found Casey Anthony not guilty of first-degree murder, aggravated manslaughter, and aggravated child abuse (but found her guilty of four lesser, misdemeanor offenses related to her interrogations). What? You mean you “want answers” as to why she wasn’t found guilty?

We all want answers in our lives. We yearn for answers. People spend years in therapy looking for answers. But life isn’t always so neat, nor does it always provide easy-to-understand answers to such a tragic series of events that led to the death of Casey Anthony’s toddler, Caylee.

So the short answer is — there are no answers. You’re looking for justice in a world that lives by a set of rules in order to separate us from animals. And sometimes instead of justice, we get due process by those rules, and a result that is — to some — less than satisfying.

Nobody, of course, can tell you the psychology behind Casey Anthony herself (except her therapist), so any commentator who makes observations about her or her behavior is being less than ethical or professional.

But that doesn’t stop hundreds of thousands of armchair pundits suddenly going on Twitter or Facebook to proclaim their belief — whether based on facts or simply their own personal “truth” — that Casey Anthony is so obviously guilty. And indeed she was found guilty of lying to the police about some of the things in her story during her interrogation.

Most importantly, however, she was found not guilty of the murder of her own child. Without knowing how she died (sorry, but we still don’t know) and with the prosecution providing no clear motive, the verdict should’ve been of little surprise. When all you need is “reasonable doubt,” it’s not hard to come by when you can’t prove a murder has even taken place, nor why anyone would commit such a premeditated murder.

It makes me wonder — why the fascination with this unfortunate tragedy? Because it was a mom and it was her own child and no mom in their right mind would consider killing their own child (except the reality that some moms who have experienced postpartum depression have exactly that irrational thought; most do not act on it however)?

So it was with some relief to find an article by fellow psychologist Dr. Frank Farley over at CNN. He explains some of the reasons behind the fascination with the Casey Anthony trial, including:

1. Uncertainty: Much of our national interest falls under this factor. We are interested in uncertain outcomes — never give away the ending of the movie! Uncertain behavior — where the truth is unclear, the events are clouded, and the picture is always changing — is a source of fascination, or even fear, depending on the person and the situation. It’s the heart of mystery novels and crime stories. We often want to fill in the gaps, complete the picture, or find what’s on the other side of the mountain or the curtain. It can lead some to take hard stands in order to get personal control over the uncertainty and the ambiguity.

2. Lying: This could fall under uncertainty, but for this trial warrants special mention. This trial challenges all of us to figure out who is lying. It’s the central psychology of this whole courtroom experience.

3. Children: The body of an adorable child, the essence of human innocence, was tossed into the bushes. Nothing will engage the attention, motivate and anger Americans more than this.

4. Family: A family’s influence is forever. The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy said “All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Anthony family’s issues include lies and allegations of abuse and adultery. We watch wondering if a meltdown is imminent. This is the train-wreck motive, involving our most important institution.

5. The “Perry Mason” effect: This crime and courtroom TV drama attracted a nation in the 1950s and ’60s. Since then, we have seen dozens that whetted our appetite for the culture of the courtroom.

6. “CSI” and police TV dramas: We have watched so many, with so much interest in the detailed solving of crimes, that when it becomes real, and seemingly insoluble, we can’t turn away. We find it unbelievable that it took investigators months to find Caylee’s by-then decomposed body within walking minutes of her home.

7. The dark side: Humans have, for millennia, been interested in evil, violence, hate, and horror. We understand normal life. But why an individual will kill or deliberately inflict horrific pain on another remains largely a mystery. We have theories, some good ones, but certitude eludes us. So our curiosity compels our attention to life-and-death adjudications.

I agree with these reasons, with an emphasis on the fact that it was a mother and her child — not two random strangers, even if the two were of similar ages. Most mothers just can’t imagine acting in many of the ways described as how Casey Anthony acted, including not reporting that her child was missing for 30 days.

The pieces still don’t fit, so our minds want to make sense of all the pieces. One obvious way to make them make sense is to fit them into a storyline, whether true or not. Our minds will seek to fill in gaps with conjecture, and to make irrational human behavior rational.

When pressed for a motive, some claim the mother was into having fun and partying, pointing to photos of her doing just that. So much so (and reportedly, with increasing resentment toward her child) that she would carry out a premeditated murder. Although this motive storyline makes little logical sense (what mother doesn’t enjoy getting a break from child-rearing and having a good time with their friends?), it fits within our mind’s need to create one to fill in the gaps.

Like OJ before her, Casey Anthony held our attention for weeks while the evidence — lacking as it was for a Murder One case — was presented. And now, with the verdict rendered by a jury of her peers, we can put the case to rest. For another week or so, there will be more Monday morning quarterbacking about what could have been done differently. The truth may never be known, but we do know that our fascination for cases and trials like this will never end.

Read the full CNN article: Why we’re obsessed with the Anthony trial

The Psychology of the Casey Anthony Trial

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). The Psychology of the Casey Anthony Trial. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 7 Jul 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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