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Will Smith accepts the award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for “King Richard” onstage during the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, on March 27, 2022. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images)
  • There’s no shortage of opinions on the recent “incident” at the Oscars as the public weighs in on what happened among celebrities Chris Rock, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett Smith, and why.
  • From personal opinions to the culture of celebrity worship, a number of psychological factors may offer explanations for Smith’s unprecedented behavior at the Academy Awards, which resulted in a 10-year ban from the Oscars.
  • Some mental health experts say that Smith’s violent childhood may have played a role in his response to Rock’s joke about Pinkett Smith, while others suggest “the slap” may have been a sign of emotional dysregulation.

It seems that everyone has an opinion about what happened between actor Will Smith and comedian Chris Rock onstage at the 94th Academy Awards on March 27.

As a presenter at the Oscars, Rock told a joke about actress Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head, referencing “G.I. Jane” — a 1997 movie starring Demi Moore with a buzz cut.

Smith responded to the joke about his wife by walking onto the stage and slapping Rock across the face.

Pinkett Smith has been open about her alopecia diagnosis, an autoimmune disease that leads to hair loss. Many would say the difficult journey she’s navigated with alopecia could be seen on her face immediately following Rock’s joke.

Rock attempted to joke his way through “the incident,” as Smith returned to his seat and shouted expletives that were muted from the broadcast. Moments later, Smith accepted the award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for “King Richard.”

The slap heard around the world had audiences reeling — but there may be more to Smith’s behavior than meets the eye.

It takes a lot to emotionally regulate oneself before high-pressure moments like the Oscars.

While we at Psych Central don’t condone violence, examining Smith’s behavior through a mental health lens may offer some explanation as to why he reacted the way he did. Emotional dysregulation, for instance, describes an individual’s inability to control their emotions in an appropriate or acceptable way.

We spoke with a few mental health experts to discuss the psychological implications of “the incident” — including why we’re so obsessed with talking about it.

Here they are (in order of appearance):

  • Nicole Washington, DO, MPH, a board certified psychiatrist and the chief medical officer of Elocin Psychiatric Services in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and a member of the Psych Central Medical Advisory Board
  • Renetta Weaver, LCSW, a therapist based in Maryland
  • Cornelia Gibson, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist at Agape Counseling Center in Fairfield, California
  • Brandy Porche, a licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health in Texas
  • Angela Robinson, LPCMH, clinical director at NorthNode Group Counseling in Dover, Delaware

Why was the Oscars’ slap so polarizing — and why can’t we stop talking about it?

Nicole Washington: These two celebrities are pretty established and well-respected in their fields. These are mature men who have been in the industry for decades, not new to the scene young men who we kind of expect some hotheadedness from.

Renetta Weaver: [The incident] brought up a range of ethical dilemmas we face as humans. In that moment, anyone who stood against acts of violence was forced to choose a team.

Did Smith experience emotional dysregulation in response to Rock’s joke?

Cornelia Gibson: If [Smith] would have taken a few seconds to reframe his thoughts, to think about this night possibly being his moment, he would have responded differently. High-pressure moments, especially for Black people, require a high degree of emotional regulation. Sometimes it takes but a few seconds to see the “bigger picture.”

Washington: Of course, none of us know what was going through Smith’s head in the minutes, hours, days prior to this happening. It seems as if it were a very impulsive reaction and perhaps had he taken a minute to breathe he would have reacted differently.

Brandy Porche: Will and Jada have publicly and routinely shared their marital and extramarital activities via interviews and books. Their family has been the subject of discussions for decades.

From their marriage to how they have raised their kids, people have publicly questioned and ridiculed their family structure. I think the public ridicule has brought about high levels of shame and anger. Chris’ joke wasn’t the first poke at their family that night.

Given that Smith grew up in a domestic violence household, could the slap have been borne out of a “fight-or-flight” response?

Weaver: Smith had just released a memoir in which he wrote about feeling guilty for not protecting his mother from his abusive father. Behind the fame, Will is a human being who’s an adult that witnessed abuse in his household.

Witnessing abuse can change the brain, leading to anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms such as:

Having the knowledge of a previous conflict creates a bookmark in our mind that this situation is not safe.

Angela Robinson: [This may be an example of] intergenerational patterns of behavior — when beliefs and behaviors are passed down generationally, either genetically or through conditioning. Subsequently, Will has developed a passive and aggressive demeanor from his upbringing that allows him to subconsciously repeat the behavior.

What’s the psychology behind the culture of celebrity worship?

Weaver: When someone achieves fame, we idolize them and hold them to a higher standard. Because we see them as superhuman, we forget that they are real people with feelings and emotions.

We don’t expect them to react or be flawed in any way. We forget that what they do to entertain us is them going to work, with long hours and uncomfortable demands. We forget that they have families and have been trying to navigate the same world we live in.

When a celebrity makes a mistake or faces a challenge, I think it’s a mental and emotional escape for us. It’s easier to get invested in others’ lives because it’s an escape from looking within and thinking about our own imperfect life.

Porche: It’s “safe” to judge and hold celebrities accountable because individuals believe they would never actually encounter them in real life. People can call out celebrities and hold them accountable for actions they would never confront in their personal lives.

Why do people seem to project their own issues around violence or conflict resolution onto events like these?

Robinson: Many times, trauma comes with an emotional attachment to the experience, the conflict, or both. Projection is a way to disregard their own behaviors or emotionally react to their own trauma, but through the lens of another’s demise.

Weaver: The reason why two people can see the same event but have a different account of what happened is due to the “mirror neurons” in the brain. Our brain has mirror neurons that allow us to empathize and take the perspective of others.

Often our perspective about a situation is based on our view of our self and that causes us to project our own issues around violence and conflict resolution into this event.

Rock’s joke about Pinkett Smith may have been in poor taste, but ultimately, Smith’s behavior was inexcusable. On April 8, Smith was barred by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from attending the Oscars for the next 10 years.

While there are seemingly endless opinions on the infamous slap, there are also conflicting viewpoints as media personalities, the public, and even mental health professionals weigh in.

American pop culture is often centered on celebrity gossip, which may be a form of escapism or even a lack of empathy toward others.

Whether you’re Team Rock or Team Smith, it’s important to consider the emotional impact the slap had on Pinkett Smith. What some may say was just a simple or routine joke may have caused harm to her mental well-being.

The interviews for this article were edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.