Have your social media feeds been filled with news and commentary on The Mind of Jake Paul? Yeah, same here. The new eight-part docu-series hosted by YouTuber Shane Dawson has become super popular—and controversial. The show seeks to uncover why another YouTube megastar, Jake Paul, is the way he is.
But in the web series, Dawson doesn’t just seem to be asking whether the 21-year-old Ohio native is a reckless, attention-seeking entertainment personality, or simply a harmless prankster. He also poses the much more serious question, Is Jake Paul a sociopath?
With the premiere episode already topping 20 million views, The Mind of Jake Paul is attracting a whole lot of eyeballs, as well as a sizable backlash, with both viewers and experts concerned that the show takes a sensationalizing approach to the very serious (and already stigmatized) topic of personality disorders for the sake of entertainment.
Here’s some background info about the type of content covered in the series—the first six episodes of which have been released—so far, for anyone not caught up.
The purpose of the show seems to be an attempt to investigate whether Jake (who is the little brother of popular Youtuber Logan Paul) may be a sociopath or have another mental health issue that drives him to act the way he does. At one point, in episode one, Dawson says, “I want to talk to a psychologist and see, like, if he is a sociopath.” To this end, Dawson has combed through the YouTube archives for footage of Jake, interviewed one of Jake’s ex-best friends, and consulted heavily with licensed marriage and family therapist (and YouTube celebrity in her own right) Kati Morton.
The first episode kicks off with Dawson wondering about the bizarre nature of YouTube culture in general. (“YouTubers have to have some kind of personality disorder, something, right? To do what we do—putting ourselves on camera all the time,” he says.) In the next episodes, Morton and Dawson talk about what sociopathy is and speculate on whether Jake and his brother Logan have sociopathic tendencies—going as far as probing the brothers’ family life, and speaking with friends and a former collaborator of Jake.
Episode five is when Dawson finally starts speaking to Jake himself while they hang out in Jake’s mansion—with Morton, the therapist, tagging along disguised as a producer. The fifth episode features the following text disclaimer: “Jake was aware that a therapist was going to evaluate him in the series and he said I could do whatever I wanted. No limits.” While it appears that Jake is indeed in on the series in general, it is unclear if he is aware that Morton is posing as a producer or not.
The series veers into treacherous territory when Dawson begins to pluck out characteristics or past behaviors of the Paul brothers as possible evidence of the foregone conclusion that they may have a personality disorder.
In episode two, Dawson asks Morton about sociopathy in general, without bringing up Jake at first. Morton goes through the symptoms with her copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) on hand. At one point in the conversation, Morton says, “The main thing [sociopaths] want is power and money”—and the shot is then juxtaposed with a 2017 TMZ video clip of Jake saying, “I want to be the first social media billionaire.”
Later, Dawson asks Morton if things like driving fast, drinking, doing drugs, getting tattoos, and putting friends in harm’s way are sociopathic tendencies. “Usually, probably,” Morton replies. Meanwhile, clips of Jake getting a tattoo and driving fast with a friend in the passenger seat play. In this example, nobody is directly saying Jake is a sociopath, and they explicitly state they don’t know this for a fact.
Later in the scene, before Dawson even brings Jake up (although he has mentioned Jake’s brother Logan by this point), Morton herself offers Jake up as an example. “Not that we’re saying that the Paul brothers are sociopaths at all, but wasn’t it Jake that like lit a huge fire in his pool with like furniture and stuff?”
Then, Dawson proposes Jake as a specific example to Morton. “It's possible. I mean, I don't know him,” Morton says. “The thing is, like, people put on shows to be on YouTube—like you know what I mean, personas. But going back to the symptoms and signs that we've just read through, like not caring if people get hurt. He’s done things to people, like terrorizing members of his team, right? The lack of emotion in his eyes and stuff is kind of creepy. But I'd have to—I don't know, is he? I mean does he, is he remorseful? Does he just pretend he's remorseful? We see videos where he says he is, I don't know.” Again, while neither person is explicitly calling Jake a sociopath, the discussion around is-he-or-isn’t-he continues.
They go through several other behaviors of both Jake and Logan that, they insinuate, resemble that of a sociopath. For example, in the beginning of episode three, Dawson says that Logan doesn't cry at funerals, seemingly implying this is indicative of sociopathy. “I’ve seen videos of Logan at funerals. He doesn’t cry at funerals. He vlogged at a funeral, so he didn’t have empathy in that situation,” Dawson says.
Now you might be thinking, “Well, then it sounds like Jake Paul could be a sociopath. What’s the big deal?”
To answer this question, SELF turned to several mental health experts (none of whom have seen the series) to speak to why it’s so misguided and dangerous to try to pathologize a person’s mental health from afar.
Let’s take a step back and briefly address what sociopathy is—and isn’t: Sociopathy is not a clinical diagnosis. Although the word pops up in everyday conversation, it is not actually a medical term, Steven Siegel, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of psychiatry and the behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, tells SELF.
“We try to avoid the term because it just doesn’t have any formal meaning. It’s a colloquial word and it’s not used consistently,” Scott Lilienfeld, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Emory University, tells SELF.
“It has no clinical content,” Ronald Schouten, M.D., J.D., director of the Law & Psychiatry Service of the Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, tells SELF. “It’s used as an epithet.”
As Dr. Siegel explains, sociopath is generally a label that some people give someone they believe is a bad person.
Sociopathy is really an outdated, slippery term for what is known today as antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), according to the American Psychological Association (APA). As Morton notes in episode two, “The Dark Side of Jake Paul,” ASPD is the technical term most clinicians prefer to use today. (The terms are still sometimes used interchangably, according to the National Institutes of Health).
“Antisocial personality disorder is psychiatry's way of trying to classify people without using the pejorative or derogatory terms,” Dr. Siegel explains. “It’s a way of commenting on a pervasive pattern of behavior that spans someone's adult life and that may inform why they experience life the way they do.”
But the idea that you can detect antisocial personality disorder based on a gut feeling is totally false.
Morton claims that you can intuit when somebody is a sociopath. “You can feel them, I don’t know if you can really spot them,” she says in episode two. “When you’re around people like this, if you sense I guess what I sense about them, it feels like a pit in your stomach.”
But diagnosing a personality disorder like ASPD is far more complicated than that; and the process is not as simple as ticking off boxes in the DSM-5. While it’s true that there is a very specific set of criteria that somebody must meet to receive a diagnosis of ASPD, “personality disorders are notoriously difficult to diagnose,” Katherine Dixon-Gordon, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, tells SELF. “This diagnosis is a really complex thing to undertake, and requires these long interviews.”
Even having all the relevant information doesn’t always ensure a reliable diagnosis. “They are so complicated that even among psychologists and psychiatrists, we can’t agree on how to diagnose personality disorders,” Dixon-Gordon says. “Even when we undertake these incredibly complicated interviews with people, experts don't always agree.” She explains that two well-qualified clinicians could evaluate the same person and not necessarily come away with the same assessment.
In reality, the behaviors some experts may link to ASPD span a spectrum. “All of these personality disorders describe being at an extreme end of a spectrum of normal human behaviors,” Dr. Siegel says. Dixon-Gordon adds, “By definition, [personality disorders] represent maladaptive variance of normative personality functioning. So often that line between what’s adaptive and what’s maladaptive and what’s normative and non-normative is a difficult one to find.”
In episode two, Morton cites a statistic that one in 25 people is a sociopath. (This stat is arguably outdated and was derived from several studies dating back to the ‘90s.) While there are not many reliable epidemiological studies on how prevalent ASPD is—although several experts noted that figure sounds high—Lilienfeld argues that the stat is misleading for a different reason.
“Saying ‘one in 25’ implies that [people with ASPD] are different in kind, rather than in degree, from the rest of us,” Lilienfeld says. “In my view, there’s no real distinction in nature that clearly tells you [if somebody has ASPD or not]. There’s no categorical cutoff. It’s almost like asking, ‘How many people are tall?’ Depends on where you draw the cutoff for tall.”
Dixon-Gordon makes a similar argument. “In the same way that the cutoff for whether or not you have high cholesterol changes from year to year, these [diagnostic cutoffs] change,” she explains.
These complicated, nebulous aspects of personality disorders mean that attempting to diagnose them even in a professional setting requires extreme care and caution. “All of these things are reasons why diagnosis is so, so nuanced and complex and contextual,” Dixon-Gordon says, “and really requires […] not jumping to conclusions.”
The truth is that you could probably pull out so-called examples of sociopathy in most people.
“There’s a ton of variability out there in the world in terms of whether people engage in lying, manipulation, and not feeling remorse,” Dixon-Gordon says. “There’s going to be people who have more of these characteristics and people who have less,” and the vast majority of all of them are not going to be perfect saints or people with ASPD.
“Probably all of us have some degree of all of these traits—all of us lie from time to time, some of us lack empathy maybe more than we should about some things,” as Lilienfeld puts it. Dr. Siegel also points out that “everyone who ever stole or cheated or lied had a moment of sociopathic behavior.” As he explains it, if you read through the diagnostic criteria for ASPD and gave yourself a score from one to 10 on each of them, it’s unlikely that you would score a zero on every single one.
That’s why taking these instances out of context and pathologizing them, as Morton and Dawson attempted to do at least implicitly, is so dangerous. “You can always cherry pick people’s bad behaviors,” Lilienfeld says. “But you have to take the person in the totality of their actions—it’s a mistake not to.”
The plain fact is that nobody but a qualified professional with the relevant expertise and experience who has done a properly thorough (and private) evaluation is capable of accurately diagnosing somebody.
“It takes a very skilled clinician,” psychiatrist Dolores Malaspina, M.D., director of the Psychosis Program in the department of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, tells SELF. “It’s nothing you can do from the outside, unless you have a great deal of information about someone’s inner life. You would need to know about the inner life of the person and not deduce it from their behaviors.”
In order to diagnose something like ASPD, it requires a lot of inference, “meaning you need to have gotten to know the person quite well over a long period of time,” Lilienfeld says. “You need to be able to have a good sense of the person’s sense of guilt for the things they’ve done wrong, the person’s sense of empathy, the person’s sense of deep emotional attachment to others.”
This requires not only the extensive interviews Dixon-Gordon mentioned, but an incredible amount of background information on the person, a deep understanding of the relevant psychiatry, and a broad knowledge medicine.
Dr. Siegel ticks through all of the conclusions you would have to come to in order to make an ASPD diagnosis: “You're saying, 'I know enough about your long-term history to make comments about your ongoing behavior across time, across people. I know you don’t have a medical condition.’ Think of all the medicine you need to know about to rule out everything [else] that could explain this person’s behavior. [You're saying], ‘I know enough about your situation that I can rule out that this is a pathologic response to a pathologic situation.’” He concludes, “It’s hard to imagine that I would have all of that data about someone who I’ve never met and have only seen snippets of that they choose to show me through me some public medium.”
Dr. Malaspina also points out that diagnosing from afar is an even more fraught enterprise when you’re trying to analyze somebody based largely on a public persona they are performing—e.g. a YouTube celebrity. “I think the internet stars, that’s like theater. The [person they are on the] internet is a persona—they are not playing their true selves,” she explains. “You could never diagnose [a mental health condition] from a persona, because a persona is somebody’s act.” (In episode four, Jake’s former co-star/housemate/friend Nick Compton even mentions that all of the stunts that Jake and his team put on are staged. So, it's unclear how "real" or genuine any of the behavior that Dawson and Morton are scrutinizing really is.)
It’s worth noting that, in the web series, Dawson claims he is trying to strip back the mask and get to know the real Jake Paul, but the viewer doesn’t see Dawson interview Jake at all in the first four episodes. And when they finally do talk face-to-face, the fact remains that as long as the camera is rolling, some form of artifice inevitably remains.
Armchair diagnosing is not only impossible to do accurately—it’s potentially dangerous and stigmatizing.
The practice can generate misperceptions both about the condition and the individual in question. For one thing, if we stuck an antisocial personality disorder label on every internet personality we came across, the diagnosis would lose its meaning, Dr. Schouten argues. “It detracts from the value of having a very serious, very dangerous clinical concept—and from people understanding what it is—[when] people throw it into the wastebasket of name calling,” he says. “It’s irresponsible and it’s unethical.”
On the other hand, carelessly labeling people with psychiatric conditions can also have serious repercussions for the person being talked about. “Given the hazards and stigmas associated with these diagnoses, it really just raises the question of whether [unqualified people] should be making them at all,” Dixon-Gordon says.
And, to be very clear, getting a mental health professional on board doesn’t make it any better; it simply gives the appearance of legitimacy to a dubious claim. “If someone were to get a psychiatrist and say, ‘Do your evaluation [on this person],’ then [the psychiatrist] is giving validity to calling someone, for all intents and purposes, a really terrible human being with limited capacity to change,” Dr. Siegel says. “They're labeling a person and validating it in a way they have no right to do.”
Dr. Schouten also wonders if the series could be inadvertently making the idea of having ASPD seem cool—a not unreasonable concern when you consider the extremely young, excitable fan base tuning in. “[They’re] watching this show because they want to be like him,” Dr. Schouten says—which, in a way, glorifies the term and his behavior.
Morton has apologized for offending anyone and defended her participation in the show.
SELF reached out to Morton for comment, and we will update the article when we hear back. In the meantime, Morton’s manager referred us to the eight-and-a-half minute video that Morton posted in response to the criticism she has received for her role in the series. “Shane called me and asked if he could come over and just film me telling him how I would go about diagnosing a sociopath and let him know what symptoms they could have,” she said. “This was not a session. This was a friend of mine coming over asking for my expertise on a diagnosable mental illness. So I did what any other clinician would do, I grabbed my DSM.”
Morton also said in her video statement that she had good intentions. “I would never intentionally create content that would ever hurt or upset anyone. My goal is to educate and empower you,” she continued. “There are 96 percent of us who could fall victim to that manipulation that I'm talking about, so I want to make you more aware.” (It appears that Morton was referencing her claim that 4 percent of people, or one in 25, is a sociopath.) She also created an educational video about ASPD to address follow-up questions and provide more background, which was released at the same time as episode two.
Morton also praised Dawson for involving her in the first place. “I applaud him for even reaching out to me and asking a real mental health professional to weigh in on something and talk about it and shed light on mental illness and mental health as a whole,” she said.
Dawson has also tried to clarify that he is not trying to diagnose Jake.
Dawson added a clear text disclaimer at the beginning of episode three after the criticism episode two received: “This video contains discussion of personality disorders and is meant for entertainment purposes only. Please do not self diagnose or diagnose others.”
Prior to that, he tweeted, “I tried to make it clear in the vid, the description, my twitter, & all other places that people can’t diagnose each other & that a therapist needs to meet them. and also that it’s not the obvious awkward kid it’s someone you would never expect. people who fly under the radar.”
Dawson has also been responding to the uproar by apologizing to those he has offended and defending the series. In the intro to episode three, Dawson says: “I do actually want to apologize because there was some backlash from people feeling offended and feeling like I was making a horror movie out of an illness or a disorder. And I 100% understand […] to treat a person like a scary monster is like, not cool, and I shouldn’t have done that. So I apologize for that genuinely.”
He also apologized to Jake’s brother Logan (who called Dawson out in a video) for insinuating he might be a sociopath. “I shouldn’t be pointing a finger and [be] like, ‘You might be a sociopath,’ cause that’s fucked up. And I was wrong for doing that.” (SELF reached out to Dawson via email twice, and we will update the article if we hear back. We also reached out to Jake, who declined to comment at this time. )
In a Snapchat apology, Dawson took a similar position to Morton regarding his motives for making the show. “My intentions were to make something interesting, to show a side of personality disorders that nobody talks about because they’re too afraid to.” He adds in the episode three intro, “If it’s one in 25 people, there’s a lot of people hiding out there.”
For his part, Jake has expressed general support for the show but reservations about the “sociopath” question.
After the first episode dropped, Jake tweeted: “I guess the only thing im [sic] concerned about is that you still haven’t made it clear that you’re DETERMINING wether [sic] or not I am a sociopath… The way it comes off (at least to me & my family) is that you’re already labeling me a ‘sociopath.’”
He continued on Twitter after the second episode aired, “I love Shane & am trusting him 2 carry out the rest of the series..I hope he can actually make it clear WHO I AM & WHY I’ve done certain things & SHOW the side of me that no one has ever seen.. That’s why I agreed to do the series.. the ‘sociopath’ STUFF doesn’t interest me.”
But no matter the intentions behind the show—or how on board with the show Jake may or may not be—the diagnostic approach is a misguided endeavor.
The experts we spoke to agree it’s best to stay away from armchair diagnoses altogether as a matter of principle—to stop perpetuating misperceptions and stigma surrounding a certain condition and a human being.
Yes, even if it’s through insinuation and implication and with the use of clear disclaimers. Even if it’s just for entertainment purposes and dramatic effect. Even if the individual in question is someone who chooses to live their lives on-camera and appears to invite drama as much as Jake Paul does. And yes, even if he might be in on it.
“It’s just a really bad idea,” Dr. Schouten says of armchair diagnosing under any circumstances. As Lilienfield puts it, “The general rule is better safe than sorry, and to avoid it.”