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A Psychologist On Why We Fall For Psychopaths Like Joe Goldberg On "You"

Why We Fall For Psychopaths Like Penn Badgley's Character, Joe Goldberg, on You
Image by mbg Creative x Eugene Gologursky / Getty
January 11, 2020

We all like to think we're great judges of character. We're immune to trickery, we have good taste in partners, and our BS radars are strong, right? Not so fast.

If you've watched Netflix's You, there's a chance you may have started to second-guess yourself recently. The series chronicles a young bookstore manager with unsavory tendencies (to say the least), and with the release of the show's second season, it has stirred some fascinating questions about why we fall for psychopaths.

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The memes (oh, the memes *spoiler warning*) about You currently littering the internet all seem to have one thing in common: They support main character Joe Goldberg despite his manipulative, violent, and downright psychopathic behavior. Even Penn Badgley himself had choice words for Joe's biggest fans.

So, to get to the bottom of the You phenomena, we turned to psychologist Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, for insight on how psychopaths manage to suck us in. And as it so happens, we can learn a lot from Joe Goldberg.

Empathy makes us susceptible.

Without spoiling anything, there are multiple close calls within the show where viewers may find themselves hoping Joe gets away with his actions. We know what he's doing is wrong, so why do we root for him?

It comes down to the empathy that Joe evokes, according to Neo. "Empathy is really about how we are compelled to understand why things are the way they are. And we try to do that for other people, especially if we are very understanding of other people. So when we have empathy for someone, it hooks us in."

On top of that, we like to give people the benefit of the doubt, and a second (or fifth) chance for redemption: "The thing about Joe and the way he narrates it..." Neo adds, "'s really a story that triggers our love for redemption... He wants to change, he wants to do things better, and we root for a person who wants to change and transform."

Joe's behavior could even seem romantic "to those of us who have been brought up on Disney and rom-coms practically IV-dripped into our consciousness. Joe love bombs his victims, and he makes himself your world."

What can You tell us about dating IRL?

You offers an extreme example of what can happen when a psychopath enters your life. It may be just a show, but it can tell us a lot about red flags and how to avoid problematic scenarios.

"If you're vulnerable because you're looking for someone to rescue you," Neo adds, "then sophisticated psychopaths and dark personality types are going to be out for you."

They're masters of making "the right first impressions, creating this perception, weaving this little web in which they learn about you and stage their entrance into your life," says Neo. And what's more, with the ubiquity of dating apps today, anyone can manufacture a great first impression. Even when something goes awry, "if we already had this preconceived notion that this person is sensitive and emotionally present, it's very easy for us to believe they're a good person."

And just as Joe had a tragic childhood, which he leverages for sympathy, people in real life can do the same: "A compelling story about how sad their childhood was evokes this caretaker instinct." And when we hear a story, it releases oxytocin in our brain—aka the bonding hormone.

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Bottom line?

"What we can learn from psychopaths like Joe," Neo says, "is that we need to have a lot better boundaries. Just as you are responsible for your own issues and your own demons, someone else is responsible for theirs [...] Relationships fundamentally are about interdependence rather than dependence."

Because when we take care of ourselves and our needs first, "that makes us a lot less vulnerable to a love bomber. It also makes us a lot wiser in trusting our own gut and our own wisdom," she says.

If the whole show gave you a bad case of the creeps, Neo offered some additional advice. "[Social media] is a part of our lives today, but use it in a sensible way and don't divulge too much about yourself." Use good judgment, be careful with someone who tries to get you alone, and don't share where you live straight out of the gate.

While Joe Goldberg is an extreme type of psychopath, we can't guarantee milder versions won't enter your life. So let You serve as a guidebook on what not to do in a new relationship. Trust your intuition, watch for the red flags, and, for God's sake, buy some curtains.

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