Interview With Dr. David Reiss, Clinical Psychiatrist & Authority On Pro Wrestling Psychology
Updated: Aug 15, 2020
Welcome back wrestling fans for another stupendous interview here on *Kayfabe Kickout. Today I had the immense pleasure to speak with Dr. David Reiss a practicing Clinical Psychiatrist for more than 25 years, who has performed over 10,000 psychiatric evaluations. In addition to his immense experience in the study of medical psychiatry, Dr. Reiss is a leading authority in the study of the psychology aspects of professional wrestling. Dr. Reiss has written numerous clinical studies on the subject. In April, 2012 Dr. Reiss was a guest lecturer at the Cauliflower Alley Club in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he shared his expertise on various topics of professional wrestling such as; life outside the ring, maintaining relationships, injuries both inside and outside the ring, how to deal with rabid wrestling fans and more. I spoke with Dr. Reiss on a number of controversial topics in professional wrestling, including his thoughts on Chris Benoit, the WWE's Wellness Policy, serious head injuries in professional wrestling and more. Richard: What was the one factor that cemented your decision to chronicle the importance of the psychology aspects of professional wrestling? Dr. Reiss: Actually, a very personal experience. I had toyed with ideas and thought about the psychology of professional wrestling for some time. Years ago, when I was doing Jungian work with the late Jack Sanford I found that pro wrestling characters were appearing in some of my dreams, along with other, more classical archetypal figures. At first I thought that it was purely personal, referring to my having watched wrestling with my father as a kid, but I came to understand that many wrestling characters do carry archetypal meanings. It was at that point that I decided to study the issue more seriously. Richard: In your opinion why do you think WWE CEO Vince McMahon has distanced himself from the traditional concepts and storytelling fundamentals of professional wrestling that made his company the biggest and most successful in history? Dr. Reiss: I can only assume that this is a decision made upon marketing and financial concerns. Vince certainly hasn’t been perfect in his business decisions (e.g., XFL) but no one can question his overall success and business acumen. The market and media have changed – younger fans; different ways to monetize the industry – and Vince changed wrestling along with it. Certainly, many have profited from the decisions, others have been hurt or disappointed. From my point of view, it has diluted the archetypal/psychological significance of professional wrestling – but that was not (and should not necessarily have been) Vince’s primary concern. Richard: How important is it for professional wrestling promotions to be properly educated on the long term effects of concussions and other serious brain injuries, that are the direct result of high risk spots in the ring; IE: chair shots, risky maneuvers, etc.? Dr. Reiss: Only recently has there been medical recognition (and recognition in the media) of the severity of the long-term consequences of even minor concussions, as well as serious head injuries. Very convincing data both from sports (mostly football) and from the military indicates that multiple “minor” injuries, even being subjected to concussive forces without the person necessarily identifying themselves as having been injured, can lead to very significant consequences over time including memory problems, cognitive impairment, depression and impulsivity. Not only is there a cumulative effect of minor incidents, but it seems that if there is not sufficient recovery time between incidents, the long term effects can be worse. This is a very serious issue that impacts multiple sports, and is especially significant in professional wrestling where concussive forces are experienced in the “normal” working of a match, as well as by taking “chair shots” or when a risky maneuver is not clean. There needs to be attention to reducing risks; knowing when to take an athlete out of action, and for how long; and what treatment approaches are available (neurological and psychological). Richard: What are your thoughts on the WWE's Wellness Policy? Dr. Reiss: While I am not privy to all the details of the WWE Wellness Policy, I can address the issue generally. Simply having a wellness policy is a positive move. However, in all professional (and school) sports, the “management” – be it a corporation or a college – has conflicting interests regarding protecting their investment in athletes versus protecting their “product”, protecting their particular “brand” and satisfying the public/media. Unfortunately, in essentially all professional sports, all but those athletes at the very top of the pyramid are rather expendable, replaceable by literally hundreds of other individuals with fairly equivalent skills. From a purely “business” point of view, this decreases the motivation of the management to have the long-term health of the athlete as the primary motivation. I would like to see wellness programs in all sports directed by medically-informed personnel who are working purely in the best long-term interest of the athlete, independent form other pressures – including pressures from athletes themselves (and at times family members), who may not recognize that the short term risks are not justified by the potential long-term consequences. In my opinion, this should involve clinical decisions, decisions regarding when an athlete should be removed from competition and also developing a fair and effective enforcement policy (regarding dangerous behaviors, drug use, etc.) There is no one “correct” answer or “perfect” wellness program – but an athlete deserves to have experienced professionals making decisions who do not have a conflict of interest. Richard: In 2012 a huge majority of wrestling fans know every aspect of professional wrestling is scripted; from match finishes, to which wrestler will win a specific title, yet they still continue to watch their favorite wrestling programs every week. As a clinical psychiatrist can you offer some perspective on why wrestling fans stay loyal to a product that they know is “not real”? Dr. Reiss: There is a psychological aspect to professional wrestling that goes well beyond the competition and determination of “who wins, who loses.” Of course, this is so of many forms of entertainment – we sort of know that James Bond is going to come out of the film alive, but we’ve been going to James Bond films for 50 years! However, professional wrestling has an even deeper psychological connection than your typical movie (or television) “action” in that both the hero and the villain survive to fight another day. The story is an ongoing chain, with characters at times leaving, but typically not because they were defeated. This is more similar to the stories of the Roman or Greek gods and goddesses than an athletic competition – a constant battle between good and evil, with many characters having both good (baby-face) and evil (heel) aspects, wherein all of the characters are extremely powerful if not omnipotent and a “full” victory or defeat of a major character, good or evil, rarely occurs. The psychological meaning of this archetypal battle has captured the imagination and attention of mankind for thousands of years – and perhaps professional wrestling is the “purest” form of these archetypes that we have in our society currently (in boxing or MMA, a defeat can put you out of the business). In that regard, understanding that this is different from a sporting competition can actually enhance the emotional experience, rather than detract from it. Richard: The Monday Night Wars were arguably the greatest era in the history of professional wrestling, where the bar was raised ten fold for content that some people felt was “not appropriate” for pro wrestling, do you think that extremely Non-PC storylines in pro wrestling are necessary in 2012 to bring back the level of popularity pro wrestling achieved during that era? Dr. Reiss: Another important psychological aspect of professional wrestling is that the “normal” rules of etiquette, “political correctness”, “bad taste”, etc. do not apply. This is an arena in which ideas and fantasies can be played out without the limitations of “polite” society. Without that loosening of rules and boundaries, wrestling would certainly lose some of its appeal and fans. At the same time, there is a very large grey area between “PC” and “inappropriate” and there can be good arguments made for “drawing the line” in different places. Some limits and boundaries are necessary; too many limits and boundaries detract from the impact. As long as professional wrestling involves violent acts (that would be illegal under “normal” circumstances) and remains within the open, popular realm (i.e., not relegated to the status of pornography) this will always be a question to be debated and argued about – which is part of the fun being involved in professional wrestling. There will never be a “correct” answer. In fact, we are seeing essentially the same argument in the media at the current time regarding Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” Richard: Without getting into the specifics of the case, in your medical opinion do you think that with the proper treatment Chris Benoit could have been rehabilitated? Or do you think at that point in his life in June 2007 it was too late? Dr. Reiss: Of course, I do not have all of the details that contributed to the Benoit tragedy, so I can only speak generally. Extreme violent actions are not easily predictable. In fact, from a psychiatric point of view, the only statistically valid predictor of violence is previous violence – so that the “first” incident is, in essence, by definition not predictable with any good reliability. On the other hand, in my opinion, with appropriate intervention, at least theoretically, almost all such tragedies can be prevented. 1) Obviously if a person is involved in use of illicit drugs, intervention can remove that variable; 2) Clinical depression can be treated – not always to 100% resolution, but almost always to the point of very significant reduction of risk, if treatment is comprehensive and the patient is compliant; 3) There are treatments that reduce the symptoms and effects of head injuries on a neurological basis as well as on a psychological basis. We are still learning more about what is most effective, but there definitely are interventions available; 4) There are many interventions that can help to reduce the chance of domestic disputes turning violent. Of course, all of the above require the recognition of the problem by the individuals involved, and compliance with treatment. With full and open cooperation, the risk of violence can be brought to an almost negligible level in the vast majority of situations. However, tragedies will continue to occur when a person falls into the dangerous area in which they do not have insight to their difficulties or motivation to comply with treatment (which may be an aspect of the illness itself) but they are not yet at the point at which involuntary intervention can be legally sought (which often requires an act of violence or overt and severe psychosis). Richard: Do you think there is a direct link between the high number of suicides in pro wrestling and serious brain injuries such as concussions, or are there other psychological factors that come into play as well? Dr. Reiss: Yes and yes. Brain injuries and concussions, of themselves, may lead to serious and even dangerous depression and impulsivity. However, it is rare that there are not other contributory factors, including psychological factors (depression due to other issues; self-esteem; basic personality issues, etc.); psycho-social factors (family issues, financial problems, employment difficulties, relationship issues, etc.) and possibly other medical issues that can affect mood, cognition and impulse control. Richard: Over the past two decades the overall product of professional wrestling has changed dramatically from the early days, do you think companies like the WWE and TNA need to put the old school psychology aspects back into their matches? Dr. Reiss: Times change, and in my opinion, thing will not “go backwards.” We will never return completely to the old school, in that the audience has changed, kayfabe is dead, etc. However, the changes have been so dramatic that in my opinion, looking back at what “worked” in the past that is now missing, and incorporating some of those aspects back into the “product” would probably increase interest and increase the fan base. Personally, I would like to see more consistency and (at least elementary) “logic” in moving from story-line to story-line; I would like to see wrestlers stay “in character” more consistently, at least through a show; and while I certainly support humor being used, I would like to see some story-lines stay on a more “serious” level that does not have to be “in your face” or totally “logical” but that maintains adult interest (in the manner of a serial TV program). Richard: In your opinion which pro wrestler from the past 30 years mastered the concepts of good in ring psychology? Dr. Reiss: There are so many, I’m going to pass on “naming names.” I will offer this – while there are and have been excellent wrestlers who “get it” but are much better at baby-face than heel or visa versa, I have most respect for those who can move back and forth between babyface and heel, while still maintaining their basic character and for reasons that “makes sense” to the degree that we are seeing different aspects of the same person, as opposed to essentially a different character or different personality with the same name. I admire those who can set up a “slow burn” psychological lead up to a turn, where you are not sure where things are going to go – even if the actual turn occurs within the story-line in response to a specific event. Also, I believe that the Masters of the art of professional wrestling, whether heel or babyface, build up an expectation that they cannot possibly lose a match feud – and yet they are going up against an opponent who has built up the same level of invincibility. I think that the most psychologically effective matches are ones in which the fans really cannot conceive of either opponent losing (but requires a clever ending better than just a run-in or count-out). Fans can follow Dr. Reiss on Twitter @Trotdoc and fans can also check out Dr Reiss' Official Website. I want to personally thank Dr. David Reiss for taking the time to speak with me here at *Kayfabe Kickout.
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