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The Barney Test
"Everything I Know About People I Learned from the Andy Griffith Show"

The present reader, being a highly evolved creature, does not need the law to tell him how to behave. You and I don't have to be told, "Thou shalt not kill," because we would be unlikely to do it anyway. We avoid hurting others simply because it would make us feel bad. Because we empathize with our fellow humans, we generally treat them as we would want to be treated ourselves in the same circumstances.

To us, empathy is automatic, but not everyone possesses this skill. Empathy requires temporarily stepping outside of yourself and imagining how you would think and feel as another person. You have to be confident enough in your own identity and self-worth that you can set them aside for a moment. To someone without a basic reservoir of self-esteem, empathy is dangerous, because it breaches their defensive wall. Their ego is so fragile that everything in the world must be construed to support it, including the thoughts and intentions of others. People without empathy believe they understand others, but their interpretation is self-serving and egocentric and is almost always wrong.

These are the Barneys, the race of primitive creatures living among us who have no real comprehension of the feelings and needs of others. Due to a developmental defect beyond their control, they cannot step out of themselves and into the mind of another.

The term is based on Barney Fife, the character played by Don Knotts on the old The Andy Griffith Show. He was the pompous, insecure and uptight deputy, playing against the bemused and laid-back sheriff Andy Taylor in the fictional town of Mayberry. The story line of the show frequently involved Barney getting himself into trouble through ego and hubris and Andy using tact and humor to get him out. As you go through life in the modern world, I contend that most of what you need to know about people is contained in these two characters.

I say that every adult can be classified as either an Andy or a Barney. Andys are capable of sensing the emotional needs of others, while Barneys are not. Andys pass through life with grace, while Barneys bumble through like bulls in a china shop, leaving a path of destruction in their wake. Andys have an innate sense of right and wrong and don't need the law to keep them in line. Barneys are driven by the immediate needs of their fragile ego. They may claim to have high moral standards, but they rarely live up to them. Barneys need explicit boundaries on their behavior, so for them we have created our vast body of criminal law and places like the Family Services Center for the mediation of personal conflicts.

My definition of an "Andy" or "Barney" is deliberately vague. Instead of creating specific diagnostic criteria, as in statutory law, we will define the terms by example, as in case law.

The Andy/Barney Game

To better understand the Barney mentality, we need to play the Andy/Barney Game. I want you to go through a mental list of the adults you most often interact with and tell me whether each one is an Andy or a Barney. No compromises are allowed: You have to choose one or the other. Start with the people you live with, then look at your coworkers, your relatives and your neighbors.

It isn't fair to include children in this game, because they are still in development. Everyone starts out as a Barney, with Andy traits developing only as the brain matures. Adult Barneys are frozen in a certain stage of childish narcissism. We can give young adults the benefit of the doubt, but if the basic Andy personality has not emerged by the age of 25, then it probably never will.

Your Uncle Roger may be high-strung, defensive and prone to bigoted political opinions — a Barney — while Aunt Mae is relaxed and fun to be with — an Andy. If you are having trouble deciding which category Cousin John fits into, here are a few questions to help you decide....

These questions are advisory only, and I don't want you to take them as firm criteria, but if you answer "Yes" to any of them, then you may have a Barney on your hands. I want you to use your own judgment and be honest: Which character does each person in your life most closely resemble? Please don't lie to me and say that someone you care about is an Andy when you know darn well he is a Barney. Don't be alarmed if nearly everyone in your world is a Barney, because that's the way it goes sometimes.

In addition to the people who you see every day, think about the people who have caused you significant grief in recent days or years. Which category do each of them fall into? What about your "problem clients"? Everybody has them. Isn't there a certain Barney quality that makes them a problem?

We can also play the game with public figures and fictional characters....

Quick: Geraldo Rivera — Andy or Barney?

That's an easy one. There are a lot of pompous characters in television news, but Geraldo is the gold standard by which all others should be judged. Turn on FOX News right now to see Geraldo prancing around in some war zone or scene of natural disaster. No other reporter uses more "I's" and "me's" while reporting on a news story. Geraldo's life is a sitcom without any writers: He does it all himself. Remember the hilarious "Line in the Sand" episode? Embedded with a combat unit during the Iraq invasion, he draws a map on live TV showing his unit's location, then is ejected by the Pentagon for it. He later apologizes. Don't forget the "Exposing Myself" episode, when he admits in his autobiography to sexual encounters with over 1000 women, including named celebrities and the wife of the Prime Minister of Canada. Geraldo apologizes for that one, too. He doesn't apologize for the recent "Hurricane Katrina" episode when he is accused of pushing legitimate rescuers aside so he can be seen rescuing a woman on TV. That report is false, he says, the result of a crusade against him by the liberal press.

Geraldo is a better Barney than Barney Fife, because he is real.

Saddam Hussein — Andy or Barney?

Although this character isn't as amusing as Geraldo, he is made of the same stuff: an endless compulsive need for self-aggrandizement. Instead of making love to a TV camera, Saddam brutally repressed his perceived political opponents and created his own national hagiography. Both characters are driven by the needs of their damaged egos and have no real concern for the feelings of others. When we see him in his underwear in a jail cell, Saddam seems harmless, but his reign of terror in Iraq illustrates just how dangerous a Barney (or Geraldo) can become if he gains too much power.

Adoph Hitler, Ted Bundy, Scott Peterson, Jeffrey Dahmer, O.J. Simpson — Andys or Barneys?

These people who have done terrible things (or "alleged" terrible things in O.J.'s case). They certainly aren't Andys so they have to be Barneys, even if they aren't funny. You are not going to find one ounce of genuine remorse in any of them, but they aren't necessarily the heinous monsters we think of them as. Inside, they are hurt children, like Barney Fife, doing what they think they need to do to protect themselves. If they had had an Andy in their lives at any point during their childhood, they might have turned out differently.

This one is more difficult: Ronald Reagan — Andy or Barney?

You may call him an actor and may not agree with his politics, but Reagan came across as an Andy, at least in his public persona. He was confident in his place in the world. He didn't need to prove himself every minute like Geraldo does, and he probably wouldn't stab you in the back to serve the needs of his ego. His self-effacing public image was no-doubt carefully crafted, but all of us choose the role we play. This character was stable and bemused. He was obviously drawn to the limelight, but he was also principled (perhaps the wrong principles), and his ego did not require constant reassurance. Grudgingly, I vote him as an Andy, although I reserve the right to change my mind later.

George W. Bush — Andy or Barney?

For diplomatic reasons, I will let you figure this one out on your own. Remember that you can choose one option only.

It is difficult to find clear Andy examples in the world of public celebrities. There just aren't many of them. Andys by their nature, have little interest in fame. Being a celebrity is hard work, requiring constant attention to your image, and Andys would rather devote their energies to something more useful. Many actors play Andys on TV (like Andy Griffith himself), but it is hard to know if their act is the same in real life. When a true Andy does rise to public prominence, it is almost by accident, not because they had a particular need for fame.

Ron Howard — Andy or Barney?

Ron Howard was the child actor who played Opie, the son of Sheriff Taylor. Later, he did not turn to drugs, but became one of Hollywood's most respected movie directors. With him, you get the sense that fame was incidental. He didn't choose to become a child star, but he came to accept the opportunities that it gave him. From his rare public appearances and the quality of his movies, you have the confidence that this is a nice guy who you can trust.

You don't have the same confidence with famous actors, especially those who marry other famous actors and whose marriages don't last more than six months. Although they may play sympathetic characters on the screen, you get the sense that they are not so easy to get along with when the cameras stop rolling. Some people become movie stars by accident, but most got there through an enormous obsessive drive that, frankly, an Andy could never muster. An Andy would probably become distracted somewhere along the line by the needs of others and would never make it to the top.

Some exceptions (from my remote observation): Steve Martin, Billy Crystal and Danny Divito. There aren't many other actors who you would trust to appreciate your needs.

Bugs Bunny — Andy or Barney? How about Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn, Daffy Duck and Wile E. Coyote?

Bugs is a nice guy. The others are not. Bugs just wants to be left along, and wouldn't hurt anybody unless someone sticks a gun down his rabbit hole. Even then, he is slow to anger. "What's up, Doc?" he asks, in a restrained quest for more information. Bugs reacts only when his opponent shows obvious evil intent and cannot be deflected by humor. Bugs doesn't have to do much, because his opponents provide the tools of their own downfall. Elmer's own gun barrel, when twisted around, ends up shooting him in the rear end, and you can't blame Bugs for the outcome.

Of these Loony Tunes characters, only Bugs has a true sense of humor. The others are deadly serious about themselves, which makes them blind to the ways they are setting themselves up. The Roadrunner has to say only two words — Beep! Beep! — to foil the plans of the Wile E. Coyote, because the roots of the coyote's failure are in himself (and his foolish reliance on the products of the Acme corporation).

Barneys are favorite comic foils on TV. Most traditional comedies have at least one, like Major Burns on M*A*S*H, Col. Klink on Hogan's Heroes, Mr. Dreysdale on The Beverly Hillbillies, and Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show. On the screen, they are selfish, greedy, insecure, deluded about their own importance, and hilariously inept. In real life, they may be all of these things but not as funny and often capable of causing enormous damage.

Okay, by now you have assembled a list of some of the Barneys in the world around you. I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you are an Andy. You know how you operate, so the only mystery is the Barneys. From the list you have assembled, what can we learn about them? How do their minds work? How do we deal with them?

Understanding the Barney

Lumping all people into one of two categories may seem trite, but it is also tremendously useful. We are used to thinking of all people as equal. If you are honorable and conscience-driven, then you expect others to be, and you may not be prepared for the treachery that the real world spits out at you. To adequately deal with the evil of the world, you need to develop an alternate theory of human behavior. Everyone has a brain, but not everyone's brain is wired the same. Some people process information in a manner totally different from yours.

Barney Fife and Andy Taylor, are a world apart. Andy is confident in himself and his place in the world. It may be a very small world — Mayberry — but he has mastered it. He has genuine high regard for himself, so doesn't need to impress anybody. When a problem comes up, he can see the situation in perspective and come up with a practical solution, taking other people's feelings into account. His ego does not get in the way of solving the problem.

Barney, on the other hand, has no basic self-confidence. Secretly, he is in continous doubt about his own worth. He is an outsider to Mayberry and knows it. He counters these doubts with an overbearing show of bravado on the surface. His behavior illustrates a universal truth: Weak ego on the inside translates into an exaggerated ego on the outside. Barney is always trying to prove to the world how important he is, and every action he takes is driven by this need. Paradoxically, this means that his problem-solving skills are poor. He can't see a problem for itself, apart from his ego, so his solutions tend to backfire and push his self-esteem still lower.

Another Barney used to appear in the same half-hour time slot as The Andy Griffith Show. He was Charlie the Tuna. Charlie always went to great lengths to prove to Starkist that he had "good taste". He would go to the opera, read the classics and engage in other supposedly cultured activities with the aim of being chosen by the company for inclusion in its product line. I must point out that being chosen would have resulted in Charlie being killed, chopped up and put into cans, but evidently this never occurred to him. It was the sense of rejection that overwhelmed him more than anything. In the end, the results were always the same: "Sorry, Charlie!" Starkist didn't want tuna with good taste but tuna that tasted good. Charlie could never figure out the difference.

Barneys in the real world have a similar disconnect. Lacking an inner sense of worth, they seek the outer appearances of it. By various tricks and deceptions — called defense mechanisms — they try to produce the appearance of value, at least to themselves. The exact means of doing this can vary widely. Some Barneys become movie stars, famous artists or corporate executives. Their drive to reach the top may be enormous. Give them a public contest or a race to run, and they will ruthlessly pursue the prize, even if the end result is being killed, chopped up and put into cans. Barneys do not question the value of the contest itself unless they happen to be losing.

Other Barneys are operating at such a low level that they have given up running any real race at all. These people preserve their illusion of self-esteem primarily through paranoia (the preception of threats that don't exist) and the devaluing of others. Most violence — domestic and otherwise — is the product of a Barney trying to protect his ego. I may not be a stockbroker, but if I can beat the crap out of a stockbroker, then I must be more important, eh? With their high impulsivity and low compassion, low-functioning Barneys are frequent characters in child abuse/neglect proceedings and domestic violence cases.

Among the staff of the Family Service Center, the proportion of Barneys to Andys roughly mirrors that of the general population. For example, there are human lawyers and then there are Cave Man Lawyers, who may understand the law but who have no comprehension of the real needs of their clients. Among the clientele of the court, however, the rate of Barneyism is extraordinarily high. In nearly every contested divorce case and in most abuse/neglect cases, there is at least one active Barney, and you can usually infer a Barney parent in juvenile justice cases. In some troubled families, every adult is a Barney.

I suspect that you are currently dealing with one or more Barneys in your own life. They aren't necessarily "bad" people, just clueless. Because of their empathic blindness, they can't see half of what is going on around them. They are like a colorblind person who is incapable of perceiving an important hue, like red, but who still insists that he can see everything. Although he doesn't understand red, there is nothing to prevent him from using the word and talking as if he knows it.

A Barney may strike you as amusing at first, because his perception of himself is so out of line with how others see him, but the amusement evaporates if you have to deal with one on a regular basis. Barneys in the real world are not always bumbling fools. Barneys with power can cause enormous destruction, and when you back a Barney into a corner, he turns mean. Sometimes, Barneys are downright dangerous — like Bundy or Peterson — because someone who sees people only as objects has no reluctance to hurt them.

A Barney is a child who has never grown up. He lives in a self-centered world where other people exist only to serve his needs. He can occasionally speak and behave as though he cares about others, but this is mostly an act and he doesn't really feel it, especially when his own ego is at risk. Instead, he reads into people what his own needs dictate. He expects others to be perfect supporters or perfect enemies. He does not fully understand that other people have their own agenda that has little to do with him.

This isn't the Barney's fault. It is simply the way his brain is structured. You can think of the syndrome as a form of mild autism. There is no point in exorting an autistic to be more sensitive, because he simply doesn't have the neurological machinery for it. Likewise, the Barney, once he reaches adulthood, is probably permanently disabled. No amount of punishment or reward is going to give him empathy or true emotional self-confidence. No words will change him, and only explicit enforcement will make him respect the needs of others.

[To be continued]


Theme Music from The Andy Griffith Show (MP3)

The Shrine to Don Knotts

The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club, Geraldo Rivera's official website. Looks nice, but most of the links don't work! Also note the heavy use of "I" and "me" in the text.

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The first thing you will notice about Barneys is that there are a lot of them. They can be found in almost every family, neighborhood and workplace.

The other obvious thing is that they can be very difficult to deal with. Dealing with an Andy is a pleasure; dealing with a Barney is a pain. When you first meet a Barney, there may be a honeymoon period when you get along okay with them. If you come to depend on them, however, the relationship will quickly become strained, because fundamentally they are not dependable. They do not understand what your needs are and never will.

Because the Barney looks like us and speaks our language, it is easy to misinterpret him. We who possess empathy tend to read it into others, often erroneously. Sometimes we find ourselves living or working with a Barney because we did not detect him in the beginning. Looking back on our first meeting with him, we see now that the clues were there; we just failed to recognize them.