Character sketch

Pop psych pans out?

Tamerlan, top, and Dzhokhar, bottom, Tsarnaev stood with their sisters in an undated photo from their childhood.
Tamerlan, top, and Dzhokhar, bottom, Tsarnaev stood with their sisters in an undated photo from their childhood.

After authorities publicly identified Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan as suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings, a conventional wisdom about their relationship emerged almost immediately: Tamerlan was obviously the leader.

Everyone who furiously Googled the brothers’ names that Friday soon learned the following: that Dzhokhar, 19, had won a $2,500 scholarship from the City of Cambridge and been honored as student-athlete of the month at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School; that he used an Americanized nickname, Jahar; and that on his Twitter account, allusions to conspiracy theories about 9/11 were accompanied by musings about cheeseburgers, marijuana, and beer pong. The 26-year-old Tamerlan, it was equally clear, found American life far more challenging. Interviewed for a photo essay about his boxing career, Tamerlan said he didn’t understand Americans and didn’t have a single American friend. Applying a little pop psychology to a few bare facts, many commentators concluded that Tamerlan had likely dreamed up the Marathon plot — which involved crude bombs made with pressure cookers, explosives, and BBs — and drawn his better-assimilated younger brother in.

When major news stories break, some early reports prove inaccurate. Yet despite all the surprising turns in the Marathon case, the initial popular assessment about the Tsarnaev brothers’ relative culpability seemed to hold firm as of late Thursday. If anything, a week of dogged news reporting upheld that initial judgment in many ways. The older brother, it turned out, appeared on multiple terrorism watch lists. Dzhokhar, meanwhile, has been characterized by friends as a pothead — a stereotype that hints less at diabolical motives than a sleepy-eyed lethargy. Dzhokhar’s legal defense strategy might well rest on these perceptions.


Still, a question naturally arises: Are we, collectively, really this good at judging character? Are the traces of personality that people leave on the public record so telling that we can draw accurate conclusions about their lives? From the movies and from real life, we’ve all met stoners, and blithe teenagers, and people who are meek in the presence of domineering loved ones, so it’s natural to think we understand these characters instinctively.

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Federal investigators, no doubt, are less empathetic. There was Dzhokhar on video from April 15, according to an FBI affidavit, slipping his knapsack onto the ground on Boylston Street and then walking away calmly but rapidly just before it explodes. And there he was a couple of days later, back at UMass Dartmouth, working out at the gym, sleeping in his dorm. His room was notable, a Globe report indicated, for “a permanent stench of marijuana.” A search of that room, according to the FBI, turned up items more relevant to the bombings, including “a large pyrotechnic” and a supply of BBs.


Twitter: @danteramos