Cynical psychology: The psychology of hoaxing

Earlier this week, I appeared on BBC radio talking about the psychology of hoaxing after someone had made hoax calls to the police about a bomb being on Nottingham school premises. I have to admit that I’m no expert on the psychology of hoaxing but I’ve always had a personal interest in hoaxes especially those in science (such a the Piltdown Man ‘missing link’ hoax), cryptozoology (such as Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, the Loch Ness Monster), parapsychology (alien abductions, flying saucers, etc.), art hoaxes (such as the Nat Tate scandal, a fake biography written by William Boyd and given credence by US writer Gore Vidal, Picasso’s biographer John Richardson, and David Bowie), and literary hoaxes (such as the German magazine Stern publishing Hitler’s diaries before they realised they were fake).

I also grew up in the late 1970s and 1980s enjoying television shows like Candid Camera and Game For A Laugh where hoaxing was the shows’ main ingredient in the name of entertainment. This has carried on into today’s light entertainment strand such as the hoaxes with celebrities on Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. I’m not claiming that such shows make hoaxing socially acceptable or socially condoned but they probably help in softening individuals’ attitudes towards hoaxing.

The radio show I was interviewed on wanted to know about why people hoax and the underlying psychology of a hoaxer. Before looking at any articles on what motivates a hoaxer I made a list of all the reasons I could think of what might cause people to hoax. My preliminary list included hoaxing (i) for amusement purposes, (ii) out of boredom, (iii) as an act of revenge, (iv) as a way to gain fame and/or notoriety in some way, (iv) to gain attention, such as faking illness [Munchausen’s Syndrome], (v) to demonstrate cleverness (or a perception of cleverness) to others around them, (vi) to disrupt the status quo (including terrorist and non-terrorist activity), and for political causes (such as claiming to be a victim of a racist hate crime).

After this (and in preparation for my radio interview) I went on Google Scholar and was surprised how little research had been done on the psychology of hoaxes (although there is plenty of research on more general areas such as the psychology of deception). One online article on hoaxes gave a different list of reasons as to why individuals would carry out hoaxes that was very different from my own speculations. The five reasons listed were to: (i) draw attention to their fraudulent skills, (ii) gain financial benefits through their deceit, (iii) “put their bait out and see who falls victim or target specific individuals to vilify or discredit, especially those who pose a threat (paranoia)”, (iv) feed people’s secret prejudices and beliefs, and (v) fool people “because it’s fun”.

Although there are many similar definitions as to what constitutes a hoax, I decided to use the Wikipedia definition as the basis for this article as it was more detailed than others that I read:

“A hoax is a deliberately fabricated falsehood made to masquerade as truth. It is distinguishable from errors in observation or judgment, or rumors, urban legends, pseudosciences, or April Fool’s Day events that are passed along in good faith by believers or as jokes”.

In his cunningly (or should that be ‘punningly’) titled recent book Hoax Springs Eternal: The Psychology of Cognitive Deception, the psychologist Peter Hancock highlighted six steps that characterise a truly successful hoax:

  • “Identify a constituency – a person or group of people who, for reasons such as piety or patriotism, or greed, will truly care about your creation.
  • Identify a particular dream which will make your hoax appeal to your constituency.
  • Create an appealing but ‘under-specified’ hoax, with ambiguities.
  • Have your creation discovered.
  • Find at least one champion who will actively support your hoax.
  • Make people care, either positively or negatively – the ambiguities encourage interest and debate.”

In a short (but interesting) online presentation, Chris Jones noted that hoaxers exploit human psychology in order to persuade us to do foolish things. More specifically, Jones asserted that hoaxes prey upon a number of human traits including good will, naivety, greed, fear and anxiety, and a deference to authority (such as your doctor, lawyer, your bank, etc.). This is supported by the computer hacker Kevin Mitnick who in his 2002 book The Art of Deception claims that human beings are the biggest threat to security and that human emotions such as willingness to help others, personal gain, trust, fear of getting reprimanded, and conformity are the primary reasons social engineering techniques (which include hoaxes) can be so successful.

In an article in The Independent, Rose Shepherd interviewed a police inspector (Glen Chalk) and a psychologist (Dr. Glenn Wilson) about individuals’ motives for hoaxes concerning information about crimes that had been committed. Chalk noted:

“People have various motives…Some people might be overly helpful. They could have some information, and then embellish it. Others might be outright malicious…[These] are probably fantasists, anxious to help or to associate themselves with events…A lot of callers are attention-seekers”.

Dr. Wilson added that hoax callers enjoy “a sense of potency” and:

“They may be people who feel they make no impact on the world, and this is one way they can do that, rather as fire-setters start fires then stand back to admire their handiwork. They see people running around and think `I did that!’ For people who feel they have no power, it is the capacity to influence events. There may be an element of exhibitionism, of getting into the public eye. For the time on the phone, at least, everybody is terribly interested in what they’ve got to say. Anonymity spoils things, but they might deliberately then get caught, and might even become famous as a result, in a rather lesser way than those who kill a celebrity: they get fame in a very backhanded way. [Not all nuisance callers are knowing hoaxers: some probably, genuinely believe they have something to offer]. I suppose they may think they are being helpful…perhaps telling police where a body might be found. They might really think they are psychic. They’re not trying to be obstructive; they just want to get in on the act.”

The article also made reference to one of the most notorious hoax calls of all time, the infamous “Jack” who pretended to by the Yorkshire Ripper and ended up subverting the police hunt for the real female serial killer. Although many believed that “Jack” should have been pursued, Inspector Chalk concluded that there was “not a lot of point in prosecuting the sad fantasists”.

The Wikipedia entry on hoaxes provided an interesting ‘typology’ of hoaxes that could certainly be used in further academic research. The list included:

  • Socially appropriate hoaxes (with April Fools’ Day being the most noteworthy example)
  • Religious hoaxes (such as Maria Monk’s 1836 best-selling book Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed that claimed there was systematic sexual abuse of nuns by Catholic priests and that the priests murdered the resulting babies).
  • Anthropological hoaxes (such as the fossilized skull and jaw remains of the Piltdown Man collected in 1912 and exposed as a forgery in 1953 as the lower jawbone of an orangutan with the skull of modern man).
  • Hoaxes as scare tactics (such as those that appeal to individuals’ subjectively rational belief that the expected cost of not believing the hoax outweighs the expected cost of believing the hoax).
  • Academic hoaxes (such as when Polish psychologist Tomasz Witkowski published a fake article in the psychology journal Charaktery)
  • Sting operation’ hoaxes that are used by law enforcement to catch criminals.
  • Art hoaxes such as art done by chimpanzees and elephants that fooled many art critics.
  • Internet hoaxes (such as the online videos claiming that iPods could be charged up with an onion and Gatorade).
  • Computer virus hoaxes

Dr. Ross Anderson notes in his 2008 book Security Engineering that frauds and hoaxes have always happened, but that the Internet makes some hoaxes easier, “and lets others be repackaged in ways that may bypass our existing controls (be they personal intuitions, company procedures or even laws)”.

As a self-confessed music obsessive, my all-time favourite hoax was music magazine Rolling Stone’s 1969 invention of the debut album by the Masked Marauders, a ‘supergroup’ featuring Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. As a 2014 article in Mental Floss recalled:

“Due to legal issues with their respective labels, the stars’ names wouldn’t appear on the album cover, but the review extolled the virtues of Dylan’s new ‘deep bass voice’ and the record’s 18-minute cover songs…The writer earnestly concluded, ‘It can truly be said that this album is more than a way of life; it is life.’ For anyone paying attention, the absurd details added up to a clear hoax. The man behind the gag, editor Greil Marcus, was fed up with the supergroup trend and figured that if he peppered his piece with enough fabrication, readers would pick up on the joke. They didn’t. After reading the review, fans were desperate to get their hands on the Masked Marauders album. Rather than fess up, Marcus dug in his heels and took his prank to the next level. He recruited an obscure San Francisco band to record a spoof album, then scored a distribution deal with Warner Bros. After a little radio promotion, the Masked Marauders’ self-titled debut sold 100,000 copies. For its part, Warner Bros. decided to let fans in on the joke after they bought the album. Each sleeve included the Rolling Stone review along with liner notes that read, ‘In a world of sham, the Masked Marauders, bless their hearts, are the genuine article’.”

It all goes to show that people will believe what they want to believe. I probably would have fallen for this hoax as well but I was only three years old at the time.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Anderson, R. (2008). Security engineering (2nd edition). Chichester: Wiley.

Caterson, S. (2010). Towards a general theory of hoaxes [online]. Quadrant, 54, 70-74.

Daly, K. C. (2000). Internet hoaxes: Public regulation and private remedies. Located at:,_Karen.html?sequence=2

Dunn, H. B., & Allen, C. A. (2005, March). Rumors, urban legends and Internet hoaxes. In Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Association of Collegiate Marketing Educators (p. 85)

Edward, G. (2010). Profiling hoaxers: The psychology of fame. Bigfoot Lunch Club, January 27. Located at:

Hancock, Peter (2015). Hoax Springs Eternal: The Psychology of Cognitive Deception. (pp.182-195). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Heyd, T. (2008). Email hoaxes: form, function, genre ecology (Vol. 174). John Benjamins Publishing

Hobart, M. (2013). My best friend’s brother’s cousin new this guy who…: Hoaxes, legends, warnings, and fisher’s narrative paradigm. Communication Teacher, 27(2), 90-93.

Hyman, R. (1989). The psychology of deception. Annual Review of Psychology, 40(1), 133-154.

Mitnick, K.D. (2002). The Art of Deception: Controlling the Human Element of Security. Indianapolis: Wiley.

Podhradsky, A., D’Ovidio, R., Engebretson, P., & Casey, C. (2013). Xbox 360 hoaxes, social engineering, and gamertag exploits. In System Sciences (HICSS), 2013 46th Hawaii International Conference (pp. 3239-3250). IEEE.

Raymond, A. K. (2014). The 14 greatest hoaxes of all time. Mental Floss, March 31. Located at:

Shepherd, R. (1996). It starts with a hoax…It ends with havoc. The Independent, July 31. Located at:

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on February 12, 2016, in Case Studies, I.T., Marketing, Pain, Popular Culture, Psychology, Work and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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