Blog Archives

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: http://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/8965617/Daly,_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: http://www.bigfootlunchclub.com/2010/01/profiling-hoaxers-psychology-of-fame.html

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: http://mentalfloss.com/article/49674/14-greatest-hoaxes-all-time

Shepherd, R. (1996). It starts with a hoax…It ends with havoc. The Independent, July 31. Located at: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/it-starts-with-a-hoax-it-ends-in-havoc-1307603.html

Fake’s progress: A beginner’s guide to Münchausen syndrome

One of the most interesting psychological disorders is Münchausen Syndrome (MS) and is sometimes referred to more colloquially as ‘hospital addiction syndrome’, ‘hospital hopper syndrome’ and ‘thick chart syndrome’. MS is currently classified in the most recent International Classification of Diseases under ‘other disorders of adult personality’. The primary characteristic of people suffering from MS is that they deliberately pretend to be ill in the absence of external incentives (such as criminal prosecution or financial gain). MS has been called a factitious disorder because sufferers feign illness, pretend to have a disease, and/or fake psychological trauma typically to gain attention and/or sympathy from other people. Doctors often nickname such people as ‘frequent flyers’. The name of the syndrome was coined in 1951 by Dr. Richard Asher (in a paper he published in The Lancet about people who fabricated illnesses) and derives from German Karl Friedrich Hieronymus Freiherr von Münchhausen (aka Baron Münchausen), a renowned eighteenth century nobleman, who was reported as telling many fantastical and impossible stories about himself.

A related condition is Münchausen Syndrome by Proxy refers to the abuse of someone else (quite often a child son or daughter), also as a way of seeking attention and/or sympathy for the sufferer. Some members of the medical community believe that this related MS condition should simply be re-named ‘medical abuse’). There are also some specific sub-types of MS. For instance, a 2011 paper in the Journal of Electrocardiology, by Dr. Joseph Vaglio reported a female case of Arrhythmogenic Münchausen Syndrome who intentionally simulated and stimulated irregular cardiac activity to gain medical attention by drinking (and overdosing) on caffeine.

According to Dr. A.J. Giannini and Dr. H.R. Black in the Psychiatric, Psychogenic and Somatopsychic Disorders Handbook, one of the most common signs among MS sufferers is that they may have multiple scars on their abdomen because of repeated exploratory or emergency operations. Other ‘warning signs’ listed on the Web MD website of MS include: (i) dramatic but inconsistent medical history, (ii) predictable relapses following improvement in the condition, (iii) detailed knowledge of hospitals and/or medical terminology, (iv) appearance of new or additional symptoms following negative test results, (v) willingness or eagerness to have medical procedures, (vi) history of seeking treatment at numerous hospitals, clinics, and doctors offices, possibly even in different cities, and (vii) problems with identity and self-esteem.

There has been a debate about whether MS should have been re-classified in the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For instance, in a 2008 issue of the journal Psychosomatics, Dr. Lois Krahn and her colleagues argued that MS should be classed as a somatoform disorder because MS sufferers may not be conscious that they are drawing attention to themselves. [According to Wikipedia, a somatoform disorder “is a mental disorder characterized by symptoms that suggest physical illness or injury – symptoms that cannot be explained fully by a general medical condition or by the direct effect of a substance, and are not attributable to another mental disorder”]. More specifically, Krahn and her colleagues noted:

Factitious and somatoform-disorder patients are alike in that they both organize their lives around seeking medical services in spite of having primarily a psychiatric condition. In DSM–IV, the key difference is that factitious-disorder patients feign illness, and somatoform disorder patients actually believe they are ill. Although patients may not be conscious of their motivation or even their behaviors, deliberately embellishing history or inducing symptoms exemplifies behaviors designed to enhance a self-concept of being ill. For DSM–V, we propose reclassifying factitious disorder as a subtype within the somatoform-spectrum disorders or the proposed physical-symptom disorder, premised on our belief that deliberate deceptions serve primarily to portray to treaters the sense of being ill”.

This appears to be part of the same debate that says MS is distinct from hypochondriasis in that MS patients are said to be aware that they are exaggerating their illness or disease, whereas hypochondriasis sufferers actually believe they have an illness or disease. Another way of looking at it is that MS sufferers want to be a patient whereas those with hypochondriasis don’t. One of the more unusual consequences of MS is that the affected individual will often undergo unnecessary medical procedures, treatments and/or exploratory operations to prolong hospital stay and gain sympathy and attention from those around them including the medical and nursing staff. It is also known that some MS patients have very good medical knowledge and use this as a way of creating and/or producing symptoms of known medical conditions.

Some of the reported risk factors for individuals that develop MS include (i) a history of childhood traumas and (ii) emotional deprivation (e.g., having parents or guardians that were emotionally unavailable due to illness and/or emotional problems while the individual was a child). In relation to treatment and prognosis, the Wikipedia entry on MS asserts:

“Providers need to acknowledge that there is uncertainty in treating suspected Münchausen patients so that real diseases are not under-treated. Then they should take a careful patient history and seek medical records, to look for early deprivation, childhood abuse, or mental illness. If a patient is at risk to himself or herself, inpatient psychiatric hospitalization should be initiated…Therapeutic and medical treatment should center on the underlying psychiatric disorder: a mood disorder, an anxiety disorder, or borderline personality disorder. The patient’s prognosis depends upon the category under which the underlying disorder falls; depression and anxiety, for example, generally respond well to medication and/or cognitive-behavioral therapy, whereas borderline personality disorder, like all personality disorders is presumed to be pervasive and more stable over time, thus offers the worst or best prognosis”.

Unfortunately there are no reliable statistics regarding the number of people who suffer from MS. Research suggests that both males and females are affected in roughly equal numbers and that the mean age of presentation is 36-years old. This is certainly one behaviour that we could do with more empirical research.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Asher, R. (1951). Munchausen’s syndrome. The Lancet, 1, 339–341.

Bhugra D. (1988). Psychiatric Munchausen’s syndrome. Literature review with case reports. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 77, 497–503.

Feldman, M.D., Hamilton, J.C & Deemer, H.N. (2001). Factitious Disorder. In K.A. Phillips (Eds.), Somatoform and Factitious Disorders. Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.

Giannini A.J. & HR Black, H.R. (1978). Psychiatric, Psychogenic and Somatopsychic Disorders Handbook (pp.194-195). New Hyde Park, NY. Medical Examination Publishing.

Krahn, L.E., Bostwick, J.M. & Stonnington, C.M. (2008). Looking toward DSM-V: Should factitious disorder become a subtype of somatoform disorder? Psychosomatics, 49, 277–282.

Vaglio, J. C., Schoenhard, J. A., Saavedra, P. J., Williams, S. R., & Raj, S. R. (2011). Arrhythmogenic Munchausen syndrome culminating in caffeine-induced ventricular tachycardia. Journal of Electrocardiology, 44, 229-231.

Wikipedia (2013). Münchausen syndrome. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Münchausen_syndrome