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The Psychology of Conning and Fraud

Understanding the psychology of those who lie, con, defraud, or manipulate.

Key points

  • People lie for a range of reasons, including extrinsic and intrinsic ones to gain rewards or avoid punishments.
  • Scammers and cons may want to deny reality, which may seem terrifying or unacceptable to them.
  • Someone might engage in lying or fraudulent behaviour as a way of managing low self-esteem, or difficulties with a sense of self.
fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

I was 8 when I first encountered someone who lied for no discernible motive. She went to the same school as I did and we spent an hour a day together, as the school bus jolted us home. She was given to telling me somewhat fantastic tales of her life and I became increasingly suspicious of her stories. One day, she told me that her (Indian) grandparents resided in Hiroshima when the nuclear bomb was dropped. “Oh, really?” I said, somewhat incredulously. “Yes, and I lived with them at the time,” she said, fired up by my interest. Even my 8-year-old brain was able to compute the mathematical impossibility of this.

Since then, I have encountered people who lie for a number of reasons. People typically lie for extrinsic motivations, i.e., to acquire something (such as financial gain or care from medical professionals), to avoid an aversive consequence (e.g., a jail sentence), to maintain relationships, or because of situational demands (e.g., knowing a partner will get very angry if you tell them that you stopped for a drink with friends). People within the forensic context may sometimes malinger —i.e., try to appear more unwell than they are because it is perceived as being advantageous for court purposes. Sometimes, people with a psychiatric illness, such as schizophrenia, will hold beliefs that are clearly outside the realms of possibility. This is not demonstrative of an intentional desire to manipulate but is instead reflective of deeply held beliefs that are so strong that they count as delusions.

People with disturbances in personality functioning (such as those with paranoid, histrionic, narcissistic, borderline, or schizotypal traits) will occasionally hold odd beliefs or share stories that border on the implausible. This likely reflects the difficulties inherent in the conceptualisation of the self and the cognitive boundaries between reality and the fantastical (as often seen in those with borderline, paranoid, and schizotypal traits), or a desire to see and present oneself in an overly positive light (as seen in people with histrionic and narcissistic traits). Sometimes, people with organic brain disorders will confabulate (i.e., create missing information to fill in the gaps)—this is not a conscious process and is not classified as lying, but is rather the brain’s attempt to construct a logical reality in the absence of full information.

While most people will lie on occasion, sometimes the lies can be protracted and malignant in their impact on other people. Melissa Caddick, based in Sydney, Australia, is a good example of the latter. She perpetrated a fraud on a very large scale, setting up a sham financial advice company and defrauding people of approximately $30 million. While her primary motivation is relatively clear (i.e., financial gain), there are likely to have been a number of secondary motivations, including maintaining self-esteem and gaining status. The context of the world she resided in (the high-stakes world of the very wealthy) is likely to have influenced her behaviours and normalised some of her lifestyle choices. Equally, it is likely that a number of psychological factors, such as distortions in her belief system and callous emotionality are likely to have allowed her to perpetrate fraud of this extent on close family and friends.

Occasionally, we encounter people who lie in seemingly senseless ways, such as Melbourne woman Samantha Azzopardi. Ms. Azzopardi was recently sentenced for a series of bizarre offenses where she impersonated people and implanted herself into the lives of families, masquerading as a nanny. While some of her offenses had some pecuniary gain (she drew a salary as a nanny and was paid as a talent scout), she also engaged in a range of odd acts such as attending a local youth mental health service with the children in her care, dressed as a teenager, and telling the staff that she was a 14-year-old who had been impregnated by her uncle. Investigators eventually found that Ms. Azzopardi has engaged in similar behaviours in other countries, including Ireland and Canada. The nature of some of her lies attracted forensic psychiatric attention as a means of assisting the court with understanding her behaviours. Dr. Jacqueline Rakov, a forensic psychiatrist diagnosed Ms. Azzopardi with borderline personality disorder and pseudologia fantastica. She said that the latter involves an extreme type of lying that is “internally motivated,” an unconscious internal drive to create fantasies, rather than someone lying to acquire fame, money, or notoriety.

Cases of pseudologia fantastica are very rare, such that the majority of psychiatric literature in this area resides in the domain of the individual case study. Overall, people who engage in lies of this nature appear to have significant difficulties with their identities and sense of self and struggle to understand the boundaries of reality. Some of their stories likely serve to provide a sense of mastery and power over the world (i.e., manipulating other people can bring a sense of power) and can thus serve as a means of wish-fulfillment, may bolster self-esteem, and counter a deeply held sense of inadequacy or defectiveness. Stories designed to portray victimhood (such as masquerading as a victim of child abuse) evoke support and care from other people—possibly serving to compensate for that which was lacking in childhood. These stories may also serve as a denial of reality, or as a way of turning away from a reality that is terrifying or unacceptable.

Being the victim of someone who lies or defrauds can be very difficult. Both Ms. Caddick and Ms. Azzopardi’s victims describe feeling unsafe in their worlds and have greatly reduced trust in people. These behaviours can seem unfathomable and malignant. There is no denying the impact of these behaviours on victims and it is important to hold in mind the reasons some of these behaviours occur and to note that they often speak to deep, underlying pathology, or choices made by the perpetrator.

In Part 2 of this series, I will explore a range of ways of protecting oneself from fraud and conning behaviours.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/how-global-fraudster-samant…

Birch, C. D., Kelln, B. R., & Aquino, E. P. (2006). A review and case report of pseudologia fantastica. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 17(2), 299-320.

Newmark, N., & Kay, J. (1999). Pseudologia fantastica and factitious disorder: review of the literature and a case report. Comprehensive psychiatry, 40(2), 89-95.

Weston, W. A., & Dalby, J. T. (1991). A case of pseudologia fantastica with antisocial personality disorder. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 36(8), 612-614.

Duffield, G., & Grabosky, P. (2001). The psychology of fraud. Trends and issues in crime and criminal justice, (199), 1-6.

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