Originally published in Psychology Today.
What spurs people to stage crimes against themselves?
Once feared kidnapped, —or worse—Audrey Seiler, a University of Wisconsin honors student, was found this spring curled up near a marsh in Madison. She told police she’d been held captive at knifepoint for four days. Melissa McGee, from Auburn, Washington, reported she had been raped in a park last year while her 5-year-old daughter played nearby. And last year a 16-year-old New York girl said a man with a swastika tattoo punched her in the face after she refused to get into his car.
All three women have since admitted their stories were fabricated. The Seiler and McGee cases have another common thread: Both seemed to be cries for attention targeted at specific people. Seiler allegedly sought her disinterested boyfriend’s eye, while McGee reportedly hoped her parents would pay her rent.
Such stories aren’t as rare as one might think. Although few match the media frenzy generated by the Seiler case, newspapers are sprinkled with local stories of crime fakery. Many hoaxes are discovered, but it’s likely that others are not.
Psychologists have dubbed the phenomenon The Boy Who Cried Wolf Effect, named after Aesop’s fable about a shepherd who fakes wolf attacks. In real life, experts say, these “shepherds,” mostly women, aren’t acting out of boredom. These damsels in distress are very often motivated by an intense desire for attention and may feel unfairly neglected by those close to them, often romantic partners. Others are simply crying out to a world they feel ignores them.
People who fake crimes are transforming feelings of invisibility into a fantasy that they may come to believe is reality, says Bonnie Jacobson, a psychologist and director of the New York Institute for Psychological Change in New York City. She says a “hoaxer” wins attention by playing the passive victim, similar to a person with Munchausen syndrome, who fakes an illness to get the attention of doctors or loved ones. But that doesn’t mean that people who perpetrate large-scale deceptions are necessarily in need of psychiatric help, says Maureen O’Sullivan, a University of San Francisco psychology professor who studies how people lie.
They simply may be good actors, which is in part why we believe them. In one study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, O’Sullivan found people will more readily believe even outrageous lies when the deceiver is familiar, outgoing and outwardly happy. That’s because we tend to “listen” to their personality more than the content of their story. Hoaxes often spin out of control, O’Sullivan warns, when the liar decides to harm herself to make the hoax appear more convincing.
Among crime hoaxes, there’s a subset of tricksters who concoct crimes for political causes, says Gregg O. McCrary, a retired FBI agent who profiles criminals as director of Behavioral Criminology International, a consultancy in Fredericksburg, Virginia. This kind of hoaxer is just as likely to be a man as a woman. A recent case occurred last November when Jaime Alexander Saide, a Northwestern University student in Evanston, Illinois, published a column about his Mexican heritage in the campus newspaper after he claimed to be the target of two hate crimes. Saide later confessed to filing false reports to bring attention to campus race relations.
While most reported hate crimes are real, hoaxes often occur on college campuses around the same time as antiracism forums, says Laird Wilcox, who’s currently updating his book, Crying Wolf, to include more than 320 staged hate crimes that he’s tracked in the U.S. since 1994. Consider the recent case of Kerri Dunn, a social psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, who police suspect may have slashed her own car’s tires, smashed its windshield and spray-painted it with racial slurs just hours before speaking at a campus forum against hate crimes last spring. Two eyewitnesses identified her as the culprit shortly after hundreds of students marched to protest the crime. Dunn denies that she staged the attack.
Another big tip-off is when an alleged victim calls the press before calling the police. “These people are not knowledgeable about what a typical crime looks like,” McCrary says. “You’ll try to find support for their allegations and find the facts don’t match up.”
Seiler, the supposed Wisconsin abductee, was exposed when police uncovered a store surveillance video that captured her purchasing rope, cold medication and a knife—all items that she claimed were used to hold her captive. Detectives soon discovered that only a month before, the 20-year-old had claimed she was attacked and knocked unconscious near her apartment.
Investigating hoaxes is costly. Seiler’s case sparked a manhunt involving 150 officers, police dogs and a helicopter. It cost more than $96,000. She faces 18 months in jail and a $20,000 fine for lying to police. According to police interviews, she says: “I set everything up. I’m just so messed up. I’m sorry.”
This article originally appeared in the July/August, 2004, issue of Psychology Today.