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The Drama of Deception
Being scammed by someone you trust is the ultimate betrayal. Its bad
enough that those who are duped heap guilt on themselves, but the world
tends to join in the blamefest. And heres just one of many ironies:
Those with expertise are not immune to being conned.
By Abby Ellin, published on June 30, 2015 - last reviewed on August 26,
2015
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Photos by Peter Hapak
Somewhere on this planet theres a Navy SEAL or two who has committed
all sorts of violent acts, and chances are few people know hes done
them. Not his wife, not his kids, not his parents
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/parenting> or friends.
He will never be able to talk about the missions he accomplished in the
name of national security. But he might scream in the middle of the
night. And when his wife tries to comfort him, he might accidentally
strike her, convinced, in his haze, that shes the enemy. And still, he
wont be able to explain why. It will be part of his hidden world, the
world he cannot discuss but that infects every centimeter of his life.
I was not engaged to that man.
No, the man I almost vowed to love
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/relationships>, cherish, and
honor was not a hero by any stretch of the imaginationexcept his. He
was not involved in raids on global terrorists. The only people he
attacked were his friends, family, and colleagues, though he claimed to
be a secret agent, a covert operative with a list of accomplishments so
vast the free world would have perished without him.
As a journalist, which is to say, someone whos curious about
everything, I pride myself on my ability to suss out deception. More
than one boyfriend has noted, wearily, that Im a magnificent
cross-examiner. But though much of what my ex-fianc told me seemed
highly improbable, nothing was verifiable. Besides, as weve all learned
courtesy of /American Sniper /and /Zero Dark Thirty/, someone has to do
these things, right? While he seemed an unlikely spy, what better decoy
than an asthmatic, nasal-spray-wielding nerd?

Certain things /were/ legitimate. He really was a doctor, originally in


private practice in Los Angeles (this I know because I had interviewed
him for a newspaper article years earlier, which is how we originally
met). He really did join the Navy after he and his wife divorced; every
morning he ironed his uniform and shined his shoes and clocked in at the
Pentagon. He was a member of a task force trying to open a hospital in
the Middle East for kids with cancer, and he often took off to Iraq and
Afghanistan. He called me dutifully, promising to tell me about his trip
when theres a secure line.
I tried to curb my natural skepticism. He was supportive and loving and
funny and charming. And he was trying so hard to make a difference in
the world.
But eventually my curiosity would resurface, and the Inquisition would
begin anew. Why couldnt I visit him at work? (They were cracking down
on security.) When would he show me his medals for operations that
didnt officially exist? (Next time we were in Manhattan, where they
were locked in a vault.) Where did he meet his ex-wife? (While rescuing
her on a secret mission in Iran, where she was held hostage.) What did
President Obama want to talk to him about? (His work chasing bad guys
in the Middle East.)
You interrogate me! hed bark. You dont trust me! You cant have a
relationship without trust.
I became increasingly paranoid, questioning my own sanity. Why did I
need to know everything? Couldnt I just take his words at face value?
No wonder Ive been single all these years.
In the end, Brussels sproutsnot issues of national securitywere our
undoing.
One night we were out to eat with my parents. The restaurant was nothing
special, but he gushed, unsolicited, about the meal. These are the best
sprouts Ive ever eaten! he proclaimed. My folks were pleased that he
enjoyed the dinner. I was pleased that they were pleased.
So I was stunned when he told me later how much he hated the food. Then
why did you tell them you loved it? I asked.
I was trying to make them feel good, he said. I was being polite.
Theres etiquette and theres unnecessary lying! I said. No one asked
you what you thought. Why rave over something you hate?
Thats when it hit me: If he could lie so convincingly about something
so inconsequential, then he could be lying about anything.
Woman with blue shadow on her face
I still had no idea whether I was with Jason Bourne, Walter Mitty, or a
combination of the two, but I couldnt live in that liminal space any
more. I left him and promptly began crucifying myself for it. Had I
blown the best thing that ever happened to me? So what if he embellished
his appreciation of vegetables. We all tell white lies. In fact, one
study suggests that people tell two to three lies every 10 minutes. Lies
permeate our existencein the workplace
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/career>, media, government
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/politics>. Not to mention the

lies we tell ourselves. Maybe I had been too quick to judge.


Doubt about our breakup gnawed at me for over a year, until one blustery
March morning the phone rang: Special Agent Dan Ryan with the Naval
Criminal Investigative Service. A doctor who worked for the federal
government had been writing fraudulent prescriptions for Vicodin, among
other drugs <https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/psychopharmacology>,
including Viagra. I, along with colleagues of his at the Pentagon, his
octogenarian aunt, his former father-in-law, his new girlfriend, and a
host of fictional people were among the unwitting victims of his fraud.
Did I know this man?
Why, yes, I did.
In my head, I danced a little jig. All that unnecessary angst! All that
self-doubt! All along, I had been right. I automatically kicked into
journalist mode, calling his ex-wife, his coworkers, his new girlfriend.
Each was shockeddevastated!that the man theyd trusted had used them
in such a way. No one suspected he would dupe them.
I almost had a heart attack when I got the call, his ex-wife recalls.
She told me that theyd met in medical school, not Iran (shed never set
foot in the country), and that hed actually been married once before
her. He was not in the CIA and had never been a SEAL, although their
adolescent son believed his father was a military juggernaut. She
thought he was bipolar, maybe an alcoholic
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/alcohol>; I voted for psychopath
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/psychopathy>. We agreed on
narcissist.
The Navy revoked his credentials, his medical license was suspended,
and, after plea-bargaining, he was sentenced to 18 months in jail. (When
he was first arrested, he claimed that he was stockpiling medicine to
bring to Iraqi orphans.)
Youre lucky, my friends said afterward. You dodged a bullet. They
were right, of course, but their comments irked me. If I were truly
lucky, we never would have met.
Others wondered why I didnt get out sooner. Werent there red flags?
they asked. Did you really think he was a war hero? If he was really
in SEAL Team Six, he wouldnt have been able to tell you.
I was mortifiedembarrassed and humiliated. All told, we were together
only for a year, but why hadnt I walked out at the first sign of
crazinesswhich, if I were being honest, arose the first time we had
dinner? How stupid I was. Gullible. Pathetic.
The United States of Deception
Being duped contaminates your entire sense of self. It throws you
off-kilter, makes you question your perceptions. Like Ingrid Bergman in
/Gaslight/, whose husband has her convinced shes insane when all along
hes deliberately manipulating her, the duped lose faith
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/religion> in their ability to
determine what is real and what isnt.
Duplicity is rampant. Popular culture is rife with characters who are
not what they seem: Walter White (/Breaking Bad)/, Don Draper /(Mad

Men/), Francis Underwood (/House of Cards/), Nicholas Brody


(/Homeland/), Jackie Peyton (/Nurse Jackie/), Dexter Morgan (/Dexter/).
Thanks to Photoshop, the Internet, heavily scripted reality TV,
websites like Ashley Madison (for married people seeking affairs), and
social media, the lines between fiction and reality have blurred for all
of us.
But while we might find dupers behavior morally reprehensible, we also
root for them. America loves redemption narratives. Happy as we are to
give some high-profile perpetrators a second chance, however, we are far
less generous with their victims.
Our culture may embrace the redeemed sinner, but the person
victimizednot so much, psychiatrist Anna Fels has observed in /The New
York Times/. As a result, it is often the person who lied or cheated who
has the easier time. Sure, dupers might beat themselves up a bit or feel
a tinge of regret for their transgressions. But they are in possession
of all the information; they may have chosen to act in a dastardly way,
but their choices were under their own control. And while the duped are
stuck in a crisis of memory
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/memory>, personal history, and
emotions, dupers can make better choices going forward. Where would talk
shows be without their tearful confessions and promises of new beginnings?
Most people who have been lied to or betrayed, on the other hand, keep
it under tight wraps. People feel shame, says Donna Andersen, the
author of/Red Flags of Love/. Andersen certainly did. Her ex-husband
stole $250,000 from her.
The experience was so unsettling that in 2005 she founded lovefraud.com,
a website for people whove been conned in relationships. It gets nearly
100,000 visitors a month, she says. Visitors appreciate knowing that
there are others like them. The worst thing in the world, says
Andersen, is to feel like a chump.
Those who have been lied to castigate themselves about why they didnt
suspect what was going on, says Fels. The emotions they feel, while
seemingly more benign than those of the perpetrator, may in the long run
be more corrosive: humiliation, embarrassment
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/embarrassment>, a sense of
having been nave or blind, alienation from those who knew the truth all
along and, worst of all, bitterness.
Their social networks are hardly supportive, Fels observes. Lack of
control over ones destiny makes other people queasy. Friends often
unconsciously blame the victim, asking whether the betrayed person
really knew at some level what was going on and had just been in
denial about it.
When Caroline Hahn*s father came out as gay during Hahns late teens,
most of their small town in upstate New York lined up to support him. No
one batted an eye when he moved in with his boyfriend. As for her
mother? Her experience was never discussed, except for people talking
behind her back, says Hahn, 39, a magazine editor in New York. How
could she not have known he was gay? How could she have been so
stupid? People were sorry that my father had had to hide his true
identity <https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/identity> all those
years, but no one stopped to ask my mother how she felt.
Another reason victims of duplicity are so unsympathetic, experts

suggest, is that their experience hits too close to home. We are all,
each one of us, susceptible to exploitation, although no one wants to
acknowledge how vulnerable we really are.
Some people will withhold empathy
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/empathy> from dupees, casting
judgment on them, often from the defensive fear
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/fear> that this could be me,
and Im not comfortable facing this reality, this vulnerability, says
Steven Becker, a psychotherapist in Westfield, New Jersey, who often
works with those who have been duped. Projecting their own
vulnerability, people blame the victim and view dupees as having failed
to see the signs, therefore having asked for it, in a sense.
Martha Rivers,* now 58, had no clue that the man she lived with for 30
years, the father of her two children, was such an impeccable liar. The
couple, who lived in tony Greenwich, Connecticut, seemed to have
everything: Ivy League educations, all-American athletic trophies, good
looks, great jobs. They were happy. Until Martha began finding receipts
for strip clubs. And for local hotels. And for $800 Christian Louboutin
heelswhich she hadnt bought. Then she learned that her husband had a
long-term relationship with his business partner, whose child he had
fathered.
Riverss life as she knew it came to an abrupt halt. You think: It
would never happen to me. I would know if my husband were lying to me.
Well, it didnt occur even to my father, who has a Ph.D. in clinical
psychology, she confides. Six years after her divorce
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/divorce>, Rivers is still
blaming herself for being so clueless.
The deceived also may feel responsible for their own predicament,
whether the deception is personal, like Riverss, or on a grander scale.
Ilene Kent, whose elderly parents lost about 75 percent of their life
savings to Bernard Madoff, felt as if they were attacked for Madoffs
actions. Her father, now in his 90s, believed himself a failure because
he hadnt detected Madoffs fraud in advance. Her parents never recouped
their losses, financial or emotional.
Blind to Betrayal
As a rule, possessing background information in a domainsay,
investingis a protective factor against exploitation. But desires can
overpower critical faculties. When emotions, such as greed, kick in, we
tend to put our skepticism on the shelf, says Stephen Greenspan, Ph.D.,
an emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of
Connecticut and the author of /Annals of Gullibility/.
Greenspan has a personal interest in the subject. He first held his
finished book in his hands on December 8, 2008, three days before the
world learned of the Madoff scam. In one of the more ironic strikes of
coincidence, Greenspan-the-expert-on-gullibility had invested with
Madoff. He lost a sizable chunk of change.
Greenspan freely admits that he was not as financially savvy as other
Madoff investors, who, he says, were in a position to know more. There
had been warning signs, including a 2001 article in /Barrons/ in which
experts questioned Madoffs outsize returns. Self-deception
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/deception> is a very strong

force, especially when there are many social pressures at work, says
Greenspan. Madoff, for example, had come highly recommended; he was a
presence in the Jewish community and had been in charge of the finances
of a slew of charitable organizations and of Elie Wiesel, a leading
moral <https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/ethics-and-morality>
authority and winner of a Nobel Peace Prize.
Some psychologists, however, contend that having background information
can actually /contribute/ to being deceived. It makes people
overconfident. In a 2009 study, researchers at the University of Exeter
found that people with excessive knowledge in a specific area are often
duped more than those who are less well-versed.
People with extensive knowledge on a subject may hold illusions of
superiority, explains psychologist David Modic, a research associate at
Kings College, Cambridge, who
collaborates closely with his former doctoral advisor in the Exeter
group. Modic helped develop a scale to measure scam compliance and
susceptibility to persuasion
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/persuasion>. Such people assume
they know so much that they jump to often detrimental conclusions about
their expertise. Theres a sense of, Nobody can take me for a fool; I
know so much about it, says Modic, who also co-authored a study on
victim mentality in Internet fraud. They feel no need to fact check.
This is the point of scams, actuallyif it were so easy to discern
between what is a scam and what is not, then they would be fairly
transparent.
Also, when our self-control
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/self-control> is diminished in
any wayego-depleted, in the psych bizModic offers, we tend to ignore
warning signals and just quickly try to ease the pressure. If you come
across an opportunity to fulfill a desire, you are likely to not check
it out thoroughly.
Scammers dont think other people are stupidthey just think theyre
smarter, says Maria Konnikova, a writer and psychologist and the author
of the forthcoming /The Confidence
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/confidence> Game/, about the
psychology of the con. The victims, in turn, believe theyre smarter.
The two are enmeshed in an intricate game of one-upmanship.
Those who have been suckered in the past wind up at greater risk for
being suckered again. Why? Because they dont believe it could happen to
them twice. As Konnikova puts it, The more confident you are in your
invulnerability, the more vulnerable you become.
In general, however, perpetrators zero in on people who they think will
be easy marks. David Schwartz, a professor of psychology at the
University of Southern California, made a classic discovery about
bullies: They dont pick on just anybody, he found. They target people
who do not stand up for themselvespeople who are nonassertive even in
nonthreatening situations.
The bullies are especially adept at determining who the nonassertive
ones are. And they engage in a kind of shopping process to single them
out for abuse.
The same can be said for dupers. Think back to your school days.
Remember being told that /gullible /wasnt in the dictionary? There was

always one kid who raced to the /G/ section. He was often the target of
relentless teasing.
Good liars take advantage, says Paul Ekman, a professor emeritus of
psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, who has spent
a professional lifetime decoding emotions, facial expressions, and
deception. They can spot someone from a mile away. When I was in
grammar school, we already knew who the people were whom we could get
away with lying to, and we would mercilessly mislead them.
Moreover, we dont generally walk around imagining that others are
taking us for a ride. We are built, generally, to give others the
benefit of the doubt, says Becker. We are not normally in
hypervigilant mode, because most of our life experience tells us that
most people arent dupers.
Yet there is such a thing as betrayal blindness, says Anne DePrince, a
professor of psychology at the University of Denver. It especially
operates to protect friends or lovers, or to preserve a job or get a
promotion, or simply to avoid the disappointment or disillusionment that
comes with finding out that someone is not who they claim to be.
Its a kind of willful denial. This lack of awareness of things that
other people think you should have seen as obvious? It may seem to
outsiders that if you are being duped you would be hyperattuned to that
and immediately kick that person to the curb, but thats not always the
case, says DePrince.
Lacey Schwartz grew up the only child in a Jewish household in
Woodstock, New York. Despite her dark complexion and kinky hair, she
never doubted that she was Caucasian, though outsiders often questioned
her lineage. Family lore had it that she inherited her looks from her
dark-skinned Sicilian grandfather. But years later, Schwartz, a
filmmaker, discovered that her biological father was an African-American
man with whom her mother had had an affair.
I believe everyone in my family was in denial, says Schwartz, 38, who
made a documentary, /Little White Lie/, about her experience. You can
convince yourself to believe what you want to believe. Often, you lie to
yourself more than to others.
As her mother says in the film: It wasnt because I was lying. I mean,
I didnt see it, really. And then, maybe once I started seeing it, I
chose to ignore it.
Betrayal is especially devastating if it is carried out by someone close
to you, whom you trusted implicitly. The closeness of the relationship
matters, says Kurt Dirks, a professor of organizational behavior at
Washington University in St. Louis and an expert on trust. And the
recovery of trust, he reports in the /Journal of Applied Psychology/,
hinges on whether the betrayal is seen as intentionala commentary on a
persons integrityor the result of incompetence.
Closeness, ironically, can also be fosteredat least to a certain
pointby the act of deception. Those being duped may, like me, invest a
great deal of cognitive
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/cognition> energy in examining
and batting down their suspicions. And yet, the very effort spent in
analyzing concerns has the unwitting effect of heightening the
attachment <https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/attachment> of dupee

to duper.
Greenspan draws on the psychological construct of cognitive dissonance
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/cognitive-dissonance>, which
posits discomfort in the face of conflicting evidence and a drive to
resolve the inconsistency. When you put so much into a particular
decision, you tend to selectively emphasize facts that support it and
dismiss facts that dispute it, he explains. Affect enters into the
process in many ways, such as falling in love with the duper.
Ekman, for his part, believes that liars are so successful not because
they are expert fabricators but because the target of the lie wants to
believe them. Do you really want to find out whether your lover is
betraying you? Of course you do. But of course you dont. Its a
terrible thing to discover that someone has been taking advantage of
youthats why liars succeed. Because we want to believe them.
So I Was Duped, Now What?
Deception is not going away any time soon. Dupingand being dupedare
ancient, even core, elements of human psychology, contends Roy
Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University.
Humans evolved to trust and cooperate
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/teamwork> with non-kin. Being
duped or suckered is an important dimension of human social life
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/social-life>, an ever-present
possibility, he observes in the/Review of General Psychology/. We are,
in fact, all equipped with a fear of duping, which he calls
sugrophobia, and over time our neural
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/neuroscience> circuits have
rigged up a cheater-detection system.
Being duped creates such an aversive emotional state, he says, that it
motivates victims to avoid repeating the experience. But not by
abandoning all trust.
Being trusting is generally a good thing, says Greenspan. In fact,
research shows that highly trusting people are not duped any more than
those who are less trusting. Further, high trusters are more likely to
be happy, well-adjusted, better liked, and more often sought out as
friends by both low-trusting and high-trusting others.
Being duped occasionally is the unavoidable price we pay for trusting,
Baumeister believes. Remaining suspicious and refusing to take chances
on others good will is costly because you miss out on a lot, he says.
Theres a middle ground between trusting too much and too little.
Experts agree: Intuition
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/intuition> is often our best
ally in determining whether someone is lying. But most of us dont
follow our guts; we cast aside niggling doubts, often berating ourselves
for being too cynical. The Exeter researchers found that people who fall
for scams often suspect something is off; they just ignore it.
Dupee Donna Andersen developed a Love Fraud Romantic Partner Survey and
posted it online. Seventy-one percent of the 1,300-plus respondents said
that early in their relationship theyd had a feeling that something
wasnt quite rightbut they shrugged it off. When she asked if a third
party had warned them to be wary, 90 percent said yes. But they barreled

ahead anyway.
Off Duty
And what of Commander Whack Job, as I came to call my former fianc? We
never spoke again, although I did get periodic updates from the
Department of Justice. He tried to get his sentence commuted, but the
court rejected his plea and he served his time in a West Virginia prison.
Not long ago, I came across an essay my ex had written for a small-town
New England newspaper. It was a tribute to the old girlfriend he had
reconnected with after we broke up, in which he noted that after they
initially met 30 years ago he had ended up in the military, qualifying
as a Special Forces operator, then finally, after nearly dying at the
hands of the enemy, made it to medical school and fatherhood.
I gasped when I read it. Surely someone would not lie so blatantly in
black and white. Maybe he /was/ telling the truth all along, at least
about his military service. Maybe /he/ was the victim and the rest of us
were awful for doubting him.
My reaction was normal, insists therapist Becker. Most of us dont want
to believe that anyone would want to manipulate us or exploit us to such
a hurtful degree. We dont want to believe weve been duped, he says.
I called his ex-wife, with whom I had become a bit friendly, and she
reassured me that he had never been among the military elite. The only
windmills he tilted against were in his head.
The overall experience did have one benefit for me: It made me take
stock of all my relationships and pay more attention to my gut,
especially when meeting new people. If something doesnt feel right, it
probably isnt.
And one thing I know for sure. True heroes dont brag about their
victories. They live them once, proudly, stoicallyand thats enough.
/Submit your response to this story to letters@psychologytoday.com(link
sends e-mail) <mailto:letters@psychologytoday.com>. If you would like us
to consider your letter for publication, please include your name, city,
and state. Letters may be edited for length and clarity. For more
stories like this one, subscribe to Psychology Today, where this piece
originally appeared./
/*Facebook <https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/social-networking>
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