It appears we are hard-wired to believe stories. So actually requiring us to believe isn’t that hard–except it seems in sexual assault cases. Everyone is aware that the military requires any sexual assault complainant to be believed. A cynic will say, that this is required despite evidence showing falsity in the complaint. A cynic could argue that there are orders not to investigate properly for fear of “victim-blaming.” There arevalid reasons why a sexual assault complaint should be handled properly and a complainant given appropriate care. But that does not mean an inadequate investigation should result, that a story should not be validated and that a false report not be challenged.
Maria Konnikova has an interesting piece in The New Yorker, from when part of my title comes from: How Stories Deceive, The NewYorker, 29 December 2015. On the surface the victims she presents gave a plausible story which the media and others grabbed on to.
“The media frenzy began right on cue. It was such an odd case, and everyone had a theory.”
With the help of Brennan’s tip, the story of the G.P.O. girl began to unravel. The garda called Interpol and discovered that Azzopardi—who was twenty-five years old, not fifteen— had more than forty aliases: Emily Peet, Lindsay Coughlin, Dakota Johnson, Georgia McAuliffe, Emily-Ellen Sheahan, Emily Sciberas. Her criminal history dated back to her teens.
How had it happened? Azzopardi instinctively knew how to get emotions going to the point where nothing else mattered. Her pictures had told a story—a devastating story that no sane person would ever lie about. Who makes up a history of sex trafficking? What kind of person do you need to be?
That’s precisely why they [emotions] can be such a powerful tool of deception. When we’re immersed in a story, we let down our guard. We focus in a way we wouldn’t if someone were just trying to catch us with a random phrase or picture or interaction. (“He has a secret” makes for a far more intriguing proposition than “He has a bicycle.”) In those moments of fully immersed attention, we may absorb things, under the radar, that would normally pass us by or put us on high alert. Later, we may find ourselves thinking that some idea or concept is coming from our own brilliant, fertile minds, when, in reality, it was planted there by the story we just heard or read.
As we hunt down alleged sex offenders in our midst:
Azzopardi’s frauds relied on a quirk of human nature: when we become swept up in powerful narrative, our reason often falls by the wayside.
Some might call Sammy a pathological liar—someone who is mentally incapable of telling the truth and in the throes of an illness. And, in one sense, that’s true. There’s no denying her proclivity for telling lies. The difference is that, for con artists like Sammy, lying is not a pathology; Sammy, you may recall, received a clean mental bill of health. It’s a deliberate choice. Pathological liars lie for no reason at all. For them, lying is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or may point to a deeper psychopathy. (Indeed, pathological lying is listed as a symptom on the Psychopathy Checklist.) Con artists lie for a very specific reason: personal gain, financial or otherwise. They lie to set the play in motion, so that they can gain your confidence and then lead you down a reality of their making. And their lies are believable, whereas a pathological liars’ are often too big and elaborate to be taken seriously.
Her book, The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time, becomes available on Amazon in January.