How People Faking Insanity Give Themselves Away

The state of the universe.
Aug. 7 2012 5:21 PM

Can You Fake Mental Illness?

How forensic psychologists can tell whether someone is malingering.

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“Sometimes all it takes is one sentence,” says Resnick. “It’s one thing to say ‘God told me to kill my mother to save all mankind.” It’s quite another to say, “God told me to kill my mother so I could get money to buy more drugs.”

There are also standardized tests that trip up malingerers. A preliminary, 10-minute test, called M-FAST (Miller Forensic Assessment of Symptoms Test), presents a series 25 questions that intermix phony and real symptoms. It’s almost impossible to pick the right combinations if you’re not mentally ill or a highly trained forensic psychologist. A more thorough series of questions, called SIRS (Structured Interview of Reported Symptoms) takes about an hour.

There’s even a test for faking amnesia, which is among the most common of feigned mental illnesses. Contrary to popular belief, people with amnesia don’t completely lose their ability to remember things. So forensic psychologists give a memory test that’s so easy that even a person with amnesia could pass it. They show a series of letters, numbers, and shapes for a few seconds and then ask him to draw them on a blank sheet of paper. Even people with amnesia caused by brain damage can reproduce most of the symbols. The only way to fail is if you do so on purpose. “I don’t want to be so specific that people can avoid our detection methods,” says Jerry J. Sweet, director of neuropsychology for the North Shore University Health System in Evanston, Ill. “So in this case we try not to educate the public.”

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The psychologists and psychiatrists interviewed for this story were hesitant to comment on the Holmes case, not having seen the suspect or his file. But they voiced suspicion over his claimed amnesia, which is exceedingly rare without brain injury, drugs, or another medical condition. Walters cautioned that even though Holmes’ psychiatrist reportedly sent a warning to the University of Colorado’s threat team, it’s not clear whether the behavior that triggered the warning resulted directly from mental illness.

Surveys show that of the roughly 60,000 “competency to stand trial” referrals forensic psychologists evaluate each year, anywhere from 8 percent to 17 percent of the suspects are found to be faking it.

Probably the most brilliant malingerer ever was the mafia chieftain Vincent Gigante, dubbed “Oddfather” by the New York press for his strange behavior. For decades, he shuffled about Greenwich Village in his pajamas, talking to parking meters, slobbering, and muttering to show mental incompetence. When brought up on charges of conspiracy to commit murder and racketeering, he fooled several leading psychologists and delayed the trial for half a dozen years. Even after he was sent to jail in 1997, he maintained the appearance of insanity. It wasn’t until 2003, when he plea-bargained his way out of more serious charges, that Gigante admitted it had all been a sham.

Douglas Starr is co-director of the graduate program in science journalism at Boston University and author, most recently, of The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science.