People will 


anything, no 

matter how 


providing it is 

presented with

a serious 




Impostors, Pretenders and Deceivers
What gives liars away?
 By Loren Pankratz 

Small fibs are useless.  A lie obtains credence in proportion to its enormity; for though the statements you make are difficult to believe, it is more difficult to conceive a woman audacious enough to invent them. -Anon: Spirit Rapping Made Easy, 1923

Pretending to be an airline pilot or doctor is not easy.  While an actor has his lines, an impostor must develop his script spontaneously as situations arise.  Creativity and imagination are requisites.

     When an individual adopts the personality or identity of someone else, the new role has a powerful effect on the impostor, as well as on those being deceived.  Psychologist George Kelly encouraged his patients to try on roles, much as one tries on new clothes at a store. Kelly maintained that by practicing the new role, the individual becomes the person he or she is pretending to be.  For the impostor, this makes lying easier.

     Over a long period of time, the impostor subsumes part of his or her own identity to the role.  Psychological complexities arise.

     Self-deception may develop, making the individual seem particularly sincere in his presentation.  And, feedback from the new role can create a sense of entitlement: People who have pretended to be physicians often lack a sense of the seriousness of their actions when caught.

     Credibility and Sincerity

     The successful deceiver must first establish credibility.  Once credibility is established, however, the impostor can get away with absurd statements, even obvious inconsistencies.  Professional hoaxer Alan Abel demonstrated that people will believe anything, no matter how preposterous, providing it is presented with a serious demeanor.  A serious demeanor implies sincerity.  Truth is commonly judged by sincerity in our culture.

     Not surprisingly, impostors skillfully exploit the appearance of sincerity.  Dishonest people are particularly good at looking others in the eye and smiling while delivering a lie.  The experienced liar has a powerful ability to influence others.  With practice, the deceptive person can become extremely bold in his lies, delivering his story with consistency and sincerity without flashing signs of doubt.


     There are advantages to going all out and posing as someone important.  The imposter can cloak his or her personal failure with assumed accomplishments.  The impostor, by adopting a grandiose persona, can experience the thrill of being important.  Importance has practical value as well.  The audience is less likely to consider deception or confront someone they believe to be important.

     Deceptions are best identified by comparing claims to known facts.  It is common for an impostor to exaggerate many parts of his or her story, including details that have nothing to do with their assumed role.  This gives the lie-catcher additional information to check.  I have known two patients who falsely claimed they had Ph.D.s from Columbia University - one in microbiology and the other in journalism.  These intellectual impostors used polysyllabic words and pretended they were involved in glamorous research projects.  A quick call to the registrar at Columbia sunk their whole story.

     The Flaw of the Impostor

     Certain styles in the impostor also alert the lie-catcher to the possibility of deception.  Impostors are often, but not always, identified by the flaw of overacting.  They usually behave as a caricature of the person being impersonated.

     Because the methods we commonly use to judge honesty are so effectively exploited by the deceptive person, it is more helpful to listen to the theme of the storyteller.  Consider the story's probability.  An emotional tone in the narration can cleverly distract the listener from considering the absurdity of what is being said.

     A discrepancy between appearance and the claim can provide a clue to deception.  I met an awkward, obese and dull-witted person who claimed to be a Green Beret war hero.  No one should have been fooled by a phony priest who dressed in a filthy habit and told obscene jokes, but these impostors convinced intelligent professionals they were genuine.  Important people rarely use their status to intimidate others.  Impostors, however, will menace, flaunt their knowledge, and exploit their role.  They threaten to sue, call the newspapers, or contact their congressman.

     The power of an important role can be heady, but the fear of being caught creates tension.  This anxiety often “leaks” when the individual feels challenged.  The impostor overreacts at minor issues when confronted or provoked.  Typical responses include bitterness, hostility, or threats.  Paul Ekman, psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco, suggested that a tirade is a lie-catcher's dream.

     Sweet dreams.

Introducing Loren Pankratz

Dr. Loren Pankratz is a consultation psychologist at the Portland Veterans Administration Medical Center, where he has worked for the past 24 years.  He is also a professor in the departments of psychiatry and medical psychology at the Oregon Health Sciences University.  Dr. Pankratz has a special interest in the problems of deception in the medical setting and has written widely on such topics as drug seeking, malingering, false symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the Munchausen syndrome (patients who travel from hospital to hospital seeking unnecessary medical care).

     Dr. Pankratz has written about quackery, phony faith healers, firewalkers, and psychics.  He has published possibly some of the most provocative titles in the medical literature: “The ten least wanted patients,” “Fire walking and the persistence of charlatans,” “The assessment and treatment of geezers,” and “Abdominal self-surgery.”  He is a magician and has published magic tricks and mentalism effects in magazines for magicians.  He has an unusual personal library on deception, magic, and the occult, and considers himself an armchair historian of hoaxes.

     Loren Pankratz is a CSICOP Fellow and is on the Scientific and Professional Advisory Board of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

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© 2001 Oregonians for Rationality