Saturday, 16 March 2013

The cunning art of deceit


Watching the BAFTAs last month, I was very pleased to see the British film, The Imposter scoop the award for Outstanding Debut. This 2012 British docu film tells the 1997 case of the French confidence man, Frederic Bourdin, who impersonated Nicholas Barclay, a Texas boy who had disappeared at the age of 13 in 1994. What I found so intriguing about this film was not only the main subject of the story, the imposter himself, but also how the family of the missing boy were so ready to accept Frederic, someone who didn’t even closely resemble Nicholas, into their lives. What the film explores is not only how one individual was able to fool so many but also the possible reasons why the family wanted to accept Frederic as the missing Nicholas. There’s a great twist in the film where the spotlight is turned from the imposter and onto the family and the conclusion leaves a lot of unanswered questions. The film is incredibly well put together using actors and real life interviews (including with Frederic himself), if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend that you do. Here’s the trailer for your viewing pleasure.
In our modern age, pulling the wool over someone’s eyes has become even easier given the internet and the immense popularity of social media sites such as Facebook. After all through the internet we can greatly control our image and essentially become an improved version of ourselves, or even completely fabricate a whole new identity.  Psychologist Sherry Turkle, in her book Alone Together" comments that regarding online identities, there is a "sweet spot of simulation; the exhilaration of creativity without its pressures, the excitement of exploration without its risk...real life takes too many steps and can always disappoint." 
The fabulous 2010 film, Catfish, tells the story of a young New York man, Nev, being filmed by his brother and friend as he builds a romantic relationship with a young woman, Megan, on Facebook. Am sure lots of you have seen this film already, but so not to spoil it, let’s just say Megan doesn’t turn out to be who she says she is (here’s the trailer for the film). Remarkably it took Nev 8 months to discover the truth about his on line love. 

The film inspired Nev to make a TV show for MTV, also called Catfish, which is airing in the UK at present. Each show follows a person who has started a romantic relationship on line, without meeting the other person, and concludes with the two of them coming together. In all of the shows, so far, no one has turned out to be who they say they are on line. For example the first show, a woman had started an online relationship with a male model who turned out to be an 18 year old girl who was purposefully deceiving others on line to get revenge on her high school bullies. Another show told the story of how a girl had deceived her boyfriend’s ex girlfriend into believing she was communicating with a guy for a whole 2 years. Needless to say this makes for great TV but more seriously it strongly demonstrates how easily we can be deceived, (most participants in the show say that they never thought to check on the identity of their on line love and took everything at face value).
I am fascinated by how we so readily accept what is presented to us and shoot down any red flags which pop up with some rational reasoning.  When it comes to love, I wonder if it is the case that we really don’t want to see any warning signs or actively go out looking for trouble as we so want to believe in the love we have found. In fact maybe that’s the case with most situations. We want to believe in others, and therefore to question their validity from the outset would challenge our values and our view on the world and maybe even cause our own identity to be challenged. 

Scientist Robert Trivers, comments in his book "Deceit and self-deception" that when being tricked "once we have taken the bait, we stop asking questions...the con artist induces an internal ride in the victim that is very satisfying but is hard to view sideways so as to see where, in fact, the ride is taking you". Trivers, in Oct 2011, spoke at the LSE on the subject of deceit, here's the link to download the talk, LSE podcast.
There has to be a certain degree of trust in our interactions otherwise the world would be thrown into chaos. However there are individuals who are willing to abuse this trust for various means including financial gain.
As a volunteer at Victim Support, I come across people who have been directly affected by people’s deceit. For example lying about their identity so they can enter a person’s home to rob them. This abuse of trust can have a devastating impact on the victim. Their whole outlook on the World can change. The loss of this trust can be greatly demoralising and often can cause the victims to withdraw from society.
So for me there has to be a balance between the two extreme ends of the spectrum, between blind trust of others and being suspicious of everyone. We need to accept that we live in a world where people, for whatever reason, are trying to deceive but understand that these people are the minority and we shouldn’t allow their existence to restrict our lives. However next time I get a random Facebook friend request I may treat this with extreme care as you never know where a catfish might be lurking!

Till next month

Take care