Why would anyone lie about being a victim of a crime?

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CNN's Brian Todd examines the reasons why someone may stage an attack on themselves.

Posted: Feb 22, 2019 5:40 AM
Updated: Feb 22, 2019 5:40 AM

Everyone lies. But some falsehoods have graver consequences than others, such as lying to police about being a crime victim.

Regardless of whether you believe actor Jussie Smollett paid two men to stage a hate crime attack on him, the question on many people's minds is why he -- or anyone, for that matter -- would lie about such a thing.

Smollett stands by his account that he was attacked on January 29 by two men who yelled racist and homophobic slurs at him and tied a rope around his neck. In a statement Thursday, he said he feels "betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing."

But Chicago Police Chief Eddie Johnson said evidence suggests that Smollett "took advantage of the pain and anger of racism" to formulate a plan to promote his career.

"Why would anyone -- especially an African-American man -- use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations?" Johnson said Thursday at a news conference.

"How could someone look at the hatred and suffering associated with that symbol and see an opportunity to manipulate that symbol to further his own public profile?"

The most common motivation is a desire for attention or sympathy

Few studies exist regarding the frequency of false allegations, and most of them focus on sexual assault.

Researchers and law enforcement say false reports in general are uncommon -- "the exception, rather than the rule," according to a 2012 FBI article.

One frequently cited study from 1994 found that a false report of rape appeared to serve three functions: providing an alibi, seeking revenge or obtaining attention and sympathy.

A more recent study reached a similar conclusion. In 30 confirmed false allegation cases over 15 years involving different offenses, attention or sympathy was the most common motivating actor, followed by providing an alibi or profit, according to paper published in the 2012 in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.

But it goes deeper than that

People's reasons for seeking attention or sympathy can be complex and multifaceted, according to three experts who spoke with CNN. They spoke generally about why people might falsify reports, based on their research and clinical experiences, but none of have spoken to Smollett or are involved in the case.

"It's about gain -- something that enriches or gets a person to avoid certain responsibilities or consequences," said clinical and forensic psychologist Jeff Gardere.

The clinical term for this kind of behavior is malingering, which describes someone who falsifies or exaggerates illness for external benefits, said Gardere, an assistant professor of osteopathic medicine at Touro College.

"They know what they are doing, they understand on a conscious level why they're doing it."

Others may suffer from a psychological issue that impedes their ability to fully comprehend the impact of their actions, Gardere said.

"They basically know what they're doing. They know they're doing it to get attention, but they're not aware on a conscious level that what they're doing is bizarre."

Without knowing the specifics of a case, it's difficult to tell if someone is driven by anti-social tendencies or mental illness. Whatever the case, a person who stages a crime may already feel victimized, said Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.

They may think that being a crime victim will bring them attention they feel they deserve, she said.

When people go through difficult times in their lives, they may see themselves as victims of their circumstances, she said. Or, they may suffer from trauma or depression or stigmatization because of their race or sexual orientation, Saltz said.

Claiming the mantle of victimhood can be a way of getting the sympathy, acknowledgment or treatment from others they seek, she said.

"They may feel that they have been abused by the system that they live in," she said.

"Maybe they'd been psychologically harmed, so this doesn't feel like that far of a stretch from what actually happened to them, but this is what they need to demonstrate it," she said.

The context of a false allegation can provide hints of motivation, especially in purported hate crimes, said Robert Klitzman, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University.

People may stage crimes to bring attention to a cause that matters to them, such as bias against a particular group, he said. "People may feel their cause is not getting the attention that it should."

The potential rewards can be attractive

Whether it's sympathy or attention or time off from work or school, such incidental benefits are called secondary gains.

In medicine, the term refers to the positive external motivations that a patient experiences from becoming ill or injured.

Crime victims may experience similar benefits, such as financial support or a boost in one's career, Klitzman said.

"Of course, the problem is people don't think through the downsides," Klitzman said.

"To lie about a crime to the police is a crime for which you are then financially and legally liable for."

What about the consequences?

False allegations have negative consequences, but not for the reasons you might suspect.

The complainant is often charged with a crime similar to filing a false report or perjury. Penalties vary among jurisdictions -- from fines to community service and in some cases jail time -- depending on the expended resources.

Some analysts expressed concern that false allegations may cause law enforcement to not treat reports seriously. But Chicago's police chief on Thursday reassured the public that his force will continue to take all hate crime complaints seriously, just as it did Smollett's.

His concern, he said, is that the public will view hate crime reports "with a level of skepticism" higher than before because of the media attention this case received.

CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson expressed similar concerns about how the case might impact victims' willingness to come forward. "It's already hard to get people to come forward, for a variety of reasons, so there's the concern that publicity around these cases might deter them."

But the actual impact of the publicity surrounding allegations of false reports on victims is unclear.

Lawyers and advocates who work with hate crime survivors said the real problem is that hate crimes are underreported for a variety of reasons that appear to have nothing to do with false allegations.

Fears of retaliation or that law enforcement won't take them seriously tend to be the most common reasons people don't report hate crimes, said Nadia Aziz, interim co-director of the Stop Hate Project of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

At least 50% of hate crime victims don't report the incidents to authorities, according to data from 2011 to 2015 from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

"A high-profile case riddled with controversy is the exception," said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, an advocacy group that tracks hate crimes nationwide.

"The more common problem, and one that should demand the attention of law enforcement, more headlines and should be the lead in our never-ending social media feeds, is the undisputed problem of underreporting of hate crimes."

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