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Clinical and Research News
Why Are We Taken In By Duplicity?
Psychiatric News
Volume 39 Number 6 page 62-62

Why do so many people fall for scams, unproven medical treatments, sexual seduction, empty political promises? In short, why do so many people fall prey to hypocrisy, which for the purposes of a presentation at the recent meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association was defined as "consciously intended deception by a person in a position of trust"?

It may be because they can’t stand uncertainty, idealize the hypocrite, have strong desires for something, and transfer their childhood-acquired trust to the hypocrite.

So suggested Anton Kris, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, during a plenary talk at the meeting, held in New York City in January. His talk was titled "The Lure of Hypocrisy."

Some 20 years ago, Kris reported, he started pondering why people are taken in by hypocrites. He came to the conclusion that one of the major reasons is that people idealize figures of authority such as their bosses, religious or government leaders, or those in the healing professions.

But idealization alone will not lead a person to being vulnerable to duplicity, he said; it must also be accompanied by anxiety.

"It seemed to me that idealization as a defense against the dread of uncertainty accounted for the susceptibility to hypocrisy," he explained. "That is, the desire for certainty leads to idealization of the hypocrite in exchange for the individual’s credulity."

Yet even when idealization and the yearning for certainty are present, he continued, they will not bring about susceptibility to hypocrisy unless they are also accompanied by strong desires to obtain something. For instance, he said, "Terminally ill patients and their families may yield to wishful fantasy in their search for ‘miracle’ cures, [and] under those circumstances, they become vulnerable to hypocritical snake-oil hucksters."

And yet a fourth ingredient is also necessary if people are going to fall prey to hypocrisy, he asserted—"credulity resulting from a transference-based, developmentally early form of trust." All in all, he concluded, "It remains a difficult task throughout life to maintain a balance between trust and distrust."

But surely many people are impervious to hypocrisy? Kris thinks not. "Everyone is susceptible to hypocrisy under some circumstances," he cautioned. "In times or conditions of increased uncertainty, that susceptibility will be particularly great." ▪

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