How sociopaths make us believe them

The Impostor, a documentary, tells the story of a 13-year-old boy from San Antonio, Texas, who went missing and turned up three years later in Spain.

At least, that’s what his family believed, and authorities in multiple agencies and countries believed the family.

Nicholas Barclay, blond and blue-eyed, was last seen playing basketball on June 13, 1994. In October 1997, authorities from Linares, Spain called to say that he had been found.

“Nicholas Barclay,” the young man from Spain, claimed that he had been abducted by a child sex ring. “Nicholas Barclay” had brown hair, brown eyes, and spoke with a European accent.

The missing boy’s older half-sister flew to Spain to bring him home. The now 16-year-old was very different from her brother, but she, and the rest of her family, rationalized that the abuse he endured in the child sex ring had profoundly changed him.

It’s an unbelievable story, told really well. In 2012, The Impostor was a standout film at the Sundance Film Festival and was an official selection at multiple other international film festivals.

“This film is as gripping as any white-knuckle thriller,” wrote film critic Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian.

This outstanding documentary about a French conman is pure suspense from start to finish, TheGuardian.com.

The Imposter: Bart Layton: ‘You find yourself sucked in by his twisted logic,’ on Telegraph.co.uk.

Wanting to believe

The Impostor captures how desperately the Barclay family wanted to believe that their missing son had been found alive — and that’s what I found so fascinating and instructive for Lovefraud readers.

How many times were we asked, “Why did you believe that person?”

How many times did we ask ourselves, “Why did I believe that person?”

The answer is that we wanted to believe.

And how do the sociopaths make us want to believe?

Actually, they don’t.

Sociopathic tradecraft

Here’s the real “tradecraft” of the sociopath:

  1. Figure out what the target wants to believe
  2. Promise to make what the target wants to believe come true.

That’s why sociopaths ask so many questions, and listen carefully to our answers, in the beginning of an involvement. They are listening for our hopes and dreams, so they can promise to make them come true.

Usually it’s easy. Most normal people simply want to be loved. So sociopaths who are looking to exploit a romantic partner simply look deep into our eyes in a show of sincerity and promise to love us forever and ever.

When they make this promise, offering the opportunity for our lifelong dream to come true, of course we want to believe them. And that’s a big reason why we fall for whatever they are telling us.

The impostor posterI believed my ex-husband, James Montgomery, when he told me that was a Vietnam war hero and successful entrepreneur who would build a new type of theme park on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City.

Why did I believe him? Because he told me I was the woman he’d been waiting for all his life, and we would share this glorious adventure together.

The fake “Nicholas Barclay” told the family of the real Nicholas Barclay that he was their long-lost boy. Rent the film from Netflix to see who he really was — it’s shocking, and many may wonder why they fell for it.

But I have great empathy for the family. The lies I fell for were almost as preposterous.



27 Comments on "How sociopaths make us believe them"

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  1. Redwald says:

    The moment I read this story I wondered if the name TICHBORNE still meant anything to anyone after a century and a half. It was a celebrated case in its day. At stake was not just a vast amount of money, but the title to a baronetcy as well.

    In one respect only it presented a contrast with the Barclay affair described here, since the family of the disappeared Roger Tichborne were aristocrats, while young Nicholas Barclay came from a dysfunctional household in the opposite echelons of society. But in other respects the Tichborne case presented a perfect parallel: a mother so desperate to get her vanished son back that she was willing to accept an obvious impostor in his place. Lady Tichborne’s son Roger was almost certainly lost in a shipwreck in 1854 when he was 25. But she never lost hope that he had survived, and when an impostor returning from Australia more than a decade later claimed to be her son, Lady Tichborne accepted him as soon as they met, even though this grossly fat man was nothing like her real son. In fact he was a butcher named Arthur Orton, originally from somewhere around Wapping Dock in London (read “working class East End”).

    After years of legal wrangles Orton finally lost his claim to the baronetcy and its money and was sent to prison. But the lesson is exactly the same as the one Donna pointed out. Many people have a dreadful tendency to believe what they want to believe. Con artists can easily exploit that trait—even impostors as outrageous as Frédéric Bourdin and Arthur Orton.

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  2. curls says:

    Redwald – interesting story from history of the same thing.

    I’d like to add that “dreadful tendency” isn’t accurate. It’s a normal tendency — a healthy one developed from having healthy relationships. That normalcy is exploited. People can’t imagine the level of calm lying that is so abnormal… so it’s logical to believe…

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