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This article was first published in the 'Skeptical Times', the Newsletter of the Irish Skeptics Society, Summer 2005, and then, with some slight amendments, in the 'Skeptical Intelligencer, 2006, Vol 9, pp5-9. The reference to the abuse of children in care was omitted in the Skeptical Times.

In recent years an unusual hoax has been perpetrated throughout the USA. At the time of writing, over 70 occurrences of this hoax have been reported and an unknown number have gone undocumented. What happens is typified by the following.

A restaurant manager receives a telephone call from someone claiming to be a police officer. The caller states that one of the restaurant's present customers is suspected of theft and the restaurant manager is obliged to take the suspect into a back room and perform a body search. The caller directs the manager in his selection of the suspect, usually a young woman, and in the conduct of the body search, which involves the removal of clothing. According to Sheriff Joseph Arpaio of Maricopa County:

'It's mind-boggling that he (the hoaxer) gets away with it. Why would any responsible person do something like this just because some guy calls them on the telephone and tells them he's a cop? Yet we've documented more than seventy of these hoax calls during the past two years, and in almost every case, the manager has agreed to perform the strip search. And even more incredibly, the female customers have almost always gone along with the scam' (see 'Torn and Frayed in Manila'.)

Perhaps a seasoned police officer like the sheriff should not be all that surprised by the activities in which people are sometimes willing to engage and the pretexts under which they do so. Certainly psychologists, amongst other social scientists, should not be so taken aback. Let me expand on this.

The contribution of psychology to skepticism

Psychology is a discipline that is not uncommonly represented as the art of conveying in obscure terminology whatever everyday experience tells us is true of human nature. As a rule, I do not believe this to be a fair assessment. For one thing, there are important principles whose influence psychologists have demonstrated, in a rigorous and convincing manner, to extend far beyond what common experience informs us is the case. An example is the degree to which the brain is the architect of how we construct reality and not simply its dutiful representative. Time and again skeptics invoke this principle in order to account for the experience of paranormal phenomena, the recollection of impossible events, and so on.

Another important principle, and one that is essential to understand the above hoax, is the extent to which our social behaviour is scripted and choreographed by the requirements of the various roles - implicit and explicit, formal and informal - that we occupy in the course of everyday life. It is as though the life of each one of us is an extemporised drama; at any time we take our cue from our understanding of what our current role demands of us.

As in the case of the earlier mentioned principle, we are far from passive in this process, although we may be seem to be so. At any time, we actively seek out, construct or monitor our role prescription. We have a need to do so. But it is also the case for both principles that their salience and potency are more evident under certain circumstances, such as uncertainty and threat, than others. 'What is my place in the order of things?'; 'What am I am supposed to do?'; 'Am I authentic in my role?'; and ultimately, 'Who am I?' are all fundamental questions whose answers we have a need to construct.

Power, in this analysis, is the ability to influence people in the construction of their answers. We all possess this power in varying degrees and according to circumstances; we are all, likewise, subject to it. It may be for the good or, unwittingly or deliberately, for the bad.

The early experiments of psychologists such as Soloman Asch, Muzafer Sherif and Stanley Milgram were controlled demonstrations of the importance of social influence - compliance, conformity, obedience to authority, and so on. Milgram's experiments are particularly apposite here (Milgram, 1974). Participants were persuaded seemingly to administer painful and even lethal electric shocks to their fellow human beings on the pretext that they were engaging in serious scientific research. (Unknown to them, there were in reality no shocks and the 'shocked' participant was merely acting.)

Alleged indecent assault by professionals: The compliant complainant

I was drawn to the story of the hoax because, in my work as a forensic psychologist, over 50% of the instructions I receive concern sexual offences. Also, because of my background in hypnosis, I have acted as an expert witness in criminal and civil cases in which hypnosis or a related procedure has allegedly played a part. In quite a number of cases, the defendant - a doctor, psychotherapist, trainer, etc. - is accused of indecent assault and sometimes even rape. Some allegations, in my opinion, are likely to have been partly or wholly fabricated; in many others the weight of the evidence suggests otherwise. What is striking about such cases is the acquiescence and compliance displayed by the complainants in response to the unwelcome attentions of the perpetrator. Why, despite the absence of any explicit threat or physical force, do they seem able to offer at most only a token display of resistance? Why in some cases do they not immediately inform others what has happened? And why, sometimes, do they return for further appointments?

These anomalies are often exploited by the defence to undermine the credibility of the complainant, whereas the prosecution may wish to account for them by reference to hypnosis: the complainant was 'put into a trance' and thereby rendered as an automaton, completely obedient to the hypnotist's demands.

In fact, the experience and behaviour of the victims in these cases are usually very similar to those who have been similarly abused without any use of hypnosis. The high level of compliance and obedience that hypnotic subjects may display can be shown to be due, in the main, to the social context in which the hypnosis takes place, rather than any property specific to hypnosis (Hawkins, 1993; Heap, 2000, 2006, in press). Victims in the hypnotic context may attribute their unexpected degree of passivity and cooperation to their 'being hypnotised'. This may provide what for them is an acceptable rationale for why they were so compliant.

Most of what I have been discussing so far involves human malevolence in some respect. In the matter of the hoax that I described earlier, the malefactor is the hoaxer. Although we cannot be certain, it is entirely plausible that those performing the strip searches did so in all innocence, believing that they were providing authentic assistance to the police. (Despite this, civil and criminal action has been taken against some of these people and the owners of restaurants).

Several years ago my advice was sought by a police force investigating Mr M, a community worker who was facing multiple charges of indecently assaulting and raping young girls in his trust. The skills he demonstrated in selecting and grooming these poor children were astonishing. Amongst his activities, Mr M would organise coach trips to the seaside for parties of children where they would stay in hotels. Some parents would also come along. One method he used to target his victims was to offer a prize of a free holiday to one of the children. He would ring up the parents before the trip and say, for example, 'Tell little Lucy to start packing her case - she's won the prize!' Overjoyed, the parents would gladly deliver their child into his hands. Little Lucy would share his hotel bedroom with the predicted results. In fact, on at least one occasion Mr M shared a room with his victim while her father, oblivious to what was going on, was occupying another room.

Another ploy Mr. M used was to persuade his victims that the abuse was necessary in order to win an award or a prize for the club. In other words, it was a kind of ordeal that both of them had to submit to (see note 1). Of course, part of the ordeal was a vow of secrecy. Mr M had actually videotaped many of these assaults and the police brought one down in case I wanted to see it. I settled for their verbal description of its contents. In it, Mr M matched the child's manifest distress by protesting how horrible it was that they were having to go through all of this in order to win the prize and how he hated what he was doing.

The police officers were experienced men who were well accustomed to how children and vulnerable adults can be manipulated and groomed for sexual exploitation. Nevertheless, they admitted to being astonished with the ease by which the defendant had been able to access his victims and obtain their acquiescence.

Now, the accused was an amateur stage hypnotist and the officers asked me if he could, for example, have hypnotised the parents, and given them a post-hypnotic suggestion that when he telephoned them and uttered a particular word or phrase, they would automatically hand over their child to him when he came to collect her. I informed the officers that hypnosis is not like this.

Perhaps the reader at this point is reminded of the Indian guru Sai Baba. Supposedly a god incarnate, he has 30 million devotees throughout the world. It is considered a great privilege for the sons of his devotees to have private audiences with their guru. In a BBC television documentary, Secret Swami, shown in the UK on 17.6.04, some of these young men revealed exactly what privileges were granted them once they were alone with this man and the curtains were drawn. How many of Sai Baba's followers withdrew their allegiance to him after these revelations? Precious few it seems. Here, then, is another parallel with the above child abuse case. Regarding the latter, the officers informed me that there was much anger in the local community about it. No surprise there, but the anger was directed against them! The parents were accusing the police of pursing a vendetta against the accused, whom they regarded as an upstanding and totally trustworthy person. (Now this evil man has been convicted, I imagine that these attitudes have changed.)

The hoax paradigm in healing

In many examples we can cite on this theme, the harm done, or the potential for harm, is not necessarily the result of deliberate malevolence. ('The road to hell is paved with good intention'.) This is much in evidence in several important areas of human activity, healing being one and religion another. (I use the word 'healing' in its broadest sense.) For example, in March 2004, a Mr Bryan Evans was exposed on a BBC Wales television programme for claiming to cure cancer by psychological means, namely by resolving painful memories (see The ASKE Newsletter, Skeptical Adversaria, 2004 (2) or click here I understand that Mr Evans is now contrite, but maintains that he genuinely believed in the authenticity of these ideas and practices, which he learned from a certain Dr Geert Reike Hamer, an Austrian therapist (who, notwithstanding his being sent to prison, may also have genuine faith in his methods). I can believe Mr Evans: medical practices down the ages have included many that were not only useless but were directly harmful and, especially in the treatment of mental illness, no different from torture (see note 2) . Yet those taught to administer these procedures sincerely believed that they had real healing potential.

We must be mindful, however, of the power that the practitioner of such methods - indeed of any 'healing' procedure - wields over the individual who is subject to his or her ministrations. Power has a tendency to corrupt; the greater the power entrusted to the practitioner and, correspondingly, the greater the submissiveness of the other, the greater the ease whereby methods come to be used for the purposes of exploitation and even wanton abuse and cruelty. We are all aware of the ease whereby some unpleasant medical, psychiatric and psychological procedures can come to be used in a less than caring manner. In my professional life I just about go back as far as a time when electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) was occasionally prescribed more for punitive than for therapeutic reasons.

Here are two further examples quoted in a paper about children 'in care' by Andrew Kendrick (1998).

'Two cases of programme abuse in the UK have been the subject of major inquiries. In Staffordshire, at least 132 children were subjected to "Pindown" between 1983 and 1989. Pindown involved: persistent isolation in an area cordoned off as a "special" or Pindown unit; removal of ordinary clothing and the enforced wearing of shorts or night clothes; persistent loss of "privileges", and non-attendance at school, no writing or reading materials, no television, radio or visits. While the Pindown regime had a purported "philosophy" to give children intense, individual attention, the Inquiry concluded that it was "intrinsically unethical, unprofessional and unacceptable" (Levy & Kahan, 1991, p. 167). In Leicestershire, a purported treatment approach known as regression therapy involved dealing with young people as with a child under five: e.g., dressing the child; spoon-feeding or using baby bottles; "the apparently bizarre use of the paraphernalia of babyhood in the treatment of adolescent boys and girls". There were significant complaints "because young people found the treatment to which they were subjected in the name of therapy to be abusive in itself" (Kirkwood, 1993 p. 62).'

At this point, perhaps, the reader may well have brought to mind the 'ritual abuse' scandals of the 1990s when some social workers, trained to detect the presence of ritual, sexual and physical abuse of children, wrought havoc on families in Rochdale and the Orkney Islands. We may also be reminded of the dreadful business of 'recovered memory' therapy - how countless individuals have come to believe, without any proper evidence, that they were subject to sexual abuse as children.

In my professional experience I have often noticed how people who are trained or training in a particular school or system of psychological therapy (and there are many of these around) may develop an unquestioning and almost religious commitment to that therapy, which is not warranted by any clear evidence of its validity. (I am sure the same is true in medicine and it is certainly so in the field of alternative medicine.)

As part of my own training, in the 1970s I worked in the Child Guidance Clinic at a North London hospital where the dominant system of therapy in which staff had been trained or were training was the psychoanalytic approach of Melanie Klein. The psychotherapists had been taught to interpret much of what the child did or said in the therapy session by reference to certain bodily parts, how big they were, what the child wanted to do with them, what he or she unconsciously thought about the therapist, and so on. (I did not formally train in child psychotherapy and was accordingly limited to using more mundane methods in my efforts to help children who were referred to me).

After working there for some time I had a number of concerns. The two principle ones were, firstly, that I could see very little evidence that the children and families who attended the Unit received any benefit, and secondly, the majority defaulted on their attendance after a few appointments, usually one or two. (I confirmed this by periodically drawing out random samples of patients' files and checking the final recorded entry). In other words, the punters voted with their feet.

It seemed to me that the people working there should have been questioning the validity and utility of the theory and practices in which they had trained or were training. Not a bit of it! Nobody else but me seemed to be bothered about this at all and what discussion there was about defaulting and absence of progress was usually concerned to account for both from within the dogma espoused at the Unit. The same response greeted any attempt to give these problems an airing; this was interpreted as evidence of some personal problem that was only understandable in psychoanalytic theory, the term 'negative counter-transference' being a favourite abracadabra word for neutralising any dissention.

My experience is one that numerous colleagues also tell me they have had at other similar units. I need to say that I have since had experience of other child and adolescent services which I would highly commend for offering a range of psychological interventions and which encourage a more critical approach to their work. (Also, nowadays there is greater emphasis by NHS managers on continual audit, cost-effectiveness, performance and outcome measures, etc.)


I have reached a point in the discussion on the verge of another phenomenon, namely that of cults. (It is, incidentally, no surprise that many healing systems are associated with some charismatic, guru-like figure and even a set of acknowledged apostles or disciples). Indeed I earlier could not avoid reference to the guru Sai Baba. The themes to discuss in pursing this topic would be the ones enunciated here. However, I do not wish on this occasion to expand upon this particular subject.

I wish instead to try to pull together the threads of the meanderings of which my initial account of the hoax has taken me. In much of what I have been discussing, there is a common paradigm. There are usually three actors in a real-life drama, each with his or her distinctive role. One thing that defines their relationship is power. I shall characterise their roles as I, P and R (Instructor, Practitioner and Recipient). In the case of the hoax, I is the hoaxer, P the restaurant manager, and R is the woman who is searched. I gives permission to P to assume a position of power with respect to R and to behave in ways in which in normal circumstances would be considered abusive, indecent and cruel.

In the case of healing, I is the trainer (an individual, an institution, etc), P is the healer, and R is the client or patient. The power relationships correspond with those of the hoax, although it is only in certain circumstances that P's actions may be construed as abusive, indecent or cruel in other contexts.

There are two considerations that are of significance to a skeptical analysis. The first is the authenticity of the roles occupied by the actors. Clearly in the case of the hoax, none of the actors are authentic in the roles they are explicitly assigned.

A second consideration is each actor's awareness of whether his or her perceived role is indeed authentic or not. In the case of the hoax, I is aware that his role is not authentic; this is true of P in the healing context where he is a therapist administering a cure that he knows is worthless or, worse still, that is merely a guise for satisfying his own perverted wishes.

How can we guarantee that healing is no different from hoaxing in the above paradigm? The best we can do is to establish the authenticity of the practices being taught and applied. If they are not authentic, then the patient, and usually the therapist and the trainer, are being deceived. This may be a fairly benign outcome, but often, for the patient at least, it may prove to be a disaster.


  1. It may be relevant to note the following here. As was stated earlier, the naïve participants in Milgram's experiments were apparently willing to torture their fellow human beings on the pretext that this was in the interests of science. Milgram himself was criticised for exposing innocent people to this revelation. His apologists asserted that this was justified in the interests of science!
  2. This is still going on in some places. A schizophrenic patient whom I know once experienced treatment from a 'traditional healer' in his country of origin. This consisted of whipping 'to drive out the evil spirits'. Needless to say, if evil spirits were there, they showed no inclination to relocate.


Hawkins, R. (1993) An analysis of hypnotherapist-client sexual intimacy. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 41, 272-286.

Heap M. (2000) The alleged dangers of stage hypnosis. Contemporary Hypnosis, 17, 117-126.

Heap, M. (2006) Assessing allegations of sexual assault during hypnosis and related procedures. Australian Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 34, 41-54.

Heap, M. (2008) Hypnosis in the courts. In M.R. Nash & A.J. Barnier (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Hypnosis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp 745-766.

Kendrick, A. (1998) "Who do we trust?": The abuse of children living away from home in the United Kingdom. Paper presented to the 12th International Congress on Child Abuse and Neglect; Protecting Children: Innovation and Inspiration, ISPCAN - International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, Auckland, 6-9 September. At:

Kirkwood, A. (1993) The Leicestershire Inquiry 1992. Leicester: Leicestershire County Council.

Levy, A., & Kahan, B. (1991)The Pindown Experience and the Protection of Children: The Report of the Staffordshire Child Care Inquiry. Stafford: Staffordshire County Council.

Milgram S. (1974) Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper Row. (Reprinted in 2005 by Pinter and Martin Publishers, London).