OPINION | Find a balance between gullible and sceptic

Find a balance between gullible and sceptic

I just listened to a podcast about a 2004 crime case in the UK.

A 14-year-old boy, "John," pretended in an online chatroom to be several different people: a teen girl, a man who killed the girl, and a woman leader of British Intelligence.

His goal was to fool a 16-year-old boy, "Mark". John, pretending to be the British Intelligence leader, convinced Mark that Mark was being scouted as a secret agent licensed to kill. After manipulating Mark for months, the fake woman persuaded Mark to kill John to prove himself.

Mark did his best, stabbing John twice with a big knife. John, who had hoped to die, survived, and both boys eventually confessed.

Mark was surprised to find out John played all the online roles. John was convicted for solicitation to murder; Mark was convicted of attempted murder.

This series of events made me think of an old bloke with whom I used to play basketball. Once he had a baby with him at the courts, and I asked whether it was a grandchild. No, he said, it was his daughter.

Another time he told me his wife worked for the UN. I found that surprising because there were no UN offices within thousands of kilometres.

Later he told me that as a youth he had run a 9.3-second 100-yard sprint in a competition. That would have made him one of the fastest men on earth.

I initially accepted on face value all those surprising statements. Now I wonder whether I am as gullible as Mark.

People sometimes lie about this and that. Some individuals lie about being sexually abused. Children and adults who report being sexually abused sometimes falsely recant under pressure from family members or police. Watch the miniseries Unbelievable for an example.

Some individuals falsely confess to serious crimes when pressured by police. Henry Lee Lucas confessed to over 600 murders all over the US. Each confession earned him cigarettes and a milkshake from officers. In truth, Lucas killed only a few people.

But let's return to John and Mark. The judge who sentenced them to no prison time commented that John showed a remarkable ability to make up stories for someone only 14 years old. The judge did not say anything positive about Mark.

I imagine Mark eventually wised up and stopped believing everything he was told.

A bit of doubt about amazing stories is a good idea.

John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Psychology, University of New England.