Hoax Museum Blog: Psychology

War Widow By Proxy — Sarah Kenney said that her husband died in Iraq when he dove in front of a bullet that would have hit a child. Her story attracted the sympathy of a group called Homefront Heroes, which then told the media about it. But it turns out that Kenney's husband didn't die in Iraq. He's still alive and well here in America. He isn't even a soldier. Kenney had made the entire thing up. This sounds like a case of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, in which people attract attention by inventing illnesses in others (usually claiming that their children are sick, but claiming that a husband has died would seem to fit the description of the syndrome as well). Kenney later made a statement to the press: "I think I need some serious counseling... This is the most serious lie I've ever told, but I've been caught in many lies." Sounds like she's heading in the right direction, but still seems a little creepy.

Posted: Thu Feb 10, 2005.   Comments (8)

Morgellons Disease: Is It Real? — image Sufferers of Morgellons disease complain of invisible parasites biting their skin. And they get skin lesions from which sprout strange fibers. And mysterious black spore-like specks appear on their skin. Cases of this strange disease seem to be spreading, especially in the Bay area. One theory is that it has something to do with Lyme disease. Or it may be a case of mass delusion. The medical community seems to think it's mass delusion. Most people who show up complaining of these symptoms get diagnosed with 'delusional parasitosis', which is a psychological problem in which people imagine that they're infested by parasites. Not having any medical qualifications at all, I won't weigh in on whether this is a real disease or mass delusion, but some of the behavior of the patients does sound suspiciously bizarre. Take the case of Theresa Blodgett:

She gathers up the black specks, the mysterious fibers and the small, fuzzy 'cocoons' she finds on her skin and around her home. She tapes the macabre samples to typing paper, but she said no doctor will analyze the collection. Physicians who glance at the specimens dismiss the lot as stray hairs, clothing fibers, scabs and other common household debris, she said.

So either she really is suffering from something and is desperately but unsuccessfully trying to get doctors to pay attention to her, or she's obsessively collecting house dust and stray flecks of dirt and convincing herself that these things are parasites attacking her. (Thanks to 'K' for the links)
Posted: Thu Feb 10, 2005.   Comments (607)

Sleep Messaging — Richard Griffiths has a problem. He sends text messages in his sleep. The messages seem to be inspired by whatever he's dreaming about. I'm actually perfectly willing to believe this case is real. I'm pretty sure I could type in my sleep, if I were the sleep-walking/sleep-talking type, which I'm not. However, I still refuse to believe that the sleep-sex woman was for real.
Posted: Sun Feb 06, 2005.   Comments (4)

Online Gamers Anonymous (Status: Not A Hoax) — I came across the On-line Gamers Anonymous (OLGA) site recently and can't make up my mind whether or not it's a hoax. It's a site "of, by, and for on-line gaming addicts." Some of the stories shared on its message board seem a bit farfetched. Take, for example, the tale of Tommy, a former EverQuest addict. Tommy complains that:

Before EverQuest I used to have nearly a perfect life, I was living the american dream if you will. I hade a wonderfull job, a great house, a beautiful and lovely wife and most importanly my 2 beautiful little girls wich I love dearly....now I've lost everything because of this game.

As he relates his tale of woe, Tommy shares one unforgettable detail with us. He says that in the depths of his addiction it became so hard for him to tear himself away from the computer that:

I decided to set up a little pot in my computer room so I wouldn't have to get up when I needed to go pee, as much as this may sound ubelivable I can assure you it's the truth.

One thing that made me suspect this was a hoax was that there have been other gaming addiction hoaxes, such as Mothers Against Videogame Addiction and Violence. However, after reading this article in Wired about gaming addiction (by Daniel Terdiman), I'm inclined to think that OLGA may be real. Terdiman relates how hard-core gamers can begin to have problems separating the game from reality. One lady describes swerving her car around the road because she thinks she's still playing a game. Another lady, a Sims player, sits at her computer thinking 'What percent of my bladder is full?' instead of going to the bathroom.

So what is it about gamers and their reluctance to urinate? I'm now imagining thousands of solitary gamers sitting there with pots in their rooms.

Update (09/19/2005): The owner of OLGA has stated that it is "a REAL service provided for people who are addicted to computer/video games and have no where else to go."

Update (13/2/2007): OLGA has now moved to a different website.
Posted: Tue Jan 11, 2005.   Comments (38)

Prebirth Experiences — At RoyalChild.com Sarah and Brent Hinze investigate Prebirth Experiences. They define these as when "a parent, sibling, aunt, uncle, or grandparent, etc., receives communication from a child before she is born, or in many cases, before he was even conceived." I hadn't heard of this particular variety of psychic (or spiritual) phenomenon before. It seems like a strange offshoot of past-life communication... except that instead of talking with people who once existed, you're communicating with people who are waiting to exist in the future. My question is: what if a 'parent' communicates with their child-to-be, but then they end up never having a child. Who, then, were they chatting with? Would the Hintzes define this as an imposter pre-birth experience? (via Holy Weblog)
Posted: Wed Dec 22, 2004.   Comments (173)

Imaginary Friends — In a recently published study, researchers at the Universities of Washington and Oregon have reported finding that two-thirds of children invent imaginary friends. I, of course, never had an imaginary friend as a child. That ten-foot-tall rabbit who lived in my closet was very real.
Posted: Wed Dec 08, 2004.   Comments (26)

The ESP Game — Do you think you have ESP? Test your skills with the ESP game. It's a bit addictive. You're paired with a random partner on the internet, then you're both shown a series of images. You each have to guess what word the other person is typing to describe the image. I ranked as a novice.
Posted: Tue Dec 07, 2004.   Comments (2)

Wakerich Asylum for the Criminally Insane — This one almost had me believing that it was real. It's Wakerich Asylum for the Criminally Insane. It all looks very official and real, right down to the phone numbers, staff bios, and maps to the asylum. It only starts to become fishy when you notice that the complete records of all the patients are accessible online. The supposed explanation for this is that "Patient information is being made available to the public after a ruling by The New York State Appellate Court in a Freedom of Information case brought by Health Insurance Companies against the State of New York." You've got to do a google search to discover that Wakerich Asylum is really the creation of the folks over at Whirled History. For $9.99 a year they'll admit you as a patient at Wakerich, with your own email account. So when friends or employers search for info about you on the web, they'll come across your asylum record. It would be more fun if you could admit other people into the asylum, but I think they'll only allow you to use your own name (or the name on your credit card). Whirled History will also allow you to become a monk at Pho Monastery.
Posted: Wed Oct 20, 2004.   Comments (9)

The Dream Machine — The Dream Machine, from Takara USA, "is designed to stimulate the user at the appropriate times during REM sleep to increase the likelihood of dreaming a particular desired dream." It involves incense, soothing background music, and a pre-recorded statement repeated over and over in your ear as you sleep. My guess is that it works about as well as cramming for a test by sleeping on a textbook would work.
Posted: Tue Oct 19, 2004.   Comments (16)

Sleep Sex — Australia's The Age reports on the strange nocturnal exploits of a middle-aged woman living with a steady partner. "By night, she crept out of their house to seek random sex with strangers. But the woman was unaware of her own double life, which was conducted while she was asleep." The doctor who is treating her, Dr. Peter Buchanan, claims that she is suffering from a rare syndrome known as 'Sleep Sex', which he's hoping will soon be officially recognized as a legitimate sleep disorder. Dr. Buchanan also notes that "Incredulity is the first staging post for anyone involved in this... One has to maintain a healthy degree of scepticism." I think I'm definitely still in the incredulity and skepticism stages, because I'm having a very hard time believing this could be true. I can understand doing things around the house like making a sandwich (or even trying to have sex with your partner) while asleep. But I can't understand how anyone could leave their house, meet a stranger, and engineer a sexual encounter... while being asleep the entire time. I would accept that she may be suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder, but Sleep Sex... I'm not buying that yet.
Update: Here's an article in New Scientist about the sleep-walking woman. I'm still not convinced she was really sleeping. But it mentions a prior case where a man drove 23 kilometres, killed both his in-laws, then pleaded innocent to the murders by reason of being asleep... amazing. Can a person get out of anything by claiming to be asleep?
Posted: Thu Oct 14, 2004.   Comments (9)

Are You Superstitious? — Do you think you're not superstitious? Then test it using this simple little experiment devised by John Stilgoe:

Stilgoe's Law: to test if you are really NOT superstitious.

Bring a photograph of your romantic partner, or of a son or daughter to a meeting. Here is an ice pick. Will you poke out the eyes in the picture? Will you poke out the eyes for ten dollars? Most students will not do this, the image has the power of a voodoo doll.

-- suggested by Professor John Stilgoe, Harvard Magazine, (Jan.-Feb. 1996) pp. 36-42.

Personally, I would fail. (via Liquito)
Posted: Sat Sep 04, 2004.   Comments (15)

Animal Psychics — image I never realized that the pet psychic industry had grown so large. Should you have a need for someone to peer into your pet's thoughts, you now have a wide range services to choose from. There's Animalstalk.com, run by Barbara Morrison (her company motto is 'I talk to the animals!'). Then, of course, there's tv personality Sonya Fitzpatrick. But my favorite is Terri Diener, owner of Petspeak.com. She tells us that communicating telepathically with animals is "similar to turning on a radio and tuning into the station you want." To get her to read your pet's thoughts all you have to do is phone her up. Everything can be done long distance (how convenient!). Personally I don't often have much trouble figuring out what my cat is thinking (it's usually either 'feed me' or 'pay attention to me') , though I would be curious to know what's going through her mind when she has her 'mad half hours' which involve tearing through the house at breakneck speed, bouncing off furniture, and squawking insanely.
Posted: Thu Aug 19, 2004.   Comments (9)

Real Pictures, False Memories — A recent study has shown how surprisingly easy it is to convince people that they remember things that never happened to them. 27.3% of the college students who participated in the study were able to be persuaded to 'remember' a fictitious event that supposedly happened during their childhood. But when a picture was produced to help jog their memory, that figure rose to 65.2%. So the next time you want to remind someone of that money they owe you, bring along a picture.
Posted: Wed Apr 14, 2004.   Comments (1)

Fake Abductions More Common Than Most People Realize — The abduction of Audrey Seiler, and subsequent revelation that she had faked the abduction herself, has been generating a lot of media attention. But in an interview with the Newhouse News Service, Ben Radford, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, points out that cases like this are far more common than most people realize. By his estimate, they occur about three of four times a month, but most of the cases slip under the media's radar. In the early stages of the Seiler case, when she was first found, Ben actually emailed me betting me $10 that the case would turn out to be a hoax. Luckily, I didn't take that bet.
Posted: Tue Apr 13, 2004.   Comments (0)

Memory Erasure — Lacuna, Inc. is a company that will erase troubling memories from your mind using a "painless non-surgical memory erasing process." But the site is actually part of the advertising campaign for an upcoming movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, starring Jim Carrey.
Posted: Thu Jan 01, 2004.   Comments (0)

Bizarre Phobias — Tom wrote to ask about the reality of a site called The Phobia Clinic. At first glance, the site definitely looks like it represents a real business that's selling a program to help people overcome their fears. The strangeness comes when you dig into some of the fears that they claim they can cure, and you have to wonder... do such fears or anxieties really exist? For example, they can cure you of Arachibutyrophobia (that's a fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth), Ballistophobia (a fear of bullets... but why would anyone want to overcome their fear of bullets? Isn't that a good thing to be afraid of?), Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia (fear of long words... the name of the anxiety alone probably sends sufferers into convulsions), and the list goes on and on. Despite all the weird anxieties, I think that the Phobia Clinic is real enough, in the sense that they'll take your money and offer some kind of 'cure.' But I'm skeptical about whether their cure actually works.
Posted: Fri Nov 21, 2003.   Comments (449)

Posted: Tue Jul 22, 2003.   Comments (0)

Subliminal Advertising in Russia — The LA Times reports that subliminal advertising is still widely used in Russian ads, even though the whole concept was revealed to be a hoax back in the 1960s. (Requires registration).
Posted: Sun Aug 25, 2002.   Comments (0)

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