(Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part blog posting by Drs. Sridhar Ramamoorti and Daven Morrison. The first part is in a blog posting preceding this one, written by Dr. Ramamoorti. This posting is by Dr. Morrison)
(By) Daven Morrison, MD The rawness of emotion means the ripening of the field for fraud.
From self-poisoning with anti-malaria drugs, to the belief that Jesus’ blood is an antiviral, to the deadly anti-viral protocols of drinking disinfectant, the false assertions about how to avoid Covid-19 have gone from humorous to odd but harmless, to diabolical and even life-threatening. And it doesn’t take a psychiatrist like me to recognize how it’s done. When emotions are raw, there is an ebbing of rationality and this unwelcome combination makes us vulnerable. We start believing every conspiracy theory that has been concocted because we are not thinking effectively any more.
“Never before.” “Catastrophic.” “Horrific.” These descriptions of the pandemic provoke strong feelings just by standing alone as alarming phrases. As we follow the disease’s path, the story gets worse. People with severe cases progress from feeling fine to terrible, soaking sweats, to limitations on breathing in a matter of hours. The virus is so easily transmittable that patients must isolate and caregivers must shield themselves to avoid contagion. The treaters retreat behind goggles, masks, and other scary-looking PPE garments, further compounding the patients’ sense of abandonment and fear. “My death is near,” they think. Caregivers are exhausted and frightened and hidden behind the PPE, conditions hardly conducive to being comforting to their patients. All of this reinforces the contagion of fear. It is a vicious cycle where fear begets more fear.
We who follow the role of affects (i.e., basic emotions) in fraud know how predators use them to bypass the healthy skepticism that Dr. Ramamooti mentions in Part 1 of this series of two posts. In the affinity scams of trusting, gullible people, these predators (think Madoff) leverage the relaxing and trusting emotion of enjoyment (an affect when one feels serene or peaceful) to get prospective “clients (victims)” to let down their guards. In the case of Mr. Madoff, the trusting emotion feeds a cannibalistic pyramid scheme.
In this case, we psychiatrists have common ground and improbable pact of accord with those who follow the numbers. From our work in medicine, we know the geometric escalation of epinephrine and of cancer. In the first case, the alert system rouses quickly enough to ward off a threat. In the second case, cell growth outstrips the body’s ability to oxygenate and nourish. The cancer is too hungry and thirsty and cannot be contained; it overwhelms the body’s natural defenses. Translating this micropattern to global scale, we are seeing a virus that is hungrier than the health systems of New York City, Italy, Spain, and who knows how many more places will be afflicted and overrun.
This is simply a matter of supply and demand, fed by fear and distress for most people. Given this reality, we might think that the positive emotions such as enjoyment are nowhere to be found, but that would not be true. There is realistic optimism around us. People are still hopeful.
But there is a dark side to this situation too: Some of these hopeful people are planning fraud.
Dr. Ramamoorti’s and Barry Epstein’s paper on Dark Triads notes the presence of wolves among us lurking in finance departments and in business operations. They hide behind their spread sheets and social engineering to harvest the trust of others and our financial processes. Then they strike, using the trust they have earned, to steal funds fraudulently. And this is in normal times.
Sam Antar wrote in endorsing our book (A.B.C.’s of Behavioral Forensics, Wiley, 2013) this acknowledgment: As a fraudster, I succeeded for almost two decades because I understood how to exploit the psychological and emotional weaknesses of my victims. The incidence of pure psychopaths, mostly men, has been estimated to be roughly 1-2% of our society. Between 2-3 million psychopaths are among us with heads up and minds clear, planning to exploit this pandemic crisis (it is a slight relief that the majority of them are in prison; but then the fabulously successful ones may well be in the C-suite of the largest corporations). Add trillions of dollars of economic stimulus, a terrified and distressed populace, a huge industry (health care) sounding all possible alarms about needed supplies, and we have fertile soil being seeded for fraud.
So, what can we do to prevent fraud?
One of the most obvious prevention steps is to educate yourself and your team on the normal role of fraud. The time is right to grow your muscles in understanding and dealing with the three common negative emotions: fear, anger, and distress. In these early pandemic days in the United States, fear is a very important emotion to manage. We know a lot after taking a closer look in peacetime at warriors and what we have come to understand as PTSD. We have seen it with AIDS. To learn more about the lessons learned, read and the role of fear read Dr. Morrison’s LinkedIn article, “Covid, Costco, Cleanliness and Kindness. “One of the most important lessons for fear also applies to anger and distress.
As President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” It is time for us to learn to recognize the feelings of fear, but to manage it away from overwhelming our ability to effectively problem-solve the source of that fear. As we observe in our book, A.B.C.’s of Behavioral Forensics, affects are data. Fear is data, even when it grows logarithmically. And when fear is viewed as data, it becomes a tool, more than a threat.
When we understand fear, we can control it, otherwise it will control us.
Bruce Dorris, head of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, has commented that the effects of COVID-19 look like “a perfect storm for fraud”. On April 18, 2020, The Economist has an article warning that “the economic crisis will expose a decade’s worth of corporate fraud.” https://amp.economist.com/business/2020/04/18/the-economic-crisis-will-expose-a-decades-worth-of-corporate-fraud
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