Inside the mind of a liar

Michael Hammond posed as a millionaire playboy. Just a harmless fantasy, or a cry for help? Julia Stuart asks the experts
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Most of us lie - at least some of the time. At a dinner party, we declare the host's soufflé a triumph when, in fact, we'd rather give it to the dog. When our partner asks us if they've put on weight, we deny all knowledge of their increasing girth before going off to hide the biscuits. We tell a colleague we like their new hair-do, despite the fact that it made us stare in disbelief when they first walked in. We lie out of respect for others, knowing that we too wouldn't always like to hear the truth.

Most of us lie - at least some of the time. At a dinner party, we declare the host's soufflé a triumph when, in fact, we'd rather give it to the dog. When our partner asks us if they've put on weight, we deny all knowledge of their increasing girth before going off to hide the biscuits. We tell a colleague we like their new hair-do, despite the fact that it made us stare in disbelief when they first walked in. We lie out of respect for others, knowing that we too wouldn't always like to hear the truth.

But some treat lying as an art form. Michael Hammond, 36, the son of a painter and decorator from Bexhill, East Sussex, adopted the fictitious double-barrelled surname Edwards-Hammond and regularly passed himself off as a millionaire playboy who drove a £100,000 sports car. The reality was that he was heavily in debt, had 102 convictions and had served six months in 2000 for impersonating a police officer.

He claimed to know the Prince of Wales, and the prince's sons William and Harry. He also claimed to have had affairs with C-list celebrities. Such was his ability to deceive, he was photographed by the paparazzi and appeared in gossip columns.

But why would anyone go to such lengths to reinvent themselves? David Canter, a professor of psychology at the University of Liverpool, says that people often drift into this type of behaviour. "He might have been talking to somebody in a bar and pretended that he was a detective and found that he could get away with it. As they become more aware that they can get away with it, they become more skilled and then perhaps start doing a bit of background research. If they are not stopped and if they still get some satisfaction out of it, it becomes part of their way of life... There's the excitement of getting away with it, then there's a feeling of superiority that you are able to fool other people. It becomes part of the way they see the world and they become ever more skilled at it and ever more alert to the opportunities and possibilities [of carrying out a deception]."

Professor Canter says it was notable that Hammond chose to impersonate professionals that society views as heroes and around which popular television series are based. "This particular individual is looking for the sort of heroic significance that is associated with fictional figures in our society," he says. He suspects that Hammond didn't do well at school, or elsewhere. For him, assuming another persona was a way of dealing with the issues around his underachievement.

One of Hammond's most common guises was that of a police officer, and he once managed to get into the grounds of Windsor Castle. Another time he claimed to be a member of Interpol. He also posed as a surgeon answering an emergency call and was provided with a police escort. He phoned the next day to thank them and tell them that the surgery had been successful.

Last week in court, Hammond admitted being a public nuisance, a charge that incorporated 11 incidents of falsely impersonating a police officer and one of wasting police time. He will be sentenced next month. One police officer described him as "the most professional con man I have ever come across".

Phillip Hodson, a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, said fantasists could find the experience very rewarding. "They are like actors who can't get Equity cards and the rewards are enormous. It's very exciting to have this confirmation that you are able to impress people. It's like doing exams all the time. You are constantly testing yourself. It's linked to the fixed idea that you yourself are not interesting, that you can only be interesting if you have a particular role or rank or raison d'etre. It's also partly about them over-fetishising the role of uniform."

Hodson suspects that not only does Hammond have chronic feelings of emptiness, but that he may also have schizoid tendencies. "He's so capable of adopting another personality you almost wonder whether he has more than one."

Interestingly, fantasists can be the product of either over- or underprotective parents. "He has not ended up with a very clear idea of who he is, but rather the belief that he should be somebody else and somebody better and somebody more impressive," says Hodson. "He's also ended up without having a clear idea of right and wrong. The sad thing is that he is probably pretty miserable."

Dr Mike Berry, a senior lecturer in forensic psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, says Hammond's motivation might simply have been ennui. "If you haven't got an exciting life you have to borrow someone else's and that's what he's done. People do this to get excitement in their life. Most people you meet lie about what they do, about their age - but they know when to stop, and that's the subtle difference. You might impress somebody in the first few days, but there eventually comes a point where you will tell the truth. And you only lie about small things."

While compulsive liars usually know that they are lying, fantasists are merely expanding their story and building up their image of themselves. "If people don't believe them then that will sometimes force them to make up more outrageous stories. You see the guy in the pub who has all these fantasies and the more people don't believe him, the more bizarre the stories get."

People lie for all sorts of reasons, Dr Berry says. They lie to get an advantage over someone, to soften the blow of what they are going to say, to make the other person feel good or to put the other person down. "People justify it by calling it white lies. Women do that all the time. Men boast about things, that's the difference. Men are more likely to be fantasists than women because of poor, weak egos."

Research has shown that most people can't spot liars. "Sometimes, they have these fixed ideas that if someone doesn't look you in the face or they are touching their nose they must be lying. Most of these rules don't actually have any truth in them. There is loads of research that shows that even police officers can't spot liars."

Indeed, Hammond fooled a significant number of them before he was eventually caught. Dr Berry believes his days as a fantasist are not over. "He'll make up stories in prison and try and con people that way. He will find it very difficult to stop," he says.

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