Expert explains why someone would create a hoax to make headlines

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CHICAGO — The Jussie Smollett case is hardly the first of its kind. Take a short look back in history and you’ll see stunts, hoaxes, fictionalized or over-dramatized events that are sometimes built on nothing more than a lie.

So what makes people do it?

WGN spoke with a psychiatrist who helped explain why anyone would make up something so grand as is alleged in the Smollett case.

There is a long line of instances where fact only comes out after the nation — and sometimes the world — has nibbled on the fiction.

These stories are only a few:

  • In 2006, a stripper accused three Duke lacrosse players of raping her at a team party. The three were later cleared of all charges.
  • In 2015, NBC News anchor Brian Williams recounted how he was traveling in a Chinook helicopter in Iraq when it was shot down.
  • In 2009, a family claimed their 6-year-old boy had been lifted away in a giant weather balloon, but was later found hiding in the family’s attic.

Dr. Robert Shulman, a psychiatrist at Rush University Medical Center, said the internet, social media and the feeding frenzy contribute to the growing problem.
He said common traits in people concocting stories about their lives likely struggle with narcissism, desperation or insecurity.

In 2006, “A Million Little Pieces” author, James Frey, squirmed on the couch as he was grilled by Oprah Winfrey about his book. Frey fessed up about his memoir. The author had lied about his past. Oprah kicked him out of her book club and the book was later re-branded as a semi-fictional novel.

If attention is one possible motive in all these cases, what does it mean when the world clicks, posts retweets or tunes in to follow along?

To the person at the center of it all, does a scene like the one seen Thursday with Smollet mean “mission accomplished”? The doctor said maybe.

“(Smollett) certainly has gained notoriety. I certainly don’t think he’s going to get a raise, if that’s the reason,” Shulman said.

Shulman helped explain how it could work in a person’s mind. First, a plan is hatched, an act is carried out, people react then there’s the thrill of the chase. Somewhere in all of it, pleasure and reward play out.

“Physiologically there is a rush of dopamine. This is good. Let’s do it again, and again and again,” Shulman said.

Shulman said one possible common thread in cases like these: The people at the center of it all haven’t had to face real consequences in the past. They were starving for significance in the public eye. They could also be suffering from mental illness. Substance abuse could also explain abnormal behavior.

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