An interview with Margaret Singer on Undue Influence
Nexus Volume 2, Issue 1/March 1996
Margaret Singer Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and emeritus adjunct professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. As a nationally renowned expert on cults, brainwashing, and persuasion, she has been an active consultant and expert witness in numerous legal cases and has appeared frequently on television and radio. She has written more than one hundred articles and a book, Cults in our Midst, which was published by Jossey-Bass in 1995. Dr. Singer started her career in geriatric research in the late 1940s at the University of Colorado where she studied the adjustment problems of widowhood.
Nexus: You've studied everything from prisoners of war to cults, and now you're interested in elder abuse. What is the common theme in your work?
MS: The common theme is how people go about influencing each other with words through social and psychological manipulations. I am a specialist on brainwashing and thought reform. I am especially interested in elder abuse because I will be 75 pretty soon. I am a good example of a tough old bird who wants to help the other old birds see to it that their roofs and swings and cages don't get stolen.
Nexus: Many of us in the field of elder abuse became interested in undue influence because we were seeing cases in which older people who were clearly competent from a legal and psychological standpoint were making decisions that just didn't make sense to us. Undue influence seemed to offer an explanation. Can you explain exactly what it is?
MS: Undue influence is when people use their role and power to exploit the trust, dependency, and fear of others. They use this power to deceptively gain control over the decision making of the second person.
Nexus: What patterns have you observed in elder abuse cases?
MS: I have seen a lot of widows in their late sixties or early 70s who have homes and considerable wealth, which they inherited from their husbands or acquired over a lifetime. And then, a younger guy moves in on these older ladies and starts making them feel as if they were cute 19 year olds again. They bring them flowers, they bring them candy, they take them to places that they haven't been to in years, and they make them forget their age. The next thing you know, the relatives are coming to me saying, "Look, this 45 year old bozo who claims to be a retired stockbroker has moved into my mother's house. She's taking him on expensive vacations and he's convinced her to sign over stocks saying that he can make them grow faster than her broker can." She's being, as they used to say in the old movies, "hornswoggled."
Nexus: Who are likely candidates for this kind of abuse?
MS: Many older women have relied on trustworthy husbands or others to make all of their decisions. As a result, they are very dependent and overly trusting. Many women have conveyed to me, right after widowhood, that they are suddenly terrified. And then someone comes along and starts the seduction.
With older men, it is also often the ones who have recently been widowed. These men have been socialized to being with another person. With single men, its often the ones who have lost a long time friend who was very central in their lives. Suddenly, there's nobody there to talk ideas over with. Often, it's younger women who start bringing them cookies or bowls of soup. Later, they get money out of the older men by saying they are going to cosmetology school, junior college, or social work school. The men sympathize with them and see them as needy daughters. And then they start giving them "presents."
Then we have the more fragile elderly who are not really sprightly enough to make all their business, money, household, and tax decisions. In these cases, it is often the hired help - a housekeeper, chauffeur, cleaning lady, or practical nurse. First, they start telling the older person that there were no phone calls for him or her. They censor the mail and turn people away at the door and convince the older person that they're the only one who really cares about them. They may start to infantilize the person or, if the person is on medication, they will overdose them with sleeping pills, or give them a little shove so that the person falls or feels dizzy. They treat them more and more fragilely until pretty soon the older person feels that they are totally dependent on this individual. Soon, its "why don't you just let me take the checkbook to Safeway and I'll sign the check at the store?" And pretty soon, they have emptied out the checking account. It may sound as if I'm only talking about middle and upper middle class people, but the same thing happens to poor people.
Nexus: During your career, you've dealt with some real pros, people who were extremely skilled in undue influence. In the elder abuse cases, who are the abusers?
MS: It's a whole range. A lot of abusers are real psychopaths or sociopaths who see money, go for it, and have no conscience about it. There are others who have defects in their character and are greedy. And then there are others who are basically okay people who get tempted. I have even worked with some helpers who got angry at the older person they worked for and felt that they deserved what they took because the elderly person was abusive to them. They felt the older person was crotchety and didn't say "thank you," and so they started justifying their behavior and developing a sense of entitlement. There are also people who believe that the world owes them a living. They feel that because they are 45 and this man is 79, they deserve his money.
Nexus: Lets talk more about how abusers carefully construct conditions that increase the older person's vulnerability to persuasion. You've already mentioned isolating the older person and creating dependency. Are there others?
MS: Yes, and they often reach outrageous proportions. Another approach is to create a "siege mentality," which is the illusion that there are enemies lurking everywhere.
Nexus: In the cases we see, it's often service providers who are made out to be the villains.
MS: Right, they start bad mouthing the social worker or the visiting nurse. They'll make the person afraid to take the medicine that the visiting nurse brings or tells them that the police can't be trusted. They tell them that these professionals are going to take away their houses, pensions, and social security, and that they are going to put them in nursing homes. That's the "siege mentality."
Nexus: Sometimes victims get very protective of their abusers.
MS: Because they are so afraid. Because they buy into the siege.
Nexus: How do you "rescue" these people?
MS: You usually need to find a relative who will come in and get control. Once you get the brainwashers or control artists away, you can hire legitimate people and start bringing the person back to reality. You say, "I know this is going to make you feel badly, but I want you to know that 'Bill' lied to you. This happened not because anything was wrong with you, but because he is a very deceptive person." And when they want to know where the poor boy is, you tell them, "Well, he's not a poor boy. He's being well taken care of in the state prison."
Of course its harder when the relatives are wishy-washy about getting involved. Its like the parents of kids who get picked up by cults who keep saying, "Maybe he really wants to be with the cult at the airport soliciting funds." Their counterparts say, "Maybe grandma really loves this old buzzard." Eventually, in the successful cases, the relatives catch on to the fact that the older person is being held like a hostage and is being manipulated.
Nexus: You make it sound easy, getting the abuser away from the victim. Sometimes these people are very enmeshed.
MS: Yes, you may have heard about the Stockholm Syndrome which was identified in 1973 after four people who were held captive in a Stockholm bank vault for six days became attached to the bank robbers. What was astonishing was that the captives said that the police were picking on the bank robbers. That was the first time that the world really recognized that when someone has been held captive and they see that the captor had the power to harm them more but didn't, they develop a strong feeling of gratefulness toward them. It's true in domestic violence, as well. A bond develops between the victim and the person who beats her because after he's stopped, she's grateful that he didn't kill her. And the abuser almost always apologizes.
Nexus: Does vulnerability to undue influence reflect intelligence?
MS: No. It has nothing to do with intelligence. But the more cognitively impaired someone is, the more easily they can be manipulated because they forget things and they don't trust their memories. But you can make anybody believe almost anything if you are enough of a con artist.
Nexus: You've mentioned some factors that make people vulnerable to undue influence, like nutritional deficits, which are common in the elderly.
MS: Yes, that makes somebody more pliable. Instead of giving them a really good meal, these abusers say, "Well, you didn't eat your vegetables last night, so I didn't prepare any tonight." Pretty soon they are just feeding them mush, which makes them very weak and more suggestible. Subjecting them to a lot of noise is another technique. And if you haven't seen the movie Gaslight, you should. I use it as a teaching device. Charles Boyer marries Ingrid Bergman who plays an heiress. He bribes the servants to start dimming the gas lights and when Bergman complains, he says, "What are you talking about?" It slowly drives her crazy. Well, this phrase "gaslighting" has even been written about in psychiatric journals. It's easy to do with the elderly.
Nexus: You testified in a very high profile criminal case here in San Francisco in which a younger man and his accomplices took over the property and assets of a wealthy older woman. The defendants claimed that the older woman had given it all to them voluntarily. What was your role in the case?
MS: I was hired to evaluate the victim. The prosecutors had all kinds of neurologists but they wanted me to evaluate the social influences and forces that had been brought to bear on her. I interviewed her, read the nurse's records, talked to her housekeeper, and pieced together what had happened. The abusers had sequestered the victim, terrified her, deceived her, got the siege mentality going, and got her totally dependent and regressed. When I described the process to the Grand Jury, I could see the lights go on. They were saying "Oh, that's how they do it!"
Nexus: I'm afraid we're going to be seeing a lot more of these cases. Can you offer any advice to service providers, family members, or concerned citizens about what we can do to make the elderly less vulnerable?
MS: Help them get more information, better nutrition, and better health. The more alert people are, the better. Be sure that they have proper lenses in their glasses so that they can watch the newscast and read the newspapers. Make sure that their teeth fit so that they can eat properly. Reducing isolation is also very important. I know priests, rabbis and ministers are busy, but if an older, isolated person has belonged to a church, maybe the church will send someone out to visit.
Tell them about the things we're talking about. In Colorado, 45 years ago, we actually made home and apartment visits and warned people about artful and designing persons. We said, "Hey, it's real lonely and you know you've got to be careful." We think of elder abuse as being a new field but I'm sure we could find a lot of examples of people scamming back in Biblical times.
I also think more and more education is needed to keep families and friends in contact with the elderly, and to get the elderly to understand that the safest thing for them is to stay connected to relatives and people who they have known for a long time. And if they are lonely, they can always turn to established legal organizations like senior centers.
The question that intrigues me is how can we help people become critical thinkers from grade school on? So much of our society needs to learn how to evaluate what they hear and read so that they can say no to drugs, to sex, to staying in abusive relationships, and to keep from getting conned on the street.
Submission of J Walker – ALRC Elder Abuse Inquiry - 2016
UNDUE INFLUENCE AND FINANCIAL EXPLOITATION with a case summary.
(Information sourced by Margaret Singer)
Undue influence is a form of psychological abuse, related to the phenomena of mind control defined as the substitution of one person’s will for the true desires of another, undue influence generally occurs when the victim is incapacitated by cognitive impairment, physical or mental illness or some other vulnerability such as recent bereavement.
Undue influence is usually accompanied by fraud or duress by the perpetrator, generally someone in a position of trust or authority, who seeks financial gain at the expense of the victim.
How does undue influence occur?
According to Dr. Margaret Singer, a psychologist with expertise in mind-control and brain-washing, the perpetrator usually takes deliberate actions to gain control of the victim.
These actions include:
Isolating the victim:
- The abuser attempts to cut off access to the victim by other persons by withholding or controlling phone calls, visits and mail. The perpetrator tells callers and visitors that the victim is asleep, busy, or too unwell for visits and calls.
Creating a siege mentality:
- The abuser convinces the victim that no one else cares about the victim, and that family members, clergy, doctors and others are trying to put the victim in a nursing home. The perpetrator reassures the victim that only the abuser will take care of the victim.
- The perpetrator manipulates the victim’s activities, food and medication to create dependency on the abuser. This may include confining the victim to bed, over medicating the victim, or providing inadequate food and liquid that result in physical deterioration.
- The abuser uses his power to convince the victim that only the abuser can care for the victim. The abuser may threaten the victim with harm, neglect or abandonment if the victim doesn’t comply with the abuser’s actions and wishes.
Keeping the victim unaware of reality:
- Because of the process of abuse, the victim, in the role of a captive, becomes bonded to the abuser as do hostages, prisoners of war, incest victims and abused children.
Who is likely to be a victim of undue influence?
- Elderly people with assets such as their own homes, stocks, bonds, and other material and financial assets, are most likely to become victims of undue influence due to their life circumstances. This can include ill health with physical dependency, cognitive impairments, grief and bereavement, and decreased independence in such activities as shopping, bill paying and the need for transportation.
- Mentally ill individuals are also at risk for victimisation, as are those with developmental delays, chemical dependency, and other such conditions that result in need for assistance with various activities.
What are the risk factors for being a victim of undue influence?
- There are a number of identified risk factors that predispose people to being victims of undue influence and financial exploitation.
- Being elderly, mentally ill, physically disabled, and/or cognitively impaired.
- Living alone, especially in own home rather than in an apartment or condo.
- Being recently bereaved. (Some exploiters read obituaries and prey on widows and widowers).
- Being dependent in transportation and/or shopping.
- Having few local family or friends.
- Being isolated from community activities and health care services.
- Being naive and overly trusting and open with strangers.
- Lacking knowledge about own finances.
- Not having reputable assistance with financial matters.
Who is likely to be a perpetrator of undue influence?
- Perpetrators almost always begin with a close and trusting relationship with the victim and most often perpetrators are family members.
- Family members sometimes have a financial duty to the victim as their attorney-in-fact, and use that relation-ship to take financial advantage of the victim. Authorities have found that oftentimes there is a family member who lives with the victim, sometimes an adult child who never left home, and that person is in a prime position to isolate the victim from others.
- Unrelated perpetrators, such as accountants, trustees, attorneys or guardians, may have a financial duty to the victim.
- Other times the perpetrators are housekeepers, caregivers, neighbours, nursing personnel, physicians, church members, or even clergy.
- Occasionally these people deliberately develop a close relationship with the victim with the goal of financial gain.
- Some people “make their living” preying on elderly people and go from one victim to the next.
- Young women may become “girlfriends” of elderly men, and young men may woo older women in an effort to become their “significant others.” The appearance of a new young “friend” in an elder’s life is often causing for concern.
What are some signs of undue influence and financial exploitation?
While it may be difficult to identify a pattern of isolation and undue influence in the early stages of an exploitative relationship, there are certain characteristics that when considered together should raise questions about the integrity of the relationship.
These falls into three categories:
(A) Victim behaviour (B) perpetrator behaviour (C) financial implications.
Victim behaviours that may be observed include:
- Victim makes loans or gifts to someone who needs money for car repairs, surgery, etc.
- Victim is never left alone with anyone.
- Victim is pressed into transactions without being given time to contact advisers.
- Victim appears to be have been coached when meeting with attorney, accountant, etc.
- Victim seems reluctant to discuss matters that were routine with formerly trusted professionals or family.
- Victim seems sedated or appears to be intimidated or controlled by perpetrator.
Behaviours demonstrated by the perpetrator may include the following:
- Perpetrator speaks for the victim and doesn’t allow the victim to speak even when present.
- Perpetrator doesn’t appear to have any other means of support other than the victim’s income.
- Perpetrator has a controlling and defensive attitude if questioned about relationship to victim.
- Perpetrator denies access to victim by formerly trusted persons including victim’s family, friends, Attorney etc.
- Perpetrator moves into victim’s home and promises to care for them in exchange for property upon their death.
- Perpetrator convinces victim that family members, friends and other previously trusted persons are trying to put victim in an institution and take their assets.
- Perpetrator creates alliance with victim’s physician by insisting that only the perpetrator can successfully care for the victim.
- Perpetrator takes victim to a new attorney to make changes to estate planning documents, convincing the victim that previous attorney wasn’t looking out for victim’s best interest
Financial issues that should raise red flags to the possibility of undue influence and financial exploitation include the following:
- Change in bank or other financial institutions.
- Financial activity inconsistent with the victim’s habits and abilities, such as ATM withdrawals.
- Numerous withdrawals or checks to cash, often in round numbers such as $50.00, $100.00, $1,000.00, etc.
- Increased activity on credit cards for purchases not generally made by victim, i.e. gasoline, music and or CD’s, electronic stores, etc.
- Withdrawals made from savings in spite of penalties.
- Change in account beneficiaries’ attorney, etc.
- New accounts and/or new authorised signers on accounts.
- Change in financial planning documents, such as wills, trusts, powers of attorney, especially when there is question about victim’s capacity and/or the will or trust is in favour of a new or much younger “friend.”
- Changes in property title, quitclaim deeds or new or refinanced mortgage.
- Changes in solicitor, stockbroker, physician or other professionals.
How does one deal with suspected undue influence and financial exploitation?
If there were an easy answer to this question, the prevalence of undue influence and financial exploitation would be less and when it occurred, it would be more easily resolved.
Dealing with these issues requires that people working with vulnerable adults be highly alert to the possibility of victimisation and thoroughly scrutinise the relationships and financial transactions of their vulnerable clients.
While many of those working with the elderly assume that caregivers and others involved with vulnerable adults have altruistic motives; the prevalence of abusers is surprisingly high. Some authorities estimate that as many as half of all vulnerable adults may be preyed upon.
Wilber and Reynolds, researchers at the University of Southern California, found that “anywhere from 33% to 53% of elder abuse victims are believed to experience financial abuse.”
- When any of the warning signs listed above are identified, it is imperative that a trusted family member or professional – or even better, several people working together – insist on a private visit with the suspected victim.
- Social workers, especially those with expertise in vulnerable adult issues, can be useful in evaluating these situations and documenting findings of victimisation.
- It is important to realise, however, that a skilled perpetrator can cause the victim to develop strong loyalty to the perpetrator, a phenomena known as the Stockholm syndrome based on bank hostages in Stockholm who were brainwashed by their captives.
- The client’s attorney should be contacted and notified about legal changes that were made by the perpetrator’s attorney.
- It is often necessary to contact authorities such as Adult Protective Services or police agencies to force the perpetrator to allow a visit from relatives or professionals such as an attorney, accountant or doctor.
- In some cases, the victim can be hospitalised for his/her own protection, and interviewed by authorities in the protected environment.
- Thorough documentation of any and all signs of undue influence is helpful in establishing the pattern of isolation, siege mentality, dependency and powerlessness that allows the perpetrator to gain control of the victim.
- When they receive timely notification of undue influence and financial exploitation, law enforcement officials are willing to prosecute this type of abuse and exploitation.
Undue Influence & Financial Exploitation - A Case Summary
Mrs. J, 88, was a recent childless widow when a neighbour she had known casually began to befriend her.
Mr. T was in his mid-50s, married, unemployed and received worker’s compensation for a back injury. He had a lot of free time and began visiting Mrs. J daily.
Mr. J had done all the driving before he died, so Mr. T drove her to the grocery store, beauty shop, doctor’s appointments, etc. Initially he used his own car but soon asked to drive Mrs. J’s car since it was a fairly new Cadillac. Mr. T kept the Cadillac tuned up and polished to a high shine, and less than six months after Mr. J’s death, Mr. T became the owner of the car.
As the seasons changed, Mr. T took care of Mrs. J’s home and yard maintenance, putting up and taking down storm and screen windows, trimming shrubbery, cutting grass and removing snow. Mr. T’s wife, Mrs. T., began helping Mrs. J with housework such as cleaning and laundry.
The T’ visited with Mrs. J at least daily, often bringing in a meal or taking her out to eat. Mrs. J always insisted on treating the T’s to meals out since they were so nice and did so much for her.
Mrs. J had a niece who lived an hour away with whom she had always been close, but she gradually grew suspicious of her niece and discouraged her from visiting.
The T’s insinuated that the niece wanted to move Mrs. J from her home into an assisted living facility or nursing home, and Mrs. J was adamant about remaining in her home.
Mr. T continued driving Mrs. J to the grocery store, beauty shop and doctor, but was less willing to take her to church services or her weekly church circle group. Gradually Mrs. J became separated from her church family and her only contacts were with the T’s.
Suspicions about Mrs. J’s situation were aroused when her bank trust officer received paperwork from a new attorney informing the trust officer that Mrs. J had changed her financial planning documents in favour of Mr. and Mrs. T and was moving her assets to a different bank.
The trust officer attempted to discuss the matter with Mrs. J, but when he called her, she refused to talk or meet with him. He was surprised to find her so distant and almost paranoid on the phone, and was concerned about her mental stability.
Matrix (equivalent to Australian ACAT) was retained to assess Mrs. J’s well-being and her capacity to make the changes she was requesting through her new attorney.
When Matrix contacted the new attorney, he said that he would certainly co-operate with an evaluation, as he himself felt uneasy about Mrs. J’s situation but couldn’t put a finger on just why.
When the Matrix nurse arrived at Mrs. J’s home, Mr. and Mrs. T were present and were highly resistant to any of the nurse’s questions. They also refused to let Mrs. J sign the professional release form that would allow the nurse to obtain medical information from Mrs. J’s doctor.
Mrs. J was also resistant to answering questions and insisted that the Ts were her very best friends who helped her with everything.
Based on the Matrix nurse’s information and recommendations, the bank trustee sought legal counsel regarding the validity of the new financial planning documents.
In addition, an evaluation was scheduled with a geriatric psychiatrist and Mrs. J was informed by the new attorney that she had to attend the appointment before her new documents could be processed.
The geriatric psychiatrist insisted on meeting privately with Mrs. J and felt that she had been coached.
He also found that she had little knowledge of her assets, she did not know who her heirs were, and that she appeared to be controlled by the Ts.
Based on his report, the bank refused to honour the new documents and the case went to court.
Following a trial of several days in which the Matrix nurse and the geriatric psychiatrist were primary witnesses, the judge found that the Ts had unduly influenced Mrs. J and had exploited her financially by appropriating her Cadillac, transferring her homestead to themselves, and attempting to gain control of her assets.
The new documents were found to be invalid and the T’s were charged with financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult, fraud and other related charges.