by Bruno Pavlicek
In Part II of his series on interview techniques, CFE Bruno Pavlicek imagines the rationalization theories an investigator might use with the privileged suspects in the notorious college cheating sandal.
In the first installment of this series, I created a behavioral profile of William Singer, the suspected ringleader of the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scam. To date, 50 people have been charged with participating in the scheme to help the children of affluent families gain admittance to elite universities by means of bribery and fraud.
This case has ignited a firestorm of outrage. Middle-class Americans are shocked, shocked to learn that lifestyles of the rich and famous seem to include deploying their wealth and influence to game a system that presents itself as a meritocratic engine of social mobility, wherein honest, hard-working kids could compete fairly. Instead, bribery and corruption guaranteed positions at the head of the line to students of average ability whose families had the means to play the game.
In this second article, I’ll focus on the actions of the status-seeking parents who engaged in this unethical and illegal behavior. We’ll examine some psychological theories and attempt to create a behavioral profile of these affluent defendants, with the goal of determining how one might approach conducting a forensic interrogation.
The Psychology of Entitlement
A 2013 study by Paul Piff of UC Berkeley found that wealth can often strengthen a person’s mentality of entitlement, grandiosity, and narcissism, even if they did not earn the money themselves. Such people, according to Redford and Ratliff (2018), structure their lives to gain power and achievements that are perceived to be of high social value. Several studies conducted by Lange, Redford and Crusius (2018) confirmed the idea that entitled people are driven by a desire for status and dominance.
Tamborski, Brown and Chowning (2012) went further, arguing that people with an entitlement mindset are more likely to promote their own interests without any regard for others, and may make unethical choices along the way. Another study by Zitek and Jordan (2019) suggested that entitled people were more likely to ignore instructions, especially when they perceived the instructions as unfair towards themselves — even if there was a personal cost to noncompliance.
These studies, taken together, make a psychological case for the idea that wealthy people may be more likely to feel that rules don’t apply to them, especially if they view those rules as unfair or in conflict with their interests.
Now let’s think back to Donald Cressey’s criminological fraud triangle from Part I: Cressey theorized that the three main factors that motivate a person to commit fraud are need, opportunity, and the ability to rationalize one’s actions. In this case, you could argue that the entitled parents/defendants had an emotionally and socially-rooted “need” for status for their children. William Singer offered them opportunity — the second leg of the fraud triangle — by creating (in his words) “a side door that guaranteed families to get in.”
That was the name of the game: “getting in” at any cost.
The Behavioral Investigative Profile and Psychological Need
How would an investigator in this case approach an interview with these influential parents? Chances are, suspects like these will thwart the interview by retaining an attorney, but it all depends on how the suspect views the investigator’s authority and the possible consequences of speaking with him/her. Nevertheless, let’s be optimistic in this hypothetical example and imagine that the door for interviews has opened.
Before initiating any meeting with the suspects, the first step is a thorough background investigation, with particular focus on information that can be incorporated into rationalization themes during the accusatory phase of the interview.
We already know that the suspects are affluent and that some are public figures. To expand on this, the investigator should look for press coverage of the suspect, social media evidence, civil suits, criminal history, financial history, etc. — not so different from any other background investigation, except that you’ll probably have more material to draw from. As always, you’re looking for anything that might suggest possible motives.
In many ways, this isn’t a typical fraud case, because greed or financial need aren’t the drivers here; the motivations are psychological, emotional, and social “greed” — desire for status. We can agree that attending an elite college confers not only career opportunities but also bragging rights, a merit badge of membership in society’s upper reaches. “Earning” that badge fulfills a perceived need, especially for celebrities struggling to maintain an image under relentless media scrutiny.
Rationalizing the Misdeeds
How can an investigator convert those needs into rationalization themes? To do that, we simply need to find someone to blame other than the suspects.
As you’ll recall from the first article, the investigator’s goal in developing rationalization themes is to offer suspects the opportunity to save face — and thus, to open a path to confession. In this case, we can start by demonizing elite college institutions for creating this unfair system of selection, which makes it all but impossible to join their ranks. This unfairness practically forces families to call upon a societal Robin Hood (William Singer) who can bring the fight to the pretentious and elitist ivory towers of academia.
The investigator's goal in developing rationalization themes is to offer suspects the opportunity to save face — and thus, to open a path to confession.
We can also use the uber-wealthy “Joneses” as rationalized scapegoats, by arguing that the parents’ misdeeds are in response to the unfair societal expectations of having to keep up, or otherwise be ostracized. The media deserves some blame as well for their role in shaming prominent families who fail to measure up.
In other words, it’s not the parents’ fault; society itself is to blame.
Investigators can build another justification on the foundations of the research cited above. It’s no stretch to argue that everyone is entitled to a good education. But as those studies suggested, America’s most “respectable” families (using the words from Singer’s book) — many of them exhibiting an entitlement mentality — may feel that they are just a little bit more deserving.
The rationalization themes for suspect(s) from poor or middle-class families aren’t so different: ANY parent only wants the best for their children and will do whatever they need to do to give their kid a boost, especially in a system that’s rigged against them.
Another obvious strategy the investigator can use is to simply blame William Singer. As the unscrupulous pied piper, he created a tempting opportunity where parents were emotionally victimized and lured into his web of deceit. The parents only went along with the scheme for the good of their children, whereas Singer — motivated by financial need and greed — capitalized upon it.
Winning the Mental Chess Game
Forensic interviewing is nothing more than a mental chess game. In this case, we have two sets of suspects with different motives, but who in reality bear full responsibility for their actions. Anyone who knows the difference between right and wrong understands this. However, a good investigator will play the interview chess game and afford suspects a psychological escape by meeting their emotional needs during the interrogation.
These needs are to allay the perceived psycho-social consequences of confessing: Regret, embarrassment, shame, and fear of how others will perceive the crimes are some of the emotional hurdles that an investigator must help suspects overcome before they are ready to admit responsibility. Of course, an interviewer must never promise that there won’t be legal consequences. But by understanding how suspects might justify their choices to preserve their self-esteem, the investigator moves closer to check, and finally checkmate, in the forensic interview.
About the Author:
Bruno Pavlicek has over 25 years of law enforcement and private sector corporate security experience, mostly in financial and non-traditional organized crime investigations, as well as corporate security operations. He is a certified fraud examiner and certified forensic interviewer, and he holds a PhD in psychology. Bruno has served as an adjunct professor of fraud examination, forensic interviewing, and criminology at two universities. He is President of the Georgia state chapter of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) and works in the telecommunications field as a Senior Corporate Security Investigator.
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Redford, L., & Ratliff, K. A. (2018). Pride and punishment: Entitled people’s self-promoting
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