The capacity of the human mind to fool itself seems to be nearly bottomless. People do not like to deal with challenges to their ideas. Thus, they can be easy prey for those who are willing to tell them what they want to hear in order to exploit them. This is the oldest trick in the book, and it has been used countless times by individuals ranging from children to emperors throughout the ages.
A remarkable example of this phenomenon is presented in a documentary series entitled The Confession Killer which examines the case of Henry Lee Lucas. Lucas was a native of Virginia who had a troubled childhood marked by abuse and neglect. He ended up serving 15 years in jail for killing his mother in 1960. Upon his release, he became a drifter and was involved in a series of crimes over the years until 1983, when he was arrested in Texas and confessed to killing two women. During his arraignment, Lucas made the shocking claim that he had also killed an additional 100 women. A task force was set up to investigate these allegations, and police officers flocked to Texas from all areas of the US with unsolved crimes, and Lucas admitted to having committed them. The numbers of murders he confessed to started growing from the original 100 to 200, 300, and kept increasing up to an astounding 600!
Henry Lucas understood that as long as he kept confessing to murders, he would not be sent to the state penitentiary, and instead would remain at the local jail where he developed a friendship with his jailers and had perks like his own television, cigarettes, specific choices of food, being allowed to walk around without chains, etc. He was also driven around and flown to murder sites. He developed a near rock star status with thousands of people following his every utterance, and he was even interviewed by journalist from other countries.
If this phenomenon ended here, apart from the sheer volume of confessions, it would be to a certain extent unremarkable. After all, it has been known since time immemorial that people can be taken for suckers, and Henry Lee Lucas proved adept at manipulating those around him. However, what happened next is what makes this case remarkable and disturbing. Even after Lucas had been caught lying many times. Even after rock-solid evidence was produced that indicated that he could not have been the perpetrator of all those murders. And even after Lucas himself recanted his confessions and expressed his desire to stop lying, he was egged on to continue lying, in ways both subtle and overt, by the law-enforcement officers around him.
Lucas had unwillingly created a Frankenstein. When police solve unsolved murders, that makes them look good. It helps their careers, provides closure for the families of the victims, and builds goodwill among their communities. Lucas was willing to take the blame, and law enforcement officers from far and wide were willing to accept Lucas’ confessions so that they could close unsolved cases and move on. Thus the pressure was placed on him to keep the confessions coming. The manipulated became the manipulators. Lucas was unconsciously or on purpose shown details about the unsolved murders which he then parroted back to the officers interviewing him. His inconsistencies and the contrarian evidence were explained away, his trustworthiness, at least for several cases, was vouched for by the officers supervising him, and some people who tried to aggressively counter what was going on received very strong pushback from law enforcement such as a district attorney who was arrested on trumped up charges and whose life and career were ruined.
What Lucas and his enablers did had a deleterious impact on society. It resulted in the closing of many cases where the real murderers were still running free, and it produced a loss in confidence in law enforcement. With the advent of DNA technology, a few dozen of the cases were reexamined many years later, and the real murderers were caught.
The inescapable conclusion is that human folly can be a two-way street. And this fact may be relevant to explain some of the craziness going on in our times. Why, we often ask ourselves, do many newscasters, influencers, and other media and social media personalities push blatant lies and the most absurd conspiracy theories and other debunked nonsense with regards to vaccines, the COVID-19 epidemic, global warming, the 2020 election, and other issues? Most of these people are not stupid. Many of them are highly educated and quite intelligent. Why do they do that?
I believe the reason is that these people have built their brands telling their audiences what they want to hear, and just like Henry Lee Lucas, they have found out they can’t stop. Much like Lucas’ jailers who demanded that he continue confessing to an ever-growing absurd number of murders or else he would lose all his privileges, the audiences of these talking heads also demand that they keep talking to them about an ever-growing number of outlandish claims and conspiracies. And if they recant or disavow what they have said, their audiences will shun them, and they will lose their standing and their livelihood. Like Henry Lee Lucas, they find themselves feeding a beast that demands more and more of the same, regardless of the truth, the evidence, and the facts.
And just like in the case of Lucas and his enablers, this is having a negative impact on society in terms of the loss of confidence in science and many of our institutions.
The photograph, a mugshot of Henry Lee Lucas from the photographic records of an unknown police department, was obtained via Wikipedia. The image has been modified and is used here under the doctrine of Fair Use.