When You Need It To Be True

When we want something very badly, it can be hard to see warning signs that might be obvious to other people. This week, we bring you two stories about how easy it can be to believe in a false reality — even when the facts don’t back us up. 

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Additional Resources:


A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Leon Fesstinger. Stanford University Press. 1957.

When Prophecy Fails. Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, Stanley Schachter, University of Minnesota Press 1956. 


The Advances in the History of Cognitive Dissonance Theory. Irem Metin, Selin Metim Cagoz. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science. 2011.

The Origins of Cognitive Dissonance: Evidence from Children and Monkeys. Louisa Egan, Laurie R. Santos, and Paul Bloom. Psychological Science. 2007.

Intragroup Dissonance: Responses to Ingroup Violation of Personal Values. Demis E. Glasford, Felicia Pratto, John F. Dovidio. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2007.


A Lesson in Cognitive Dissonance. Dr. Philip Zimbardo walks us through a lesson in Cognitive Dissonance, including original footage from one of Festinger’s earliest studies.  

Cognitive Dissonance & Michael | Ted Gideonse | TEDxUCIrvine. Ted Gideonse explains how to understand and respond to cognitive dissonance in our everyday lives.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. It's December 1954, around dinnertime in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. A group of Christmas carolers is performing before a huge crowd of about 200 people. It all seems perfectly normal. Except, when you get closer, you can see something about the scene is off. Few people in the crowd appear to be in the Christmas spirit. Instead of cheering, they are taunting the carolers. Eventually, things reach such a frenzy, that police are called in. The carolers are unfazed. They keep singing, their eyes on the sky. They're on the lookout for flying saucers, aliens who are going to transport them to another planet. One woman tells a newspaper reporter, "We have been instructed to sing carols while we wait to be lifted up." You might think the carolers were stupid, or hopelessly gullible. Yet, the psychological phenomenon that had them in its grip turns out to be surprisingly common. You have certainly experienced it in your own life. Today, we're going to tell you about the events that led up to that December evening in 1954, when flying saucers failed to appear over Oak Park. We're also going to tell you a second story, a modern story about what happens in our minds when our biggest dreams fail to materialize.

Liz: Several times I said, "My friends think that you may not be real," and his reaction was, "Why are people jealous of real love? And why aren't people happy for us?"

Shankar Vedantam: This week on Hidden Brain, the strange alchemy in our minds that makes it possible for us to live happily in an upside down world and believe that everyone else is wrong.

Shankar Vedantam: A few months before the caroling incident, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota sat down to read the newspaper. Most of the stories weren't notable until he got to the back pages where he saw an article about a middle aged suburbanite named Dorothy Martin. She claimed that extraterrestrials had chosen her as their messenger to planet earth. The aliens, known as the guardians, had told her a flood would engulf the West coast of North and South America, from Seattle all the way to Chile, in December 1954. The guardians supposedly had the power to take control of Dorothy's hand and use it to write important teachings that she and all earthlings needed to follow. The only way to be saved from the flood, the guardians said, was to become spiritually pure. Most people probably laughed at the newspaper article and move on. But Leon Festinger, the psychologist, was intrigued. He'd been studying the idea that when something you believe is challenged, it creates a psychological tension or dissonance. In Dorothy Martin and her followers, Leon Festinger saw a perfect, real life experiment to test his theory of cognitive dissonance. The flood would surely not occur. How would believers respond when this happened? The theory of cognitive dissonance predicted that faced with unwelcome facts, the believers would come up with rationalizations that allowed them to believe that they were right and the world was wrong. The psychologist and his colleagues had cohort observers infiltrate the group. Soon, they reported that Dorothy Martin's followers, who called themselves "The Seekers," didn't just believe in an impending catechism, they were also convinced that they would be saved by aliens who would come in flying saucers to pick them up the night before the flood engulfed the world. The seekers had plenty of company in their fascination with aliens and UFOs. The obsession with other worldly creatures had reached something of a frenzy in 1950s America.

Series of audio clips from old movies: Yes, it came from outer space to fill the world with terror....

New Speaker: Imagine yourself as one of the crew of this faster than light spaceship....

New Speaker: In Washington, ghost-like objects dart across the radar screen at the CAA traffic control center ....

Shankar Vedantam: Unlike most people fascinated by the idea of flying saucers, The Seekers were deeply invested in their beliefs. Many quit their jobs, actively distanced themselves from their loved ones, and drastically changed their lifestyles. A man named Charles Laughead was one of the most devout members of the group. He and Dorothy Martin did many interviews about their beliefs. We were unable to track down audio recordings of those interviews, but throughout the story, you'll hear voice actors reading comments that Dorothy Martin and Charles Laughead made to newspaper reporters and to the researchers who infiltrated the group. They were certain that the end times were coming.

Thain Berton, as Charles Laughead: It is an actual fact that the world is in a mess, but the supreme being is going to clean house.

Shankar Vedantam: Charles Laughead was a physician in Michigan State College. His views eventually made him something of a pariah. He was forced to resign from his job. His church community scorned his new beliefs. He and his wife spent so much time propagating the beliefs of the seekers, that their children were very nearly taken away from them. We'll circle back in a bit to what happened to the seekers, but as I said at the top, we're going to tell you two stories in parallel today. I told you the story of the seekers looking from the outside in. From that perspective, a group of people waiting for flying saucers look foolish. But stories always look different when you truly understand people's dreams and motivations. Our second story today tries to do that. It looks at cognitive dissonance from the inside out.

Liz: Hi, I am leaving a voice memo for Hidden Brain.

Shankar Vedantam: Sometime ago, we received a call from a listener in Arizona.

Liz: I hope you find it interesting. Let me know what you think. Thank you.

Shankar Vedantam: She asked to be identified as Liz. She told us that for a long time she had felt trapped in her marriage.

Liz: I never felt we were really a team, I felt I was on my own a lot of the time. I felt he made decisions that didn't include me and I have a high need to feel seen and heard.

Shankar Vedantam: Liz felt her husband was a very smart man, but he didn't seem emotionally present. Often, when he was off making plans for the future, she would feel exasperated.

Liz: I remember thinking, "Just be quiet and change the diaper." Like, "Be here now, don't be somewhere else."

Shankar Vedantam: In 2018, after more than two decades of this chronic low grade unhappiness, Liz felt she was ready for a change. Her kids were grown and out of the house, she was in her late 50s and felt an excitement about life stirring inside her. A youthful energy that felt increasingly out of step with her husband. Where she valued spontaneity, he craved order.

Liz: I was unhappy enough to feel like I needed to do something about it.

Shankar Vedantam: She sought a divorce and got it. It was her first time being single in a quarter century. She felt disoriented and a little scared, but she was also consumed with a searing desire. She wanted to be with someone who got her, really got her. So she sat down and wrote out the qualities she wanted in a romantic partner. I asked her if she would go find the list and read it to me.

Liz: Okay, I'm back. The first thing I wrote was emotionally alive and available. Evolved, attractive, open, wanting to bond and be a united front.

Shankar Vedantam: In some ways, I'm hearing that these were also things that may have been lacking in your previous life and that's partly why you were reminding yourself that these were things that were important to you.

Liz: Yes. I think the most salient part was emotionally available and emotionally intelligent.

Shankar Vedantam: One morning after a year of reflection and gathering up the pieces of her life, Liz felt she was ready to start what she called her second job; finding her soulmate. She created a profile on online dating sites.

Liz: I took a photograph of me like a sailor looking, putting my hand over my brow. Looking into the distance, looking for something.

Shankar Vedantam: Over the next month, she chatted with men on the apps, trying to suss out which ones had the qualities on her list. For the most part, no one stood out. Then one morning in July she came across a new profile. A European man named Sergio.

Liz: He was a very handsome man with little round glasses that looked sophisticated. Wore scarves in some of his pictures. The photographs showed him with a bright smile. He had a gap between his front teeth, which I found adorable.

Shankar Vedantam: Sergio was a few years older than her. His profile said that he was an engineer who liked museums, taking long walks, and going to the movies. He looked perfect. Even more perfect, when she messaged him, he messaged her right back.

Liz: It was the equivalent of being at a bar and the guy saying, "Let's get out of here." It was exactly the same feeling. Like, "Ooh, okay. Let's do it."

Shankar Vedantam: Liz knew there was little chance Sergio would be whisking her anywhere anytime soon. He lived in Italy. But she was undeterred. She felt a spark, the kind of spark she had not felt in a long, long time. Liz and Sergio quickly moved to chatting on WhatsApp. Liz remembers the afternoon they had their first heart to heart.

Liz: I was about to start a hike near my house. There's a nice uphill and then a beautiful, long path among Ponderosa pines and then you can walk for miles and miles.

Shankar Vedantam: As she started her hike, she typed a message on WhatsApp and hit send.

Liz: I just said, "Hi, it's me," and he said, "Oh, wonderful. I'm so happy to have the chance to talk with you and get to know you a little bit better away from the dating site."

Shankar Vedantam: She typed as she walked up the hill, telling him where she was. He asked for a picture.

Liz: I sent him the picture of me wearing my big straw hat and he said, "Oh, you're so beautiful."

Shankar Vedantam: Liz had been waiting a long time for a conversation like this. She told Sergio...

Liz: What my life was like, what I was looking for, how lonely I felt, how I longed for a connection, how I wanted to be seen by someone.

Shankar Vedantam: Sergio took in everything. He was understanding, he was empathetic, he was a fantastic listener.

Liz: He affirmed a lot of the things I spoke about. About my loneliness or sadness. He said, "Wow, I'm really sorry to hear this has happened to you. I can't imagine why someone would let you go." I almost wanted to stop and say, "Tell me more, tell more about why you like me so much."

Shankar Vedantam: And tell me what was going through your heart at that point, because you're going on this beautiful walk, you're talking to this person on WhatsApp, he's saying very nice things and very sweet things to you. What's going through your heart, what do you feel?

Liz: I'm feeling relief, I'm feeling healing, I'm feeling good about myself, I'm feeling beautiful, I'm feeling sexy. I'm feeling seen, really. I'm feeling heard.

Shankar Vedantam: Sergio wasn't just a good listener, he was also open about himself. He seemed to be in touch with his emotions. He talked about his own divorce, his son, about growing up in Sweden and moving to Italy as a young man.

Liz: Some of his writing was interesting. It was definitely not perfect English, his grammar and his sentence structure was sometimes endearingly foreign.

Shankar Vedantam: Liz liked that they were both bi-cultural. She had grown up in Mexico and moved to the United States in her early 20s. Liz and Sergio messaged back and forth for hours that day, until it was time for Liz to go to bed. The moment she woke up the next morning, she checked her phone. There were no new notifications, but then her phone pinged.

Liz: He sent me a message saying, "Good morning, beautiful." I felt wow, this was not a dream and he's still here. He's still pursuing me.

Shankar Vedantam: Soon, their WhatsApp messages became a fixture of her daily life.

Liz: Then I start figuring out a rhythm of when he's available or when he's not at work and we start conversing more during those times.

Shankar Vedantam: Sergio explained his complex relationship with his ex and his sadness about not being allowed to see his teenage son as often as he would like. He shared how he had distracted himself by helping underprivileged kids. He had even taken in a young woman from Africa, who had fled to Italy as a refugee.

Liz: That was another tug to my heart. This man had integrity, he was kind, he shared what he had with other people and really cared for someone enough to really help. It was hard for me to believe that this person was as interested in me as he was and as consistent and as devoted to daily communication. He made me feel good about myself, he was complimentary, he listened, he asked questions.

Shankar Vedantam: They hadn't spoken on the phone yet, but after a week they found a time to talk.

Liz: He had a low, very quiet voice with an accent that I didn't recognize as Italian per se, but it was definitely European sounding and I was a little nervous, a little excited. I was still incredulous about why me? I teased him about "You should check out other women before you settle on me." I remember him saying, "No, I know what I want."

Shankar Vedantam: It felt so easy, so effortless. "This was how love was supposed to be," Liz thought.

Liz: He was the one that said the L word first. That just made my life full and my heart full and I reciprocated. I fell in love with this man, deeply.

Shankar Vedantam: You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Before we continue our story of Liz and Sergio's romance, we're going to wind the clock back again to 1954. No flying saucers emerged from the sky over the Oak Park carolers that December. It was disappointing, but the group knew they didn't always understand the ways of the powerful spirits communicating with Dorothy Martin. A few months earlier in July 1954, Dorothy Martin told the group that the guardians had instructed them to drive to an army base and park on the outskirts. Charles Laughead and a few other seekers joined her. She later described the experience to the researchers who had infiltrated the group.

Voice actor portraying Dorothy Martin Actor: We didn't know what we were looking for. We were looking for saucers. As we stood there eating our lunch from the back of the car, just standing there in the fields alongside the road and looking up at the sky, we must have looked very silly.

Shankar Vedantam: On another occasion, the seekers were instructed to wait in Dorothy's backyard. It was winter time, so cold they had to stomp their feet against the frozen ground to keep their toes from going numb. Again, no extraterrestrials came to save them. Each time the flying saucers failed to show up, Dorothy got a message from the guardians explaining their absence. It wasn't time, the journey had been delayed, they were putting the believers through training to prepare for the real deal.

Voice actor portraying Dorothy Martin Actor: We don't have to understand everything. The plan has never gone astray. We don't know what the plan is, but it has never gone astray.

Shankar Vedantam: On the day before the predicted flood was to strike the earth, Charles Laughead and the rest of the believers sat in Dorothy Martin's living room, eyes glued to the clock. Tension filled the room. Eventually, the clock struck midnight, the day of cataclysm had come, but the guardians did not arrive. The group turned manic, they frantically began trying to reinterpret the guardian's messages, sure that they had somehow misunderstood the warning. The only possibility they didn't consider was that they had been wrong about the whole thing. Charles Laughead explained why and in so doing, offered the most succinct explanation of how cognitive dissonance works.

Thain Berton, as Charles Laughead: I've had to go a long way. I've given up just about everything, I've cut every tie, I've burned every bridge. I've turned my back on the world. I can't afford to doubt, I have to believe.

Shankar Vedantam: More than 50 years later, Liz was feeling something similar. She was in the very earliest stages of what The Seekers were going through, but already she was finding it easy to see only what she wanted to see and hear only what she wanted to hear. Sergio and Liz had not yet talked face to face, only over text or on the phone. So she suggested a video chat.

Liz: I remember him saying, "Let me see what I can do. I'm having a lot of issues with the internet. I live in an old neighborhood in Florence and we've been having a lot of problems. But let me get back to you on that, okay?" I would be thinking, "Okay, it sounds like a fair reason not to look at each other."

Shankar Vedantam: Instead of thinking about why Sergio wasn't hopping on a video call with her, Liz found it more pleasant to imagine him meandering along the narrow streets of Florence. At one point, she asked him for a picture of the view from his apartment, hoping it would match her fantasies. But when she got the picture...

Liz: It was an empty lot, there were no cars. It was just concrete and you could see in the distance trees and homes. It looked like it was taken from the second or third floor, looking down. I thought it was a very strange way of showcasing where he was. But I didn't say anything, I didn't pursue it.

Shankar Vedantam: About a month into their relationship, Sergio shared some news. He was going to Turkey on a business trip.

Liz: He tells me, "I'm really excited. I am competing for a huge, huge contract with the government of Turkey. If this goes through, I'll be able to land a multimillion dollar contract for telecommunication to wire part of the country."

Shankar Vedantam: The trip sounded so important and meaningful. Liz felt proud to be in love with such a motivated man.

Liz: A couple days later he says, "I got the contract. I received the contract, I am so excited. It's going to be huge. They're going to pay me all this money. Here's a picture of a ship," like a cargo ship, "that's going to be transporting all the hardware from Italy to Turkey. I just wanted to show you what I started putting together."

Shankar Vedantam: Sergio sounded like a man who knew how to get things done. Plus, he was deploying his talents not just to make money, but to do good in the world. Liz was full of admiration. And then...

Liz: Suddenly the conversation shifts. He says, "Oh, no. Oh, my gosh. I just got a message that tells me that there's taxes that I will not be able to cover. What am I going to do? They're not going to let me not pay the taxes. Oh, I am going to be really sad. It looks like I'm going to lose the contract. What a missed opportunity."

Shankar Vedantam: Liz's heart melted. She couldn't bear the idea of this lovely man losing out on his dream.

Liz: I say, "Please let me help you come up with the money that you're short." He said, "Oh, no. I couldn't ask you to do that. No, no." So I insist, I say, "I can help you and you can pay me back." He gets quiet and eventually he says, "Okay."

Shankar Vedantam: Liz pulled the money out of her savings account and wired it to Sergio. She drained nearly two thirds of her savings, but that seemed like a small price to pay for the joy that Sergio had brought to her life. A few weeks after she transferred the money, Liz went to Colorado to spend some time with two of her closest friends; sisters Deidre and Shelly. Liz couldn't wait to tell them about her new romance. The sisters had known about her unhappiness throughout her marriage and supported her through her divorce. Shelly still remembers how happy Liz sounded.

Shelly: She was feeling so much joy, so much love, it was just bubbling out of her and filled the entire room. It's a big room with a high ceiling and it felt like the entire room was buzzing with her excitement.

Shankar Vedantam: But almost from the start, Deidre and Shelly saw something that Liz could not; this was simply too good to be true.

Shelly: How could this really be? She had never met this man, he lived in Italy. She had barely even talked with him on the phone.

Shankar Vedantam: Shelly and Deidre shot uneasy glances at one another. By the end of the evening, they left Liz tapping away at her phone, talking to Sergio. Shelly vividly remembers what happened the next morning.

Shelly: I remember Deidre coming down the stairs, looking tired and a bit frazzled. She was absolutely certain that this was a scam and that Liz did not realize it and was being completely taken.

Shankar Vedantam: Deidre had stayed up all night, researching romance scams. She had come across an FBI page that described the typical tactics con artists use to hook their victims.

Shelly: Deidre said when Liz was describing her relationship with Sergio, all of that precisely fit the FBI description of how these scammers work, down to the last details of his profession, his having a son and the way he was traveling. She said, "I feel like this is a dangerous situation that is really going to hurt her."

Shankar Vedantam: Shelly and Deidre knew they had to nip things in the bud. Liz was a very smart, thoughtful woman. She had two master's degrees. They would present the facts to her and she would realize she was making a mistake. Shelly took the lead.

Shelly: I said, "I know that it may be difficult for you to believe it, but I just want you to be aware that what you've described to us fits the profile of a scammer." I asked her if she would promise me that she would not send any money to him unless she talked to one of us first and talked it through and that we knew what she was doing.

Shankar Vedantam: I asked Shelly what Liz said in response.

Shelly: She said, "I believe that Sergio is who he says he is. I trust my own instincts and I am not interested in what someone else thinks."

Shankar Vedantam: When Shelly and Deidre questioned if Sergio was real, Liz did not feel gratitude, she felt hurt. Her friends knew how unhappy she had been. Why were they trying to rob her of happiness? Rather than share further confidences about Sergio with her friends, Liz started to share confidences about her friends with Sergio.

Liz: Several times I said, "My friends think that you may not be real. And my friends have told me to stop communicating with you."

Shankar Vedantam: Sergio did not respond with anger, he did not respond with defensiveness. He responded with sadness.

Liz: His reaction was, "Why are people jealous of real love? Why are people unwilling to let people be and enjoy what they have? Why aren't people happy for us?"

Shankar Vedantam: It reinforced what Liz was feeling.

Liz: I think at times I felt like they were raining on my parade.

Shankar Vedantam: Liz also told herself that Shelly and Deidre and her other friends did not know Sergio like she knew Sergio. They had not heard the quiet conviction in his voice, they hadn't felt his kindness. They also didn't know something else. Sergio had told her he was coming to visit her for her birthday. Would a fictitious boyfriend do that? Liz could hardly wait. After months of texting and phone calls, the day of Sergio's flight arrived. He sent her a message telling her he was on his way to the airport. Like the star of a Hollywood romantic drama, Liz jumped in her car and buzzing with excitement, drove several hours to Phoenix International Airport.

Liz: I am bursting at the seams, I am so excited. I have plans, I have dreams, I can't wait to see him in person. I'm just high as a kite, I am flying.

Shankar Vedantam: What did you imagine you would do when you first saw him? Would you rush into his arms? Would you hug him? What was that moment like in your head?

Liz: Oh, yeah. I was sure we were going to look into each other's eyes and then kiss passionately.

Shankar Vedantam: Once at the terminal, she couldn't keep her eyes off the screen displaying flight arrivals.

Liz: I am pacing, I am excited, I have that nervous energy.

Shankar Vedantam: Finally, Sergio's flight landed. People began to filter into baggage claim. Liz saw families reuniting, she heard couples speaking in Italian.

Liz: I wait, and I wait, and I wait and nobody shows up that looks like the person I'm waiting for.

Shankar Vedantam: That's Sergio.

Liz: Yeah.

Shankar Vedantam: She called Sergio over and over, but he didn't answer.

Liz: I remember thinking, "This doesn't make any sense. What could have happened that he's not communicating with me, he's not on the plane?"

Shankar Vedantam: Liz was experiencing something that Leon Festinger called disconfirmation. Disconfirmation is what happens when a belief is challenged by powerful evidence. In this case, Sergio not showing up at the airport challenged Liz's belief that Sergio was telling the truth about who he was. Shelly clearly remembered Liz's reaction.

Shelly: Liz called me from the airport sobbing. She was in so much pain because he didn't show up. She said, "I can't believe it. I don't know what happened. I don't know what happened to him. I'm worried about him. I think something happened to him." But at the same time, there was an inkling within her that maybe this was a scam. I mean, I felt in her voice that she was starting to, through her pain, through her tears, starting to see that it was possible that this was not real.

Shankar Vedantam: As Liz sat in her car at the airport, the wall of certainty she had built around herself began to crack. She thought of the unopened emails her friends had written her, the links they'd sent to FBI web pages and to articles written by women conned on dating sites. She thought about how Sergio always had an excuse for why they couldn't video chat. She checked into a hotel and did something she never thought she would do. She called the FBI.

Liz: Of course, they tell you, "Don't call. You need to complete a form online." I completed a form online and nothing happened, right? I mean, it's a form on somebody's desk in a stack of forms.

Shankar Vedantam: Eventually, she tried to get some sleep. The next morning...

Liz: I decide to try and call him again and he picks up the phone and he says, "Hi, what are you doing?" I said, "What do you mean, what am I doing? What the ****," sorry. I was using foul language, I was out of control, upset. He says, "If you only knew what happened to me, you would not be talking to me this way." And he proceeds to tell me, "I was on my way to the airport when my ex-wife called me and she told me that my son had been involved in a moped accident. He died last night, they couldn't save his life." I'm just in disbelief and he starts crying.

Shelly: I remember Liz calling me when she was at a hotel in Phoenix after Sergio had failed to show up at the airport and she told me, "I spoke to him. It's a horrible situation. His son was just killed in a car accident. That's why he didn't come." I heard in her voice, a transition from the sobbing earlier, to being sucked back in to this idea of this man who she really wanted to be in a relationship with.

Shankar Vedantam: In Leon Festinger's studies of cognitive dissonance, he found that challenging people's core beliefs often produced a boomerang effect. After wavering for a moment in the face of disconfirming evidence, people often return to their core beliefs with even greater ferocity. The psychologist eventually came up with a list of conditions that typically produced cognitive dissonance. The first, of course, was that a person had to deeply believe something. The second was that the person commit to their belief by taking some kind of irreversible action, like sending someone a lot of money without the guarantee of reimbursement, or sharing something deeply personal that left them vulnerable. The third condition was that the belief needed to be specific and grounded in a possible reality. Liz's experience, meeting a soulmate on a dating site, is not an uncommon experience nowadays. Since the scenario is plausible, it feels believable. Watching from the outside, Shelly, Deidre and Liz's other friends could only look on helplessly. From where they stood, Liz had to choose between fiction and the facts. But Shelly realized that for Liz, the choice was much more painful. She was choosing not between lies and the truth, but between happiness and despair.

Shelly: I think she was so happy to be feeling these incredible feelings of love, I think she didn't want to let go of that. It was too good. It was simply too real to say that it could be anything other than the truth.

Shankar Vedantam: Then in a master stroke, Sergio made it virtually impossible for Liz to doubt him. He returned most of her money. I asked Liz what she felt like in that moment.

Liz: I just felt exonerated. Why was I doubting this man? He just sent me most of the money and more will come. I just felt everything's going to be okay.

Shankar Vedantam: Did you feel at this point that some of the advice that your friends were giving you, that in some ways it was misguided advice? Because clearly, look, they were wrong.

Liz: Yes. I was right, Sergio was real. It's an unusual situation, life can be unusual, it's all for the best, it's okay.

Shankar Vedantam: Liz's boomerang back to faith deepened her commitment to Sergio. She felt embarrassed that she had ever doubted this kind man. She was upset with herself for being angry with him the day after his son was killed. So when Sergio asked her for another favor, Liz jumped at the chance to redeem herself. This time he requested she buy and send computers and cell phones to a relative of his in the United States.

Liz: When I said, "I just mailed the computers," he said, "Good job. Thank you, well done." He gave me a lot of positive feedback that way. I did what he had asked me to do. I spent evenings and weekends doing a lot of this, having a sense that it was all going to be okay. That this was all in some way going to work out.

Shankar Vedantam: Liz began to help Sergio without reservation. She offered both financial and emotional support. They talked about how difficult it was to be surrounded by memories of his son. Then one day Liz received a message that told her that all her faith in this man was going to be rewarded.

Liz: Sergio says, "I cannot live in Italy anymore. I need to come be with you. I want to move to America and try it out."

Shankar Vedantam: Liz was ecstatic. She immediately began searching for apartments and found one in a neighborhood she really liked. She sent him a picture and asked him if she should sign a lease.

Liz: He said, "Well, let's wait until I get there. Don't sign any leases now."

Shankar Vedantam: She held off, slightly disappointed, but distracted herself by booking them a reservation at a luxury resort.

Liz: Top of the line service in the most pristine and beautiful canyon in Sedona. Dinner and champagne, chocolates.

Shankar Vedantam: You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. For a second time Liz was preparing to pick up Sergio at the airport. And he wasn't just coming for a visit, he was looking into moving permanently to be with her. To calm her nerves on the drive to the airport, Liz stopped by a carwash. She wanted every last detail to be perfect for his arrival. She looked at her phone every few minutes, willing time to move faster. At one point, she felt her phone buzz and looked down to see a text from an unknown sender.

Liz: It says, "Do you know Sergio, blah, blah," his last name. I don't answer and he says, "You need to know Sergio is scamming you. He's a scammer and he's out to destroy you."

Shankar Vedantam: Liz quickly texted back.

Liz: I said, "Who is this?"

Shankar Vedantam: The person typed out that he was an admiral in the US Navy. Liz asked to speak with him. After a few minutes her phone rang. On the other end of the line was a gruff man with a Southern accent. He recited all the payments she had made to Sergio and then he dropped a bombshell.

Liz: He just starts telling me in very fast speech, I am finding that my retirement account has been broken into and Sergio has sent you money from my account and I want that money back.

Shankar Vedantam: Liz felt her throat constrict. The man told her he was going to hold her responsible for the payments Sergio had made to her. But he also said he recognized that she was a fellow victim and he said he was part of an intelligence team that was about to catch Sergio. He asked for her credit card number so she could be reimbursed for the other payments she had made.

Liz: At this point, I am sitting in my car just hysterical, trying to talk to this person who is claiming to be someone who wants to help me.

Shankar Vedantam: Flustered and frightened, Liz complied with the request. She read off her credit card number. He asked her for the security code on the back of the credit card. She paused. She asked him if he had any ID. He said he could not share that information because it was classified.

Liz: So I said, "Well, then I don't believe I'm talking to someone who's real."

Shankar Vedantam: She refused to give him the security code. He threatened that he would press charges against her. Again, she asked him for some ID. He sent over a low quality photo of a military ID. It looked fake.

Liz: Now I'm realizing this is not okay. My life is falling apart right in front of my eyes.

Shankar Vedantam: Liz stared at the ID, her hands shook. Just then a notification popped up on her phone. It was an email from Sergio. We had a voice actor read part of the email.

Voice actor portraying Sergio: Dear Lizzy, I am not real. I'm just a guy from Ghana. I am really sorry that everything has to end up this way. I never intended to hurt you or make you fall into debt.

Liz: At one point, I wanted to confess to you and I wanted to ask you to not send anymore money, but I could not because...

Voice actor portraying Sergio: I need to feed my family and take care of them. Please, find a place in your heart to forgive me. I wish I could find a woman that would love me...

Liz: The way you loved Sergio. Then he goes on and he explains to me in great detail what is going to happen. He said...

Voice actor portraying Sergio: Someone will contact you, telling you that he knows everything about me. They will give you everything we've shared together to prove that they know me and they are trying to track me or help you recover your money back.

Liz: But truly, what they are trying to do, is destroy your credit and destroy you.

Voice actor portraying Sergio: So please, for your own safety, don't have contact with them.

Liz: I mean, he's actually trying to help me. This man who stole from me, is now trying to warn me that this is happening. He could have just written nothing or he could have said, "I'm a scammer, ha-ha. Bye." But instead he wrote this long letter that had the tones of a love letter to me and the tones of someone who really cared about me.

Shankar Vedantam: It really is a very confusing email. I mean, I read it and I did not know what to make of it. And I can only imagine what it must have felt like for you to read it. What goes through your head at that point, Liz?

Liz: Well, I hate to say this, but it's really a confusing mixture of connection and hatred and disbelief. Just a mix of what just happened? What is happening? Am I dreaming?

Shankar Vedantam: Liz sat in her car for a few hours. She tried to collect herself. Then instead of heading to the romantic retreat in Sedona, she drove home. As the desert passed by, she slowly let the truth about the last few months of her life sink in. It was devastating.

Liz: I mean, I'm still at a loss as to what to say. I actually didn't eat for five days. I made myself drink water. I could not stomach food. I was just in shock. I went to work, but I was useless. I cried. I called the FBI again and I made a police report. Nothing made a difference. I didn't know who to talk to, I didn't know what to do. What was the next step? How do I gain myself back?

Shankar Vedantam: She started by calling her friends and confessing what had happened.

Shelly: She was so distraught and just barely able to get her words out. Just sucking in air and hardly being able to breathe. I was so worried about her. I just felt like, "Okay, it's over. She has realized what is happening to her." I just remember feeling like all the air had just gone out of me and I was just in an incredible state of relief and a sense of okay, now we can start working on her getting out of this and recovering from it.

Shankar Vedantam: Liz knew she had to untangle why she had refused to listen to her friends' concerns. She was filled with searing shame.

Liz: Part of why I wanted to tell my story, is that I want to continue working on forgiving myself, because I'm not there yet. I have worse feelings towards myself than towards him. I feel I allowed someone who very possibly did need money to be clever enough and insightful and evil to do what he did. But I have more resentment towards myself because I allowed it to get out of hand.

Shankar Vedantam: The pain Liz experienced as she confronted the truth helps explain why many people who believe deeply in comforting fictions, never find their way back to reality.

Shankar Vedantam: Dorothy Martin, Charles Laughead, and many of the other Seekers never surrendered their belief in the guardians. Each time the flying saucers failed to show up, they'd quelled their dissonance by coming up with new ways to defend their delusions. Long after the chaotic Christmas caroling scene, Dorothy Martin continued to receive what she said were messages from The Guardians. She would send these messages to her followers by mail. Charles Laughead sold his home in Michigan and decided to travel the country, lecturing about his beliefs. One of the researchers who had infiltrated the group, reported that he seemed highly confident that everything was still going according to plan. In May 1955, Charles Laughead returned to Michigan. He had received word from a fellow believer that it was time. At long last, all his sacrifices were going to be repaid. He was going to be picked up by flying saucers. He was instructed to wait on the garage ramp of the largest hotel in the town where he had lived. All night long, Charles Laughead, his wife, his daughter, and another follower waited on the ramp, gazing up at the heavens. As Leon Festinger and his colleagues wrote in their book about the seekers, "Their faith was boundless and their resistance to disconfirmation sublime."

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our production team includes Bridget McCarthy, Autumn Barnes, Laura Kwerel, Kristin Wong, Ryan Katz and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Special thanks this week to our voice actors, Thain Bertain, Carol Schaffner and Akwei Thompson and our carolers, the Otto Family. Our unsung heroes this week are Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris. They're two researchers who worked with Leon Festinger. We reached out to Elliot and Carol as we were researching this episode and they offered useful suggestions about university archives that might have information about Leon Festinger's work. Elliot and Carol are also the authors of a very fine book that explores the science of cognitive dissonance. It's called "Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me." Thank you, Elliot and Carol. We're always on the lookout for great personal stories for future Hidden Brain episodes. If you have a story about a powerful experience in your life, especially a story that has left you with more questions than answers, please record a short voice memo on your phone, email it to us at [email protected], using the subject line: personal story.

Shankar Vedantam: If you enjoyed today's episode, please be sure to share it with two or three friends. This is a great episode to listen to as a group, maybe on a long walk.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm Shankar Vedantam, see you soon.


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