Faking illness to benefit oneself can actually be a form of self-harm, Loftus says. "In some ways this is suggesting that when people get into litigation and have a motivation to act somewhat more injured than they really are to get a better settlement, they are actually harming themselves by pretending. They're becoming delusional."
Merckelbach agreed, pointing out that malingering could affect how defendants remember events as well. "A lot of perpetrators who are arrested by the police claim amnesia: Their genuine memory for the crime is undermined by faking of memory loss," he says.
"The whole area of malingering research is booming right now," Merckelbach adds, "with new instruments and tests to detect malingerers—almost an epidemic of tools and tests and tactics. I think what this study shows is that people can stick to the role of the malingerer, even when instructed to be honest. If you really want to screen malingerers, you need a test that accounts for both the intentional and unintentional components. It's not enough to have a simple self-report list because you don't know whether the person is really faking or deceiving themselves."
Loftus also sees therapeutic potential in the new study, musing on a hypothetical strategy she calls "feigning good," which could motivate patients by helping them believe in improved cognitive skills and diminished symptoms of illness. "Should clinicians be prescribing a form of feigning? You wouldn't want patients to feign anxiety, but maybe they could feign the opposite. Maybe they could feign crystal clear concentration," Loftus says.
Merckelbach thinks the idea is fascinating. "The whole idea is new to me," he says, "I didn't think of it myself…. But if it could be applied in a more therapeutic way, it might be worth doing some experiments on that."