Undue Influence and Written Documents: Psychological Aspects
Experts investigating a purported
undue influence situation need to study the mental and physical condition of the
influence, general social influence techniques, tactics of thought reform, and
responses and behavior found in other high-control, intense influence situations
ranging from the Stockholm syndrome to abused women and the methods of corrupt
caretakers. The case of the "evil nurse" is discussed to illustrate these
factors. In addition the following conditions of influence are discussed in
their relationship to undue influence: isolation, creating a siege mentality,
dependency, sense of powerlessness, sense of fear and vulnerability, and being
The law gives special attention to the issue of the
fairness of the balance of power between the signer and the person(s) who
obtained the signature on the document (Dawson, 1947). When the issue of undue
influence in securing the signatures on documents is raised, the court is
asking: What was the process which constituted the undue influence? What is the
history of how this document and signature came about? What were the
circumstances -- psychological, social, physical, medical, and so forth -- which
have bearing on how free, informed, and capable the signer was at the point of
signing the designated documents to freely express his or her own desires? What
undue influence (improper, exploitative persuasion) was exerted on the signer?
A physician needs a thorough medical, social, and
environmental history to properly diagnose a patient. The investigator analyzing
the circumstances surrounding the signing of a document in which the issue of
undue influence is raised must secure a thorough, multifaceted history and
integrate the processes, interactions, and conditions that impinged on the
signer. What, if any, effects did the circumstances and conditions produce? What
has subsequently transpired?
The most frequent situations in which the issue of undue
influence is raised are in the obtaining of signatures to wills and the signing
of documents transferring money and property.
As Nievod (1992) noted, courts will consider at least six
factors influencing the signing of legal documents: the state of mind, the
"freedom of will" of the signer of a contract or will, the imbalances of power
or the unfairness shown to a weaker party in the transaction, the lack of
independent advice, the susceptibility of the weaker party to the importuning of
the stronger, and a lack of time on the part of the signer to reflect and
consider the consequences of all actions.
In addition, four sets of factors are crucial to consider
in such cases. Those investigating a purported undue influence situation need to
(1) evaluate the mental and physical condition of the signer, including
psychiatric, psychological, and neuropsychological assessments of the person;
(2) be cognizant of general social influence techniques (Cialdini, 1984); (3) be
aware of brainwashing tactics, thought reform programs, and various systematic
manipulation programs (Boulette & Andersen, 1986; Lifton, 1961, 1989; Ofshe &
Singer, 1986; Schein, 1961; Singer, 1987; Singer and Addis, 1992; Singer &
Ofshe, 1980, 1990); and (4) be aware of responses and behavior found in other
high-control, intense influence situations ranging from the Stockholm syndrome
to abused women and the influence of caretakers on their charges (Fulton, 1987;
Graham & Rawlings, 1991; McGuire & Norton, 1988; Nash, 1976; Strassman, Thaler,
& Schein, 1956; Strentz, 1980; Ursano, 1981; Ursano, Boysun, & Wheatley, 1981).
The investigator should consult with experts in the just cited fields of social
and psychological influence about what to look for in the way of documents and
observers. The latter can be of great usefulness in reconstructing what was
occurring at or near the point of the signing and may provide invaluable
information about relevant conditions. These experts may have suggestions about
whom to interview and whom to have examine the victim of the undue influence (if
the person is still living--for often the maker of the will is deceased).
The forms of control and the kinds and extents of
deception--the psychotechnology of undue influencerange from blatant and overt
to prolonged, subtle, and covert. But most improper influence situations
considered here are organized, planned influence programs which have been
exerted by the stronger party on the signer of legal documents. How did the
stronger party elicit the compliance of the weaker party?
First, let us consider how compliance in general is
obtained. How does one person go about getting another to do his or her bidding?
How Is Compliance Induced?
Compliance is produced by three general methods of
persuasion-- reason, coercion, or subterfuge--used singly or in various
combinations. Each and combinations of these methods can be involved in the
obtaining of signatures on documents.
Coercion can be actual or threatened; it can be physical,
social, psychological, or financial in nature. Physical coercion is blatant,
while the other forms of coercion are more covert. However, most coercive
methods can be more easily noted by the intended victim and detected by
investigators. Thus, corrupt persuaders resort to subterfuge and deception
(Nash, 1976). They seek to gain compliance without fully informing the intended
signer of the consequences of his or her act of signing. The exploitative
persuader tries to keep the pawn unaware of his intention to elicit compliance
and keeps the person less than fully aware that he or she is being moved along a
preplanned course of action designed to benefit the persuader and to bilk or to
gain control over the person, funds, and property of the other.
Vulnerability to Influence Varies
While everyone is influenced and persuaded daily in various
ways, vulnerability to influence fluctuates. The ability to fend off persuaders
is reduced when one is exhausted, rushed, stressed, uncertain, lonely,
indifferent, uninformed, aged, very young, unsophisticated, ill, brain- damaged,
drugged, drunk, distracted, fatigued, frightened, or very dependent. Each of
these states should be considered when evaluating the state of mind of a signer
of a document.
One of the first questions is: How vulnerable to influence
was the person at the time of the signing? Why? What types of influence,
behavior control, and methods to increase vulnerability to persuasion were
present at the point of signing? Were conditions "constructed" to increase
vulnerability to persuasion? Often these reach outrageous proportions.
Evaluating the Circumstances Preceding and Related To the Signing of the
A brief example of a common situation in which undue
influence is generated to obtain signatures is illustrated by the following
example, which I name "The Case of the Evil Nurse." This case has the basic
components of many undue influence cases and illustrates the process of undue
influence. The term is not meant to indict nurses or females. Rather both
historically and in the writer's experience, the person in the caretaker's role,
or, in actuality, in the role of a gatekeeper, can set the stage and create the
circumstances in which a person's vulnerability to persuasion can be increased
or preyed on by an artful person. The term "artful and designing persons" has a
longstanding legal use as well as being descriptive of the person frequently
seen in the generic role of the "Evil Nurse."
The Case of the Evil Nurse
Ms. Rose, an 80-year-old spinster, lived alone. She had
worked hard, and acquired considerable property and money, which she always
stated was to go to her niece and her children upon her demise. They were her
only surviving relatives and lived several hundred miles away. Formerly, they
lived nearby. Since moving, their contact with their aunt was less frequent, but
the contacts were warm, established, and intact. They called, visited, and
wrote. At some point they learned that Ms. Rose had fallen and that one of her
tenants, "a practical nurse" who rented a house owned by Ms. Rose, had moved
into Ms. Rose's large, elegant home to care for her. Shortly, when they phoned
they never got to talk with Ms. Rose. The "nurse" always gave an excuse: Ms.
Rose was asleep, did not want to be disturbed, was out at a doctor's
appointment, was off with a friend in a nearby town, and so on. The relatives no
longer received replies to their letters. When they visited, they were turned
away at the door. The nurse would say that Ms. Rose had said she was too tired
and did not want visitors, or gave some other excuse.
Eventually, they became alarmed and through legal help
ascertained that much of Ms. Rose's considerable wealth had been taken over. The
nurse led Ms. Rose to believe that a former friend of hers to whom she had
loaned money had come back and secretly stolen most of her money. The nurse
further led Ms. Rose to believe that she and her nephew had saved her life after
a fall and had taken her into their place, actually one of Ms. Rose's own
properties. The nurse and her nephew represented that they were needed to
protect her from marauders, drunks, and drug users supposedly threatening her
home. Sometime later, Ms. Rose was induced to marry the nephew, a man 40 years
younger, so he could "protect" her as her husband. He then "managed" her money
and property, and as her spouse stood to inherit Ms. Rose's considerable wealth
and properties. The relatives were told they could only visit if accompanied by
a lawyer. This was a puzzling situation because it was not clear whose lawyer
The niece secured legal help and investigation revealed
that to accomplish these ends, the Evil Nurse had been in collusion with a
corrupt accountant and renegade attorney who had represented Ms. Rose for some
years and in whom she had trust. The case was a complicated one and is disguised
here to protect identities. Here is where understanding the "program" of
influence to which Ms. Rose was subjected becomes important.
Those investigating the situation (lawyers, investigators,
psychologists, psychiatrists, geriatric and other physicians) produced data that
indicated a chronology of interrelated factors that revealed the progressive
building of a pseudoworld Ms. Rose was led to accept and obey.
In retrospect, the crucial turning point in the building of
greater control grew out of the fall. In that accident, the old lady suffered a
mild sprained foot and a bump on the head which were considered medically
nonsignificant by treating physicians at the hospital to which Ms. Rose was
taken. It appeared that the old lady might have been overmedicated and pushed or
tripped to produce some fear and transient incapacities. The Evil Nurse and her
nephew played upon Ms. Rose's transient foot and head problems, and solicitously
cared for her. History brought out that they spoke and treated her in ways to
exaggerate her weakness, to infantilize her, and to promote her dependence on
them. They convinced her that going out was dangerous, not only because "she
couldn't walk," which hospital and physicians refute for this time period, but
they further convinced her that drug addicts and thugs were right outside her
house and that potential robbers stalked the areas. In reality, the house was
near a recreation yard used by law enforcement personnel during their rest
periods, and the neighborhood was well patrolled by the police because of the
nearby homes of foreign diplomats.
Because of these efforts, her fears, and her heightened
physical dependence, the nurse and nephew persuaded her to permit them to stay
in her home, as they were now needed to care for and protect Ms. Rose who had
been abandoned seemingly by the world. This had been engineered by the culprits
who took over Ms. Rose's life. They induced her to think a man to whom she had
in earlier years lent money had come back and surreptitiously drained her
finances to indulge his drug and alcohol habits. Eventually, they convinced Ms.
Rose that her niece was trying to put her in a rest home and take control of her
money. Ms. Rose was told falsely that the niece and her offspring never wrote,
called, or visited and that they had abandoned her. Likewise, neighbors and
longtime friends who called or appeared at the house were turned away by the
Evil Nurse and her nephew, who never told Ms. Rose these visitors had appeared.
The program that the culprits set into play caused Ms. Rose to be reduced to a
state of terror and dependency. They eventually conveyed to Ms. Rose that the
only way for her to retain control of her property and money, to avoid being
sent to a nursing home, and to be protected from the potential robbers and thugs
was to marry the nephew of the Evil Nurse.
Even after a court-appointed lawyer guardian was appointed
for Ms. Rose, the Evil Nurse, who knew Ms. Rose had a lifelong hatred of people
who wasted their money on alcohol, kept on influencing Ms. Rose to turn her
against the lawyer by offering him a glass of wine in front of Ms. Rose, and
later speaking ill of him for drinking the wine. Space limits the detail that
can be provided here, but this much of the case gives the reader a sense of the
general situation, the programmed quality, and the tenacity of the Evil Nurse
and her colleagues.
Evaluations were made of Ms. Rose's medical status, mental
competency, neuropsychological status, and the social and psychological
influence strategies seemingly brought to bear on her.
How the "Program" Worked
Below are illustrations of how certain mechanisms of
influence and control were put into place by the Evil Nurse, her nephew, the
renegade lawyer, and the accountant to achieve complete domination of Ms. Rose
and to secure control over the old woman's property, money, and person.
These represent only a few of the many techniques, tactics,
and strategies one finds in various undue influence situations. Though brief,
the analysis conveys the essence of one of the most frequent patterns which
applies to the above case and many others. This outline can help an investigator
conceptualize and explore a suspected undue influence case, and can aid in
presenting to the court the psychology of the processes frequently seen in such
The programmed quality and sequencing may seem
sophisticated and overly intentional. However, it is prototypical of such cases
and illustrates the ever‑present folk art of manipulation to gain compliance,
which artful and designing manipulators down through the ages have come upon.
Con games, street hustles, undue influence situations, brainwashing, and the
Evil Nurse scenario represent forms of obtaining compliance deceptively in
situations that benefit the manipulator at the expense of the complier, and
follow patterns humans fall into when subjected to certain manipulative
Undue influence situations are not all the same, as was
noted earlier, but the Evil Nurse scenario occurs so frequently that it can
serve as a prototype of analysis in a number of similar situations.
Further, undue influence can be wielded in a far shorter
time span than was the situation in this case. Most, but not all, Evil Nurse
scenarios, however, involve a fair amount of time. A fair amount of time is
usually necessary to set the stage for the "siege mentality." The following
conditions are important components to set the stage for undue influence.
Conditions Facilitating the Work of the Influencer
Six factors are prominent in undue influence situations.
They are the production of isolation, the creation of the "siege mentality," the
fostering of dependence, the creation of powerlessness, the use of fear and
deception, and the keeping the victim unaware of the manipulative program put
into place to influence and control the person and to obtain the signing of
documents which benefit the manipulators at the cost of the signer.
Isolation is set into motion by the manipulator by
controlling as closely as possible all avenues of communication to and from the
intended victim. The manipulator desires to create and convince the potential
signer of the existence of a pseudoworld. In other words, the manipulator
creates a big myth that is supported by the surrounding events and conditions
that the manipulator is able to put into place. The Evil Nurse and her
collaborators used such tactics as sending family, friends, and neighbors away,
censoring the mail, and controlling phone calls. The Evil Nurse effectively cut
off outside information and support from coming to Ms. Rose. Simultaneously, she
made others feel that Ms. Rose did not want to see or talk to them. Thus, Ms.
Rose was walled away from incoming information and could send none out. The Evil
Nurse, aided by the renegade lawyer and the accountant, became the sole source
and channel of information from and access to the broader world. They were the
"gatekeepers" controlling both incoming and outgoing information. The deceitful
control and manipulation of information puts the victims in these situations at
a great disadvantage.
2. Creating a Siege Mentality
Creating a siege mentality is usually added once the
isolation has been effected. That is, anyone other than the Evil Nurse and those
few she needs to assist her to carry out her plan are spoken of in ways to
convey that the outside world is threatening and menacing the well-being, even
the life of the pawn. The niece and her children, friends, neighbors, and even
the mythical thugs and drug addicts who might be prowling nearby were used as
outer threats against whom Ms. Rose and the Evil Nurse must fortify themselves.
The home was regarded as a safe fort, but always potentially threatened by
sinister outside forces. The niece was turned into a greedy person trying to put
Ms. Rose in a nursing home and take her money. The police in their exercise yard
were labeled a group of thugs and addicts, and the patrolmen in the neighborhood
as potential burglars. Ms. Rose was not taken for an eye examination and needed
new glasses. She could not see clearly either to read or look about. To continue
isolating Ms. Rose, the nurse placed a very large table in front of the window
in Ms. Rose's room so that she could not get to the window to really see what
was outside. Thus, she had no way of knowing that she was being deceived, nor
could she call out to others below if she were so inclined.
A sense of dependency on the nurse and her cohorts was
fostered. Ms. Rose was led to see herself as alone, cut off, unable to walk
easily. She was led to believe that these "helping" persons were the only
trustworthy persons available. That only they, in effect, could preserve Ms.
4. Sense of Powerlessness
A sense of powerlessness was also created by the engineered
isolation, the fostered dependency, and the siege mentality. The pawn is led to
see that only the influencer or the one in charge has the power to do anything.
5. Sense of Fear and Vulnerability
A sense of fear and vulnerability was fostered by the
exaggeration of her physical problems, making Ms. Rose feel vulnerable and
feeble. False fears were instilled by telling her she was surrounded by
menacing people, known and unknown. The Evil Nurse and her cohorts had convinced
Ms. Rose that only they could preserve her life, property, and money.
6. Staying Unaware
Ms. Rose had to be kept unaware and uninformed about the
construction of this false reality, that she was responding to an engineered or
pseudoworld. She had to be kept unaware of the playing upon fear, the use of
lies, exaggerations, deceptions, and manipulations that caused Ms. Rose to see
only the constructed false world the deceivers allowed her to see. The designing
band of the Evil Nurse, her nephew, the corrupt accountant, and the renegade
lawyer colluded to make it appear they were the only protectors of Ms. Rose in
the midst of a terrifying and threatening world. They managed to induce
Ms. Rose to see them as her only support and protection in the seemingly
menacing world produced by their tales and behavior. They had established the
conditions under which highly stressed persons who are captives begin to form
bonds and become dependent on their captors.
They literally had deceived her in many ways to make her so
fearful and actually their captive, and thus vulnerable to manipulations that
drove her to feel her survival depended on them. They had created conditions
psychologically similar to, if not totally identical with, those conditions that
produce the Stockholm syndrome (Strentz, 1980). This is a situation in which
bonding between captives and captors occurs, as puzzling as it may sometimes
appear to the ordinary citizen.
The Stockholm syndrome was identified in 1973 after four
people held captive in a Stockholm bank vault for six days became attached to
the bank robbers. The hostages came to see the police and the outside world as
their enemies and dangerous. A bond developed between the hostages and their
captors. Since then a number of similar situations have been described.
Psychologists have become interested in a series of groups who form bonds with
their captors (Graham & Rawlings, 1991), such as battered women (Boulette &
Anderson, 1986), hostages, incest victims, abused children, cult members,
prostitutes with pimps, prisoners of war, Chinese civilians imprisoned during
Mao Tse‑tungs reign, and between caretakers and their ill charges (Fulton,
Granted there are differences between Ms. Rose and the Evil
Nurse example and some of the groups just listed, but it is similar to the
conceptualizations of Fulton and Graham and Rawlings, who have looked at many
groups and describe the isolation, fear, dependency, and eventual bonding. These
writers have tied together some basic human patterns of survival compliance
noted by psychologists and others in a number of situations.
It is of heuristic value to consider applicable aspects of
the Stockholm syndrome psychology to Ms. Rose's circumstances and the conditions
in which many vulnerable victims of undue influence find themselves. The four
conditions that are said to lead to the development of the syndrome are (1) the
captor threatens the woman's survival or she feels her survival is threatened;
(2) the person is in a situation from which she cannot escape or at least thinks
she cannot; (3) she becomes isolated from others; and (4) the captor shows some
kindnesses. If these conditions exist, often a captive bonds to her captor.
It is easy to see the psychological similarities between
Ms. Rose and her circumstances, which were engineered by the Evil Nurse, and the
situation in which a hostage finds herself. While there are differences, the
similarities and outcomes make psychological sense when we compare Ms. Rose and
other captives, not necessarily those held at gunpoint, but those bonded to
controllers as outlined in the literature cited. Ms. Rose was unduly influenced
to marry and to sign over her property and control of her money and house in
circumstances in which she had been maneuvered and manipulated by the Evil Nurse
and the nephew. She felt isolated, feared for her survival, feared she could not
escape the situation, and ended up bonding to the Evil Nurse and the nephew as a
means of survival. Succumbing to undue influence under the circumstances as
outlined here suggests that Ms. Rose fell into a common human survival strategy
when so manipulated and deceived that she saw the world as the undue influencers
had led her to see it. She felt isolated, powerless, surrounded by hostile
forces which she did not have the power to prevail against, and responded to the
false kindnesses and care of the Evil Nurse and the nephew, literally bonding
with her captors.
There are infinite varieties of undue influence situations.
Not all situations will include all the conditions outlined in the Evil Nurse,
and most cases will have their own unique set of circumstances. However, the six
factors of undue influence outlined in the Evil Nurse story will serve as
guidelines to help evaluate whether undue influence is at work in the signing of
documents. The case of the Evil Nurse serves to encourage the investigation of
the social and psychological influences brought to bear on any person where the
issue of undue influence is raised.
The six factors of isolation, creating a siege mentality,
fostering near or total dependency, creating a sense of powerlessness, the use
of fear and deception, and keeping the person in a state of ignorance by
manipulating the environment are the basic components of many undue influence
situations. These six factors serve as a pattern and as a starting point for the
attorney, the investigator, and the psychologist to proceed with an
investigation. The questioned document examiner, too, may be included in the
investigation, because the attorney may not know at the outset whether a
document was forged or signed while the person was unduly influenced. There will
also be cases that will involve both forged documents and those signed under
The analysis of a suspected undue influence situation rests
upon excellent history gathering from as many sources as possible and the
formulation of the psychological and social influence tactics brought to bear on
the person. The condition of the person--physically, mentally, and
emotionally--also needs inclusion in the analysis. The presentation to the jury
needs to be conceptualized in ways that the jury can understand. The jury needs
to hear about what occurred and its impact, and to have undue influence tactics
explained in understandable ways. They need to know about how the signer was led
to see the environment that was constructed through deception and about the
social techniques used to instill fear and dependency. A jury needs to
understand how a person comes to bond with another under certain conditions in
order to survive, and that survival can be viewed by the victim in many
ways--not just surviving a gunpoint hostage situation, but surviving against a
constructed, fearful world from which he or she sees only the options the
The example of what transpires between a captor and captive
illustrates the position of the signer in the constructed environment that is
often created by those who corruptly influence and manipulate the elderly, the
infirm, foreigners, and others to sign documents that benefit the person in the
role of Evil Nurse to the detriment of the signer.
Boulette, T. R., & Anderson, S. M. (1986). "Mind control"
and the battering of women. Cultic Studies Journal, 2535.
Cialdini, R. B. (1984). Influence: How and why people
agree to things. New York: William Morrow.
Dawson, J. P. (1947). Economic duress--an essay in
perspective. Michigan Law Review, 45, 253290.
Fulton, R. (1987). The many faces of grief. Death
Studies, 11, 4, 243256.
Graham, D. L. R., & Rawlings, E. I. (1991). Bonding with
abusive dating partners: Dynamics of Stockholm syndrome. In Barrie Levy (Ed.),
Dating violence: Young women in danger. Seattle: Seal Press.
Lifton, R. J. (1961, 1989). Thought reform and the
psychology of totalism. New York: W. W. Norton, 1961; University of North
McGuire, C., & Norton, C. (1988). Perfect victim.
New York: Arbor House.
Nash, J. R. (1976). Hustlers and con men: An anecdotal
history of the confidence man and his games. New York: M. Evans.
Nievod, A. (1992). Undue influence in contract and probate
law. Journal of Questioned Document Examination, 1, 14-26.
Ofshe, R., & Singer, M.T. (1986). Attacks on peripheral
versus central elements of self and the impact of thought reforming techniques.
Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 324.
Schein, E. H. (1961). Coercive persuasion. New York:
W. W. Norton.
Singer, M. T. (1987). Group psychodynamics. In R. Berkow
(Ed.), The Merck manual. Rahway, N.J.: Merck, Sharpe and Dohme.
Singer, M. T., & Addis, M. E. (1992). Cults, coercion, and
contumely. In A. Kales, C.M. Pierce, & M. Greenblatt (Eds.), The mosaic of
contemporary psychiatry in perspective. New York: Springer Verlag.
Singer, M. T., & Ofshe, R. (1980). "Thought reform and
brainwashing." Document offered as proof of testimony, Queen's High Court,
London, on behalf of the London Daily Mail.
Singer, M. T., & Ofshe, R. (1990). Thought reform programs
and the production of psychiatric casualties. Psychiatric Annuals, 20,
Strassman, H., Thaler (Singer), M., & Schein, E. H. (1956).
A prisoner of war syndrome; Apathy as a reaction to severe stress. American
Journal of Psychiatry, 112, 9981003.
Strentz, T. (1980). The Stockholm syndrome: Law enforcement
policy and ego defenses of the hostage. Annals of the New York Academy of
Science, 347, 137150.
Ursano, R. J. (1981). The Viet Nam Era prisoner of war:
Precaptivity personality and the development of psychiatric illness. American
Journal of Psychiatry, 138, 3, 315318.
Ursano, R. J., Boysun, J. A., & Wheatley, R. D. (1981).
Psychiatric illness in U.S. Air Force Viet Nam prisoners of war: A five‑year
follow‑up. American Journal of Psychiatry, 138, 3, 310314.
This article was originally printed in the Journal of
Questioned Document Examination, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1992, the official
publication of the Independent Association of Questioned Document Examiners,
Inc. It is reprinted with permission.
Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D., Emeritus Adjunct
Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, is in
private practice in Berkeley. She has counseled more than 3,000 cultists and
their families and has written or coauthored seminal articles in
Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, Psychology Today, and The Merck
Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy.
Reprinted from: Cultic Studies Journal Volume 10, Number