Malingering 

Updated: Aug 23, 2017
Author: David Bienenfeld, MD; Chief Editor: Randon S Welton, MD 

Overview

Background

Malingering is not considered a mental illness. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), malingering receives a V code as one of the other conditions that may be a focus of clinical attention. The DSM-5 describes malingering as the intentional production of false or grossly exaggerated physical or psychological problems. Motivation for malingering is usually external (e.g., avoiding military duty or work, obtaining financial compensation, evading criminal prosecution, or obtaining drugs).[1]

Pathophysiology

Malingering is deliberate behavior for a known external purpose. It is not considered a form of mental illness or psychopathology, although it can occur in the context of other mental illnesses.

Epidemiology

Mortality/Morbidity

Feigning illness in order to receive disability compensation is common in Social Security Disability examinations, occurring in 45.8%-59.7% of adult cases. In 2011, the estimated cost of malingering in medicolegal cases totaled $20.02 billion.[2]

 

Presentation

History

According to the DSM-5, malingering should be suspected in the presence of any combination of the following:[1]

  • Medicolegal presentation (eg, an attorney refers patient, a patient is seeking compensation for injury)

  • Marked discrepancy between the claimed distress and the objective findings

  • Lack of cooperation during evaluation and in complying with prescribed treatment

  • Presence of an antisocial personality disorder[3]

Malingering often is associated with an antisocial personality disorder and a histrionic personality style.

Prolonged direct observation can reveal evidence of malingering because it is difficult for the person who is malingering to maintain consistency with the false or exaggerated claims for extended periods.

The person who is malingering usually lacks knowledge of the nuances of the feigned disorder. For example, someone complaining of carpal tunnel syndrome may be referred to occupational therapy, where the person who is malingering would be unable to predict the effect of true carpal tunnel syndrome on tasks in the wood shop.

Prolonged interview and examination of a person suspected of a malingering disorder may induce fatigue and diminish the ability of the person who is malingering to maintain the deception. Rapid firing of questions increases the likelihood of contradictory or inconsistent responses. Asking leading questions may induce the person to endorse symptoms of a different illness. Questions about improbable symptoms may yield positive responses. However, because some of these techniques may induce similar responses in some patients with genuine psychiatric disorders, exercise caution in reaching a conclusion of malingering.

Persons malingering psychotic disorders often exaggerate hallucinations and delusions but cannot mimic formal thought disorders. They usually cannot feign blunted affect, concrete thinking, or impaired interpersonal relatedness. They frequently assume that dense amnesia and disorientation are features of psychosis. It should be noted that these descriptions also may apply to some patients with genuine psychiatric disorders. For example, individuals with a delusional disorder can have unshakable beliefs and bizarre ideas without formal thought disorder or affective blunting.[4]

The most common goals of people who malinger in the emergency department are obtaining drugs and shelter. In the clinic or office, the most common goal is financial compensation.[5]

Physical

Typically, deficits on physical examination do not follow known anatomical distributions. Otherwise, there are no specific techniques of physical examination that reliably detect malingering.[6]

The following can be found on a Mental Status Examination:[7, 8]

  • A patient's attitude toward the examining physician is often vague or evasive.

  • Mood may be irritable or hostile.

  • Thought processes are generally cogent. Thought content is marked by preoccupation with the claimed illness or injury.

  • Threats of suicide may follow any challenge to the veracity of the claim, or a response deemed by the malingerer to be inadequate.

  • As noted under History, persons with malingering psychotic disorders often exaggerate hallucinations and delusions but cannot mimic formal thought disorders. They usually cannot feign blunted affect, concrete thinking, or impaired interpersonal relatedness. They frequently assume that dense amnesia and disorientation are features of psychosis. These descriptions may also apply to some patients with genuine psychiatric disorders. For example, individuals with a delusional disorder can have unshakable beliefs and bizarre ideas without formal thought disorder or affective blunting.[4]

  • Individuals with malingering may attempt to feign any other type of mental status abnormality, but usually do so in a manner that is erroneous or grossly exaggerated.

Functional assessments may yield suggestive findings. Functional capacity evaluations, such as those routinely performed in Occupational Therapy assessments, observe a person’s performance across a variety of task-related activities.  Malingering patients often exert less effort than those suffering from genuine physical disabilities. Further, their performance across various individual tests is more variable than would be expected in the context of physical injury or illness. They may come across as more impaired in obviously work-related task tests than in those measuring daily living functions. They may perform more poorly on complex tasks, perhaps reflecting lower levels of effort, or greater difficulty in creating the expected response of an injured person. Behavioral observations are even more useful when paired with testing results (below).[9]

Causes

Malingering often occurs in the context of antisocial personality disorder. Common contexts that may precipitate malingering behavior include the following:

  • Criminal prosecution

  • Military service

  • Workers' compensation claims

  • Desire for drugs[1, 10]

Although neuroimaging cannot be used for diagnostic assessment, subjects who were instructed to perform deliberately on a cognitive test as if they had suffered brain injury with memory impairment, displayed greater activation in the superior and medial prefrontal cortices when feigning injury compared with optimal performance.  The spatial pattern implies that the malingering brain must exert more effort both to recall the correct answer and to suppress it.[11]

 

DDx

 

Workup

Approach Considerations

In applying psychological test results to assist with the recognition of malingering, it is most effective to examine the pattern of performance across multiple evaluations. The examiner looks for the commission of uncommon mistakes, performance across varying levels of difficulty, inconsistency of scores across multiple examinations that measure comparable functions and comparison with available scores from groups of known malingerers, when available. Distraction will affect the performance of one who is malingering more than that of one who suffers from a physical or psychiatric injury or illness.[8]

Other Tests

 

The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) can detect inconsistent or atypical response patterns associated with malingering. The F scale and the F-K index are the most valuable indicators. Several subscales, such as the Fake Bad Scale, have been extracted from MMPI profiles.

Multiple other psychological tests have been validated for detection of malingering, including the Test of Memory Malingering, the Negative Impression Management Scale, and the Rey 15-Item Test.[10]

The Temporal Memory Sequence Test (TMST) is a measure of negative response bias (NRB) that was developed to enrich the forced-choice paradigm. In one study, the TMST had high reliability and significantly high positive correlations with the Test of Memory Malingering and Word Memory Test effort scales.[12]

During Social Security Disability evaluations, it is necessary to validate the findings for disability claims. The "A" Random Letter Test of Auditory Vigilance (A-Test) has proven to be effective and easily administered during disability evaluations.[13]

 

Treatment

Medical Care

Do not accuse the patient directly of faking an illness. Hostility, breakdown of the doctor-patient relationship, lawsuit against the doctor, and, rarely, violence may result.

The more advisable approach is to confront the person indirectly by remarking that the objective findings do not meet the physician's objective criteria for diagnosis. Allow the person who is malingering the opportunity to save face.

Alternatively, the physician may inform people who are malingering that they are required to undergo invasive testing and uncomfortable treatments (provided, of course, that such warning is true).

Invasive diagnostic maneuvers do more harm than good. Hospitalization is almost never indicated since individuals intend no harm to themselves and a hospital stay rewards the undesirable behavior.

The likelihood of success with such approaches is inversely related to the rewards for the malingering behavior.[14, 15, 16, 8]

Consultations

People who malinger almost never accept psychiatric referral, and the success of such consultations is minimal. Avoid consultations to other medical specialists because such referrals only perpetuate malingering. However, in cases of serious uncertainty about the presence of genuine psychiatric illness, suggest psychiatric consultation.

Psychiatric consultation may be suggested as an augmentation to dealing with an acknowledged symptom. For example, the primary physician might propose, "Your pain has to be causing your system a great deal of stress, and we know that only makes the pain worse. Consultation from a psychiatrist might help us with your pain by reducing the stress." Without being confrontational, the physician must remain honest.[17, 16, 8]

 

Follow-up

Complications

Hostile or threatening behavior may ensue if the malingerer's claims are challenged, or if the physician fails to respond to his/her demands for disability certification, medications, etc.

Prognosis

Malingering behavior typically persists as long as the desired benefit outweighs the inconvenience or distress of seeking medical confirmation of the feigned illness.

Patient Education

While the physician may wish to educate the patient about better ways of achieving goals than by malingering, the reasons are usually more deeply rooted than just a cognitive deficit and require behavioral interventions, psychotherapy, and counseling.

Family education

The physician should determine whether revealing the malingering to the family will do more harm than good. If the family is adversely affected by the malingering behavior, it may be helpful for family members to know that the evidence is strong that no physical ailment is causing the patient's distress. They may be encouraged to resist the patient's efforts to manipulate them to accommodate the feigned illness at their own. While malingerers are both resistant to accepting psychotherapy and refractory to its benefits, family members may benefit from family counseling to develop adaptive approaches to the malingering behavior.[5, 14]