How to Spot Someone With a Double Identity

Find out the red flags to look out for and how to properly handle it.

By Megan Falk
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Could You Spot Someone With a Double Identity? (3:31)

Jeffrey Dahmer. Bernie Madoff. Ted Bundy. All of these criminals have one thing in common: a double identity. When a person wants to present themselves as normal while also feeding into their socially unacceptable desires, they may begin to develop two separate personas and live two distinct lives simultaneously, creating a double identity, says Dr. Katherine Ramsland, crime author and forensic psychology professor at DeSales University. While not all people leading second lives are serial killers or fraudsters, double identities are likely more prevalent than we’d like to admit, she says. Because of the physical and psychological harm it can cause, understanding what makes these people tick and the best method to approach their secrets is key to protecting yourself. “Not everyone is who they seem,” Dr. Ramsland says. “We need to be looking out for that.”

What are the most prevalent types of double identities?

While double identities are often associated with the serial killers crossing our screens on crime dramas, criminals aren’t the only types of individuals who could be leading a double life. On a basic level, a person with a double identity scams others for their own satisfaction and thrives on maintaining control and exploiting trust. These traits take form in con artists, spouses who cheat, parents who have more than one family, and politicians who denounce corruption while accepting bribes. How do they get away with it? “They've figured out that people are pretty gullible,” Dr. Ramsland says. “We’d also rather accept a lie than believe we’ve been duped.”

What makes someone start living a double life and how long can it last?

The desire to have a clandestine life typically emerges when outsiders react negatively to particular aspects of a person’s fantasy life. Then, the person committing the socially unacceptable behavior has to make a decision: kill the fantasy life or turn it into a secret one, Dr. Ramsland says. Since their dream world is more exciting and satisfying than their everyday life, they’ll often follow through with the latter option. This was the case for serial killer Israel Keyes, who, as a child, tortured an animal in front of a peer. It was a pivotal moment in which he realized his desires weren’t seen as tolerable and he would have to adopt a separate, secret identity in order to carry them out and still be accepted, Dr. Ramsland explains. Psychopaths, who don’t feel remorse, may be the most likely type of people to develop a double life, she says, as they understand that if they don’t learn to show this emotion like a normal person, they won’t be accepted by the community.

While a person with a double identity might “retire” the secret life if they lose the energy to maintain it, the “doubleness” will still continue, she adds. They may be so used to looking at the world through their second set of eyes that they won’t work to develop a new perspective. Instead of actively carrying out the life, they’ll continue to relive the glory of and derive pleasure from what they got away with.

What are the common qualities of those with double lives?

People with double identities may disappear for unexplained periods or become angry when you catch them hiding something. But as expert deceivers, they have no commitment to integrity and a keen ability to stay calm when caught in a lie. While a typical person might succumb to the guilt, those with double identities have another lie waiting to back up their tale and will convince you that you’re the mistaken one, Dr. Ramsland explains.

Maintaining a double identity is a game of impression management, so the signs of a secret life can also be found in a person’s gestures and expressions. Touching of the face, mouth, forehead, or nose while speaking can be a sign of dishonesty, she says. Their remarks may also seem unemotional or their reactions rehearsed, but their micro-expressions, including flared nostrils or tense lips, may show a flash of what they’re truly feeling: “If the person is saying the right things, but they don’t feel those things, their eyes can give them away.” They may be watching you intently without blinking, waiting to see if you’ve bought their lies.

To further get you to buy their performance, a person with a double identity may speak quietly to draw you close or show intimacy, like touching your arm, to appear sincere and affectionate. If you care about this person, you might disregard any uneasy feelings you get from their sweet talk, Dr. Ramsland adds. They may even attempt to convince you to cross a moral line, like lying on their behalf.

How can having a double life be harmful to others?

Aside from the physical harm and financial issues that living a secret life can cause people, it can also be psychologically damaging to those around them. Those who have been duped may feel like their trust has been betrayed and have difficulty believing in themselves and their judgment; if a wife discovers her spouse has a hidden second family, she might begin to wonder how she could’ve been married to that type of person in the first place. If the harm caused by a double identity is extreme enough, it could even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, Dr. Ramsland says.

What should you do if you think you know someone with a double identity?

Crime shows often portray protagonists directly addressing the person with all of the lies they’ve told, but Dr. Ramsland says confrontation is a harmful path to go down. Instead, start collecting evidence of their deception to help you leave the situation and don’t mention your suspicions. Create a written record of their possible deceptive or manipulative acts and when they've occurred — even if you have just an odd hunch — which could help you understand if the person is not who you think they are. To find additional evidence, try to catch them in the lie; if they tell you they were out late because they decided to catch a movie by themselves, ask a casual follow-up question like what movie they saw. Once you feel you have sufficient evidence of habitual lying, use the information only to create an exit strategy and start preparing to leave, Dr. Ramsland explains. If you have reason to believe they have a double identity, she says “it’s time to take this person out of your life as quickly and effectively as you can without bringing harm to yourself.”

Related: 

How to Recognize Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

How to Cope With Trauma

An Inside Look at True Crime

Article written by Megan Falk