Searchline. Let us do the hunting whatever expert you need. Please call our free SearchLine today on 0161 834 0017

Journal Detail back to listing

Psychological Assessment of PTSD: How to Identify Malingering?
  • Mar 28, 2024
  • Latest Journal

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a serious mental health condition that can arise after an individual has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. However, the development of PTSD symptoms after a traumatic event is thought to be the exception, rather than the rule. In 2014, the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing in England suggested that only 3.7% of men and 5.1% of women screened positive for PTSD (Baker,2022) while it is thought that approximately 50% of the population will experience trauma at some point during their lives (Matto, McNeil & Binder, 2019).

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder causes significant disability and suffering and diagnosing PTSD accurately is crucial for providing the right treatment and support.

Symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder include:
• Intrusive thoughts or memories of the traumatic event
• Nightmares or flashbacks
• Avoidance of reminders or triggers associated with the trauma
• Negative changes in thoughts and mood, such as feelings of guilt, shame, or detachment
• Hyperarousal and heightened reactivity, including difficulty sleeping, irritability, and being easily startled

However, one of the challenges faced by mental health professionals is distinguishing genuine cases from instances of malingering. Malingering, in the context of psychological disorders, refers to the intentional production of false or grossly exaggerated symptoms for secondary gain such as financial compensation, avoidance of work, or obtaining drugs.

Given the complexity of PTSD and the subjective nature of its symptoms, identifying malingering requires a nuanced approach. This article explores strategies and tools that psychologists use to assess PTSD while vigilantly detecting potential malingering.

Understanding Malingering in PTSD Assessments

Identifying malingering during PTSD assessments requires a nuanced understanding of both the disorder and the motivations behind malingering. This task is complicated by the subjective nature of many PTSD symptoms and the lack of a definitive biological test for the disorder. Professionals rely on clinical interviews, self-report measures, and sometimes collateral information to diagnose PTSD. In this landscape, expertise in psychological assessment becomes crucial.

To navigate this complex terrain, professionals must be well-versed in distinguishing genuine symptoms from those that might be exaggerated or fabricated. This involves a keen observation of inconsistencies in the patient's narrative or between their reported symptoms and their behaviour during the assessment. For instance, a patient claiming severe social withdrawal due to PTSD yet displaying comfort and ease in the interview setting may warrant further scrutiny. Additionally, understanding the context in which malingering occurs is vital. Some individuals might feign symptoms for secondary gain, such as financial compensation, avoidance of military duty, or access to prescription medication.

Consequently, clinicians must also consider external motivations and assess the congruence of reported symptoms with known patterns of PTSD manifestation. This requires not only a deep knowledge of PTSD but also an awareness of the socio-legal landscape surrounding the individual being assessed.

The Importance of Comprehensive Clinical Interviews

The clinical interview remains a cornerstone in the assessment process for PTSD. It allows practitioners to gather detailed personal histories, understand the context of symptoms, and observe behaviours and responses that might indicate malingering. During these interviews, inconsistencies in the narrative or discrepancies between reported distress and observable behaviour or collateral information may prompt further investigation.

Moreover, the clinical interview provides an invaluable opportunity to establish a therapeutic rapport with the person being assessed. The nuanced understanding that practitioners gain about the individual’s experiences and emotional states during these sessions can guide the formulation (for the purpose of diagnosis) and assist in prescribing  personalized treatment plans. This empathic approach not only aids in diagnosing PTSD accurately but also in tailoring interventions that resonate with the individual's specific needs and circumstances. By paying close attention to verbal and non-verbal cues, clinicians can also assess the severity of the trauma impact, which plays a critical role in determining the appropriate level of care and support services required.

Utilizing Standardized Psychological Tests

In addition to clinical interviews, standardized psychological tests play a pivotal role in assessing PTSD and identifying malingering. Tools such as the MMPI-2 (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2) and MCMI-IV (Millon’s Clinical Multiaxial Inventory IV) contain validity scales specifically designed to detect patterns indicative of over-reporting or under-reporting symptoms. Similarly, the Structured Interview of Reported Symptoms (SIRS) and the Paulhaus deception Scales are other powerful instruments designed to distinguish between genuine symptoms and those fabricated or exaggerated. Instruments such as the Impact of Events Scale (IES-R) or Posttraumatic Diagnostic Scale (PDS-5) are frequently used by psychologists to assess for symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

These instruments, through their sophisticated design, enable clinicians to navigate the complex landscape of PTSD diagnosis with greater accuracy. For instance, the MMPI-2's validity scales can reveal inconsistencies in responses that suggest symptom exaggeration or minimization, while the MCMI-IV offers insights into personality structures that may influence symptom reporting. The Structured Interview of Reported Symptoms (SIRS), with its focus on reported symptoms, provides a structured approach to identifying discrepancies in symptom presentation. Meanwhile, the Paulhaus Deception Scales delve into social desirability and self-deception tendencies, which can obscure the true nature of an individual’s psychological state. Together, these tools form a comprehensive arsenal for mental health professionals, ensuring that diagnoses are not only based on self-reported symptoms but are also supported by objective evidence of malingering or genuine distress.

Behavioural Observation and Collateral Information

Observation during assessments can provide valuable insights into an individual's condition. Behaviours inconsistent with reported symptoms could suggest malingering. Furthermore, gathering information from other sources—such as family members, medical records, or previous evaluations—can help corroborate or question the patient's account.

This multi-source approach not only enhances the reliability of the diagnostic process but also ensures a more comprehensive understanding of the patient's health status. For instance, family members might provide observations about the patient's daily functioning that contrast sharply with what is reported during clinical interviews. Similarly, discrepancies between current assessments and historical medical records could indicate changes in the individual's condition or highlight inconsistencies that need further investigation. This thorough vetting process is crucial, especially in cases where the diagnosis could lead to significant changes in treatment plans or have legal implications. Therefore, integrating these diverse pieces of information is essential for forming an accurate and holistic view of the individual's mental health.

Signs That May Suggest Malingering

While there is no single indicator that conclusively proves malingering, certain patterns may raise suspicion:
• Discrepancy between reported symptoms and objective findings: Significant differences between what individuals report and their behaviour during assessments can be a red flag.
• Overemphasis on certain symptoms: Individuals who are malingering may exaggerate specific symptoms they believe are indicative of PTSD without showing a comprehensive range of symptoms.
• Inconsistency over time: Genuine PTSD symptoms tend to fluctuate but follow a somewhat predictable pattern over time. Inconsistent accounts across different sessions may suggest fabrication.
• Evidence suggests external incentives: If there's clear evidence that an individual stands to gain from being diagnosed with PTSD (e.g., pending litigation), this could warrant closer scrutiny.

Techniques to Improve Accuracy

To enhance diagnostic accuracy and minimize the risk of malingering in PTSD assessments:
1. Use validated assessment tools: Instruments specifically designed to assess symptom validity can be helpful. These tools often include built-in validity scales that help identify potential malingering.
2. Conduct thorough clinical interviews: A detailed interview allows clinicians to explore symptom history comprehensively, assess behavioural indicators, and evaluate consistency over time.
3. Collateral information: Gathering information from other sources like family members or medical records can provide additional context and either corroborate or question self-reported symptoms.
4. Professional training: Clinicians should undergo specialized training not only in diagnosing PTSD but also in detecting deception within clinical contexts. Most clinical and forensic psychologists registered with the Health and Care Professions Council will have this level of training.

The Role of Expert Services

Consulting with experts who specialize in psychological therapy and assessments for legal proceedings can be extremely valuable in cases where malingering is suspected, especially when they are complex. These professionals possess advanced skills in administering comprehensive evaluations tailored for such situations. Their expertise ensures that assessments are conducted meticulously, balancing sensitivity towards genuine sufferers with vigilance against possible deception.


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a serious mental health condition that can develop after a person has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. It is characterized by symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, uncontrollable thoughts about the trauma and mood or behavioural disturbances. Given the complex nature of PTSD and its profound impact on an individual's life, accurate diagnosis and treatment are paramount.
However, the process of diagnosing PTSD presents unique challenges, one of which is distinguishing genuine cases from instances of malingering. Malingering in the context of psychological disorders refers to the intentional production of false or grossly exaggerated physical or psychological symptoms for external incentives, such as financial compensation or avoidance of work.

The identification of malingering within the context of PTSD assessment demands careful attention to detail and deep understanding both clinically and psychologically. While challenging, it's essential for ensuring that resources are allocated appropriately, and individuals receive accurate diagnoses leading to effective treatment plans. By leveraging rigorous assessment strategies—coupled with ongoing professional development—clinicians can navigate these complexities effectively while upholding both compassion for genuine sufferers and accountability within their practice.


A Systematic Approach to the Detection of False PTSD. Mikel Matto, Dale E. McNiel and Renée L. Binder. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law (Online: June 2019), JAAPL.003853-19; DOI:

Post-traumatic stress disorder: How common is it? Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)(Last revised in December 2023). disorder/background-information/prevalence/

Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory - IV (MCMI-IV) (2015) Theodore Millon, Roger Davies, and Carrie Millon.  NCS, Inc. Minneapolis.  

Handbook of Psychological Assessment (5th Ed.) (2009). Gary Groth-Marnatt. John Wiley & Sons, Inc: New Jersey.

PTSD Checklist for DSM-5 (PCL-5) with Criterion A. Weathers, F.W., Litz, B.T., Keane, T.M., Palmieri, P.A., Marx, B.P., & Schnurr, P.P. (2013). The PTSD Checklist for DSM-5 (PCL-5).

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.

Ben-Porath, Y. S., & Tellegen, A. (2008/2011). MMPI-2-RF (Minnesota multiphasic personality inventory-2-restructured form): Manual for administration and scoring. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Paulhus, D. L. (1999). Paulhus Deception Scales (PDS): The balanced inventory of desirable responding – 7.

Rogers, R. (1992). Structured interview of reported symptoms. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

Author: Shannon Ownhouse, Clinical Psychologist (HCPC), MSocSci (Clinical Psychology)

Shannon Ownhouse

Clinical Psychologist (HCPC), MSocSci
(Clinical Psychology)