The Need for Attention

Human beings are social creatures and need social interaction, positive feedback and validation of their worth, and many are happy with what attention they get naturally through their normal activities at home, at work or wherever they happen to spend their time. From time to time, people inevitably do things that might attract attention, but that is not their primary aim. In some situations it is quite normal to seek attention, such as in advertising, TV, radio and stage work and so on.

Some people need excessive attention and get it by behaving inappropriately. It could be due to lowered self-esteem, a lack of self-confidence, low levels of self-worth or self-love or feeling insecure. Some may seek positive attention by creating situations in which they hope to be praised, thanked or admired; Some perhaps are not bothered about the quality of attention they get, just so long as they get it, and so will elicit negative attention perhaps by making a scene in public, getting over-indignant about a trivial matter, causing heads to turn and tongues to wag. Some seek out sympathy by always having something to complain about. If you care for someone whose actions are plainly done to get others to take notice and react, it's important to consider what's motivating them. If it is a one-off, it might be a sign of tiredness or a reaction to pressures and stress. If the behaviour is persistent or goes beyond what one might normally expect, it can be a sign of an underlying mental health issue.

An article by Billi Gordon Ph.D in Psychology Today asserts that: "Excessive attention seeking is not a character flaw. It is a brain wiring response to early developmental trauma caused by neglect." The article goes on to describe attention-seeking in terms of brain function, with the conclusion that it cannot be fixed, but it can be managed.

"Internet Trolling" is a good example of persistent, abnormal behaviour. This is the often anonymous use of forums to post irrelevant, disruptive, insulting or abusive messages, designed to infuriate or upset members, leading to replies, counter criticism, and arguments and taking the forum way off topic. The troll gets a kick from single-handedly moving others to spend their time and emotional energy on him or her, and even on each other. The best way to deal with Internet trolling, and other adult behaviour which is primarily intended to elicit attention, is to not respond, to not engage and to thus deny the person the attention they seek. If the perpetrator is denied the attention, there's a chance that they will think twice before taking this approach again. If they get attention, they might well do it again.

Attention-seeking behaviour inevitably involves other people, who at best waste their time by becoming irritated by it, or they become an unwitting player in a fabricated melodrama. At worst, people can find that they have been manipulated, conned, harmed etc by it.

Tim Field made a link between some well documented forms of attention seeking behaviour and bullying because, he concluded, the manipulation, deceit, temper tantrums and "poor me" melodramas of attention seekers are also typical of adult bullies. Put another way, some forms of attention seeking behaviour also amount to bullying.

(This list is based on the original by Tim Field, but some inspiration from pages at has helped with the update.)


Histrionic Behaviour

Tends to have exaggerated, unpredictable emotional reactions to almost any incident, expressed over-dramatically or theatrically. Antagonistic and manipulative, using fear and guilt to motivate others. Uncomfortable when not the centre of attention. Inappropriately flirtatious, seductive and provocative; May also draw attention using physical appearance; Thinks relationships are more intimate than they are.

Narcissistic Behaviour

Feels superior, special, unique etc and needs to be admired; arrogant; exaggerates achievements and talents; preoccupied with ideas of success, power etc; has unreasonable expectations of favourable treatment. Callous: Takes advantage of others to achieve his or her ends; no recognition or consideration of others' feelings. Intolerant of criticism and defeat, responding with defiant counterattack. Relates to others in a significantly or extremely different way to average individuals in the same culture.


May exploit family, workplace or social club relationships, manipulating others with guilt and distorting perceptions. While there may be no physical harm involved, people are affected with emotional injury. Vulnerable family members are common targets. A common attention-seeking ploy is to claim he or she is being persecuted, victimised, excluded, isolated or ignored by another family member or group, perhaps insisting she is the target of a campaign of exclusion or harassment.

This pattern can be found in different contexts although where the alleged aggressor is the government / police / mental health service providers, or indeed "everyone", the person may be suffering from paranoid delusions. For the sake of this article on attention seeking, the attention-seeking manipulator can be presumed to not actually believe the claims of persecution they make, unlike the delusional person who sincerely and steadfastly believes them.


Factitious Disorder by Proxy

Difficult to detect, the documented condition Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy (MSBP, also known as Factitious Disorder By Proxy) involves a person intentionally causing harm to others, putting their life at risk, and then stepping in to save them and basking in the glory of having done so and being praised for their care, compassion and skill. It has been known to happen with mothers with responsibility for their children and nurses with responsibility for patients. Few observers realise the deaths and injuries are deliberate and the perpetrator may inadvertently kill several people before suspicions are aroused. When not in saviour mode, the perpetrator may be resentful or even contemptuous of those (s)he targets. A less destructive form of this behaviour pattern might involve deliberately breaking something and then stepping in to diagnose and repair the damage.


A "Rescuer" preys on people suffering misfortune, infirmity, illness, injury, or with any other perceived vulnerability, dashing in to "rescue" them from their suffering, and then basks in the praise and glory that follows. May exclude others from the act of rescue so as to be the singular focus of attention, and to help make the rescued person become dependent on them, which relationship can then be exploited with subsequent acts of rescue. When not in rescue mode, the perpetrator may be resentful, perhaps even contemptuous, of those (s)he targets.


May look like the one in charge, the person organising everything, the one who is reliable and dependable, the one to whom people can always turn. However, the objective is not to help, but to be the centre of attention.


There are a number of ways people play on others' emotions by making themselves appear is if they are getting a raw deal in life.

Victim Mentality

Distinctly different from someone who has sustained harm as a consequence of an actual incident, a person with victim mentality tends to perceive random events that have a negative effect on them as deliberate and targeted, and is defiantly unwilling to consider alternative explanations for the events or effects. He does not feel responsible for anything that is wrong with his life, but blames others for the same. She's aware of her rights but not of responsibilities, and places excessive expectation on others to solve their problems. When one problem is solved, another always follows.

False Victim

Intentionally creates situations in which it seems they are victimised, eg by sending hate mail to themselves, or damaging their own possessions in an attempt to incriminate a fellow employee, a family member, neighbour, etc. False victims can be calculating, cunning, devious, deceptive and manipulative, identifying the supposed perpetrator of the wrongdoing and producing plausible (but fabricated) evidence in support. The deception continues during any investigation where the false victim uses charm and cunning to plausibly dismiss any suggestion that they may be responsible. A background check may reveal that this is not the first time she has had this happen to her.


This might include feigning or exaggerating illness, playing on an injury, or perhaps causing or inviting injury, in extreme cases going as far as losing a limb. Severe cases may meet the diagnostic criteria for Munchausen Syndrome (also know as Factitious Disorder). The illness or injury becomes a vehicle for gaining sympathy and thus attention. The attention-seeker excels in manipulating people through their emotions, especially that of guilt. It's very difficult not to feel sorry for someone who relates a plausible tale of suffering in a "poor me" melodrama.

False Abusee

A person falsely claims they are the victim of abuse, sexual abuse, rape, bullying, etc as a way of gaining attention for themselves. Such crimes are difficult to prove at the best of times and their incidence is so common that falsely claiming to be an abusee appears like a simple, plausible way of getting sympathy and attention. A variation on this is to make the claim online, in Internet chat rooms and forums, where the facelessness and anonymity afforded by the Internet makes it easy for the attention seeker to say what they like without the prospect of any penalty. The alleged crime never gets reported to the authorities, for obvious reasons.


When called to account and outwitted, the person instinctively uses the denial - counterattack - feigning victimhood strategy to manipulate everyone present, especially bystanders and those in authority. The most effective method of feigning victimhood is to burst into tears, for most people's instinct is to feel sorry for them, to put their arm round them or offer them a tissue. (See "histrionic behaviour", above). There's little more plausible than real tears, although as actresses know, it's possible to turn these on at will. Feigners are adept at using crocodile tears. From years of practice, attention-seekers often give an Oscar-winning performance in this respect. Feigning victimhood is a favourite tactic of bullies and harassers to evade accountability and sanction. When accused of bullying and harassment, the person immediately turns on the water works and claims they are the one being bullied or harassed - even though there's been no prior mention of being bullied or harassed. It's the fact that this claim appears only after and in response to having been called to account that is revealing.

False confessor

This person confesses to crimes they haven't committed in order to gain attention from the police and the media. In some cases people have confessed to being serial killers, even though they cannot provide any substantive evidence of their crimes. Often they will confess to crimes which have just been reported in the media. Some individuals are know to the police as serial confessors. The false confessor is different from a person who make a false confession and admits to a crime of which they are accused because of emotional pressure and inappropriate interrogation tactics.


Some people wholeheartedly believe that they are being persecuted, spied upon, followed and being subjected to various forms of injustice by large numbers of others, including total strangers.  This condition naturally leads to an inapropriate and unnatural level of defensiveness, which can culminate in profoundly harmful effects on others. An article in Pacific Standard Magazine examines the work of three University of British Columbia psychologists led by Donald Dutton, who analysed the writings of three mass killers and one would-be mass killer, concluding that they all appeared to have suffered from an intense form of paranoia: “The paranoid individual is obsessed with revenge and justifies the revenge as payback for a perceived injustice,” the researchers write. “(Such people are) thin-skinned or hypersensitive to perceived slights (and they) have closed information-processing systems that preclude corrective information which is inconsistent with their world view from being received.” This condition, left untreated, can have tragic consequences for others.

See also Lynne Forrest's work on the Drama Triangle where Ms Forrest postulates that people with a victim mentality occupy and move between roles of persecutor, rescuer and victim. She has developed an interpretation of the Karpman Drama Triangle, which she calls the "Victim Triangle" and which she uses to demonstrate how a person with victim mentality can switch between their starting roles of Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer. She believes that those who start out as Res­cuers see them­selves as “helpers” and “care­tak­ers”, needing some­one to res­cue in order to feel vital and impor­tant. Per­se­cu­tors, on the other hand, identify them­selves pri­mar­ily as vic­tims, in com­plete denial about their blam­ing tac­tics. People who begin as Victims eventually retaliate and, in doing so progress to the role of Persecutor, maybe even switching roles with their Persecutor, who now becomes a Victim. Without a conscious desire to change, some people never leave these roles.

Attention seeking and narcissism

Narcissism occurs to different degrees in different people and it's more prevalent among business leaders than in the wider population. When it gets out of control, the short-term benefits to the business are outweighed by long-term unsustainability which can and often do lead to disaster.

Tim Field noted that in the charity / voluntary / not-for-profit sector, in most cases a serial bully was identified as a female, whose objective was to demonstrate to the world what a wonderful, kind, caring, compassionate person she was, making bold pronouncements, a prominent position, gushing empathy, sitting on many committees for good causes, etc. However, staff turnover was often high and morale low amongst those doing the work and interacting with clients. In each case, the relief of others' suffering changed from being an objective into a vehicle for gaining attention. In some situations, more money was spent the consequences of the serial bully's behaviour than was spent on clients. See case histories #1 and #3 and #10 for typical examples.

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