Perhaps this is more of a trope, but I'm looking for a phrase or word in English that describes the situation where:

(a) "Party A" consciously performs actions that establish a false expectation of wrongdoing.

(b) Some antagonistic "Party B" leaps to the conclusion of wrongdoing due to [a].

(c) The lack of wrongdoing is revealed by "Party A" to some unbiased "Party C", and "Party A" improves its standing to an unbiased audience or benefits from reducing the perceived objectivity or fairness of "Party B".

Is there some phrase or common anecdotal reference used by English speakers to reference this sort of situation?

An example of this would be the following: Let Party A be Alice, and Party B be Bob. Bob's dog is missing, and because of some bad history, Bob claims to the police that Alice killed his dog. Alice then waits until she knows (but Bob does not) that Bob is observing her, and digs a hole in her backyard, then appears to throw something into the hole. Bob runs to tell the police he saw Alice burying his dog, and the police dig in the location Bob specifies. It turns out that Alice was simply planting tulips. Bob is discredited as being paranoid and Alice gains sympathy. To clarify, it's unknown whether or not Alice actually killed Bob's dog, but she knows that there is suspicion cast on her by Bob's claims.

Another example could be the following: Alice is in fierce competition with Bob at work, and Alice knows that Bob is talking to others to gain information about her activities. So Alice pretends to be stealing Bob's idea for a proposal, mentions this around the office, and then submits a proposal having nothing to do with Bob's idea. Bob, upon hearing the rumors, angrily confronts his superior about this, and is red-faced after being presented with a copy of the report.

What word or phrase describes the deceit Alice carried out as described above, to benefit her standing with the police at Bob's expense?

  • I can't quite parse your question. Party A is revealing their alibi to Party C in hopes of having them explain it to Party B? – David M Mar 19 '14 at 17:00
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    The plot to every episode of "Three's Company"? – Oldcat Mar 19 '14 at 17:01
  • @DavidM Let me write an example, just a moment. – AM55 Mar 19 '14 at 17:01
  • @DavidM I have provided an example. – AM55 Mar 19 '14 at 17:07
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    Why would an innocent person ever bury a sack of flour. This would increase my suspicion. – Oldcat Mar 19 '14 at 17:09

This reminds me of the Hitchcock thriller, Gas light, where a husband twists and manipulates events in order to convince everyone, and his own wife, of her mental instability. Gregory plants false memories, tricks her into hearing noises which no one else in the household hears, so that he can commit his wife, Paula, to a mental institution whereupon he will be unhindered in his attempts to find Paula's murdered aunt's collection of jewels, hidden somewhere in the aunt's home. The same home where they now both reside.

A picture disappears from the walls of the house, and Gregory says that Paula took it, but Paula has no recollection of having done so. Paula also hears footsteps coming from above her, in the sealed attic, and sees the gaslights dim and brighten for no apparent reason. Gregory suggests that these are all figments of Paula's imagination.

The cunning plan, tricks, and devious double-handed manoeuvres employed by the husband, played by Charles Boyer, lead to the film enjoying a huge success at the box office. As a result a new expression was coined, that of gaslighting, the word [gaslight] was used to describe an attempt to destroy another's perception of reality. The term was further popularized in Victor Santoro's 1994 book Gaslighting: How to Drive Your Enemies Crazy, which outlines legal tactics which the reader may adopt to his own advantage


Psychologist Martha Stout states that sociopaths frequently use gaslighting tactics. Sociopaths consistently transgress social mores, break laws, and exploit others, but are also typically charming and convincing liars who consistently deny wrongdoing. Thus, some who have been victimized by sociopaths may doubt their perceptions. Jacobson and Gottman report that some physically abusive spouses may gaslight their partners, even flatly denying that they have been violent.

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    This is the answer to the question. – AM55 Mar 20 '14 at 9:48
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    Key here is the fact that the husband is manipulating not just his victim, but also an independent audience to believe that his wife is losing her perception of reality. Likewise, an abuser, particularly a psychological abuser, would attempt to create deliberate misunderstandings such that his or her victim would be discredited for other (true) allegations. – AM55 Mar 20 '14 at 10:50
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    @user69419 glad to have been of help :) – Mari-Lou A Mar 20 '14 at 10:52
  • This is an excellent answer! I wish I could give +2 just for mentioning Hitchcock. – David M Mar 20 '14 at 16:46
  • @DavidM I'm sorry for switching the accepted answer on you... this was just extremely surprising and dead-on. – AM55 Mar 21 '14 at 11:47

It's not an exact fit, but Alice is acting as an agent provocateur. An agent provocateur is someone (often a spy) who baits you into performing an illegal act for someone else's gain.

She is provoking Bob into making a false accusation for the purpose of making him look foolish. You might also say she's baiting him into bearing false witness. Both of these may be interpreted as crimes. Hence, agent provocateur.

As I've said, it's not an exact fit. But, it can be applied.

If she were the Police, it would be called entrapment.

But again, both of these words (as generally understood) require that Bob has committed a crime in reporting her.

  • Could the illegal act be for the agent provocateur's gain? – AM55 Mar 19 '14 at 17:29
  • Let me think for a little bit, I think this is what I'm looking for. However, I'd like something that doesn't quite imply that Bob committed a crime or did something unethical, just something that undermines Bob because it makes him appear paranoid or irrationally biased against Alice? – AM55 Mar 19 '14 at 17:30
  • Yes. It can be for personal gain, although agent seems to imply on someone else's behalf. – David M Mar 19 '14 at 17:31
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    You're right. I rewatched the relevant section of Les Misérables, and its clear Javert is simply trying to keep a low profile. – AM55 Mar 21 '14 at 11:54
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    Apologies, I suppose I led you to somewhat publicly assert that I was someone who would own and watch the (2012) version with Russell Crowe as Javert, which then allowed me the opportunity to post a comment here showing that I had better taste than that. – AM55 Mar 21 '14 at 13:28

The idea of gaining control over someone by devious means (which this seems to be) is frequently described as Machiavellian. Indeed it is perhaps close to a modern interpretation of Machiavelli, as expounded in The Prince.

However as part of some historical research, I discovered that the philosophy of the 15th-century Florentine, had been interpreted quite differently in earlier centuries. What we understand today and that which I have described above is merely a 20th-century interpretation.

see Femia, Joseph V 'The many Faces of Machiavelli' in Boucher & Kelly Political Thinkers from Socrates to the Present (Oxford 2003)

  • I agree that the tactic is "Machiavellian", however, this is less about exerting control over an individual, and more about using certain underhanded means of discrediting an individual in front of a third party. – AM55 Mar 21 '14 at 11:53

More generally, you could say that Alice is setting Bob up. (I believe the original idea is setting him up for a fall but you wouldn't usually say it in full.)

This doesn't imply the specific details you asked about, with third party C, but it does cover Alice tricking Bob by giving him a false perception of events so that he would act accordingly, to his own detriment and Alice's benefit.

You could also colloquially describe the situation as "a set-up", e.g. "Bob thought his proposal had been stolen and went to the boss, but it was a set-up."

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