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The Neuroscience That Explains Why You Fall for Con Artists

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Chances are, your email has included a scam recently. We're all familiar with the famous Nigerian Prince scam, and we see phishing emails all the time. But confidence tricksters have a long history of varied games, going back centuries. Almost all of these tricks, however, depend on a certain aspect of neurochemistry.

Strangely, it's the neurochemistry not of greed, but of niceness that helps confidence tricksters rip you off.

Top image: A Fish Called Wanda.

The phrase "confidence man" came from a man who ran the first American con, all the way back in the 1800s. He went by several different names, but was most well known as William Thompson. He walked up to people on the streets of New York City, dressed in fine clothes, and spoke to them as if they'd met before. He then asked them, "Do you have confidence in me?" The person invariably answered in the affirmative. What else were they going to do? He then asked, "Have you confidence enough to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?" Once they'd said they had confidence in him, it was awkward to back out. And no one would actually use this ruse to take a watch, right? The person gave Thompson their watch. They didn't see him the next day. One person, though, did see him a few days later, which is how he was caught.


There are a lot of scams like this. A boss I worked for once had her purse stolen from her office. The thief went out, called her from a quiet place pretending to be her bank, said that someone had stolen her purse and tried to use her ATM card, and asked for her PIN in order to stop payment on the card. She gave it to them. Five minutes later, she realized that the bank wouldn't have called, and placed a call to her actual bank, cancelling the card. We know we shouldn't give out our PIN, but it was on a list of questions that the person calling her had, and she told them. At least she had a stolen card.


A UK study had people going around train stations asking waiting commuters if they would answer ten questions in exchange for a pen. One of those questions was their PIN. Another was their email password. People did it — because once they started asking questions, it was awkward to renegotiate the terms of their arrangement.

At first glance, these situations look a bit like the famous Milgram Experiment, where volunteers, with a little prodding, participated in a situation in which they thought they were electrocuting someone to death. It looks like compliance to authority. But there's no authority here. The victims just weigh the possible downsides of compliance, which might not materialize at all, with the very real downside of noncompliance, and decide to go along with things.


What is the definite downside of noncompliance? We think it's making a scene, or having to say something awkward — but mostly people are worried about the other person's feelings, or making trouble for them. No one wants to say, to a person busy working at a bank or filling out a survey, "Nevermind, you'll have to start again with someone new because I don't answer those sorts of questions." No one wants to say to an old friend, "I neither remember you, nor do I trust you."

And it's this reluctance to be untrustworthy oneself that bigger scams rely on. There's the pigeon drop, where a con artist pretends to find a valuable item somewhere, usually a store or a gas station, and asks the person in charge to return it. They have a confederate call the place, pretending to be the owner of the lost item and saying they'll offer a reward for it. The finder says that's great, but they have an appointment. Would the person in charge be willing to hold on to this valuable item for half the reward, while giving the con artist half in advance and letting them go on their way. Obviously, the desire for a share of the reward plays a part, but a smaller part than most people think.


When long cons, the kind involving fake stock market dealings and bogus land buys, or even luring marks to secluded spots and robbing them, were common, one of the best ways to lure in people was to drop wallets in hotels. These wallets, with cash and personal cards, would be picked up and returned to the room of the con artists, who were generally posing as wealthy financial gurus. They would then start the scam, with the victim believing that it couldn't possibly be a trap, because it they themselves had initiated the encounter. If the victims only wanted money, they could easily have taken the wallet and run.

According to Paul Zak, author of The Moral Molecule, and a neuroscientist, a victim's reluctance to break the script, to question or accuse the con artists, isn't naivety or stupidity. Smart people are taken in all the time. It isn't even greed. It's oxytocin, the little molecule the zooms around the pre-frontal cortex regulating social interaction.


It's no minor trick of the brain. This is the molecule that has been pinpointed in bonding between romantic partners, forming cooperative groups, and even keeping a parent caring for a child for upwards of a decade. It's released during cooperative social interactions, and it makes us want to reciprocate the friendliness and trust that we've been shown. The more trust we are shown, the more we want to prove ourselves worthy of it. People need help, either with getting their lost property back or getting their job done. We'll help them. People are working hard to do us favors, we'll help by answering their questions. Even the Nigerian Prince scam has a pretense of this, asking people for help moving money. They're trusting you with a lot more money than you're trusting them with.


According to Zak, only about two percent of a population will fail to return money that they've been trusted with. (This puts the dropped wallet con artists on pretty secure financial footing, provided they can leach enough money out of their marks to cover a two in a hundred loss.) Often these people have dysfunctional oxytocin systems. They don't get the pleasure in helping or cooperating with people that the rest of humanity does. This might explain why people so often get scammed by con artists. Who hasn't stumbled miserably through a weird or awkward social interaction with someone, hoping that they won't hurt the other person's feelings? Who hasn't accepted annoying questions because they don't want the worker asking them to be miserable? And, most of the time, it turns out just fine, because most of the time we're dealing with the ninety-eight percent of the population that has the same well-regulated brain that we do. It's only when we meet the other two percent that things get bad.


Second Image: ZioDave

[Via ABC and Psychology Today.]