The Psychology of the Scam and How to Avoid Getting Screwed

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According to Paul Zak, neuroeconomist, the essential part of running a con is not to convince the pigeon to trust you, but rather to convince him that you trust him.  Zak discusses the underlying dynamics in this post on his Psychology Today blog, The Moral Molecule.  

The neurochemical system at play in the con is, as Zak explains, the The Human Oxytocin Mediated Attachment System (THOMAS).

THOMAS is a powerful brain circuit that releases the neurochemical oxytocin when we are trusted and induces a desire to reciprocate the trust we have been shown–even with strangers.

When THOMAS is engaged by someone who displays trust, we become more vulnerable to the devices of the unscrupulous.  The prefrontal cortex, home of our deliberative, and hence more vigilant faculties, takes a back seat while THOMAS flirts with disaster.  The flip side of this coin is that if THOMAS was never engaged, we’d never empathize with anyone or be able to build relationships. 

Zak’s research suggests that about 2% of those we encounter in trust scenarios are, using the clinical term of art — bastards.

My laboratory studies of college students have shown that two percent of them are “unconditional nonreciprocators.” This means that when they are trusted they don’t return money to the person who trusted them. What do we really call these people in my lab? Bastards. Yup, not folks that you would want to have a cup of coffee with.

These people are deceptive, don’t stay in relationships long, and enjoy taking advantage of others. Psychologically, they resemble sociopaths. Bastards are dangerous because they have learned how to simulate trustworthiness. My research has demonstrated that they have highly dysregulated THOMASes.

Here’s a video of Michael Shermer (from Skeptic Magazine and now also writing for T/S) learning the art of the “pigeon drop” con from a professional con artist.

[youtubevid id=”Ur3nMiP-XV0″]


BONUS!  One of my favorite psych blogs (aptly named PsyBlog) just posted The 7 Psychological Principles of Scams: Protect Yourself by Learning the Techniques. Great info to avoid being on the receiving end of a scam – well worth reading.


One thought on “The Psychology of the Scam and How to Avoid Getting Screwed

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