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Many robocalls and email scams are super blatantly obvious. Yet every year, people lose billions of dollars to these frauds - and the reasons why may be more psychologically devious than you think.

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Sources:
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jasp.12158
https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2364464
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563217301504
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886916308352
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103105000521
https://dictionary.apa.org/preference-for-consistency
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0146167201277008
https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115043
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4344113/
[♪ INTRO].

It’s easy to poke fun at robocalls and e-mail scams. Partly because we get so many of them, and partly because they can seem so extreme that they’re almost funny.

Like, a Nigerian prince is asking me, some guy from Montana, to help him launder some money? Yeah, that’s gotta be legit. But these scams are no joke.

If research on them has taught us anything, it’s that anyone can fall for them. And every year, people lose billions of dollars to fake IRS calls, bogus dating profiles, and dozens of other frauds. It’s not necessarily because people are gullible, naive, or unaware that scammers exist, either.

Instead, it’s because scammers do something pretty devious:. They take our brain’s biases and our personality traits (many of which we use to survive in this world) and they turn them against us. One of the most common tactics scammers use is to offer you really motivating prizes.

This comes up all the time, like when you “win a free trip to Hawai’i” or some foreign royal offers you a bunch of money if you do him a favor. And it might seem obvious why this would work. I mean, someone is probably way more likely to give you their personal info if you’re offering them a free cruise as opposed to, like, I don’t know, a beach towel.

But there’s another reason this tactic gets so many people:. When we’re faced with something really motivating, we actually get worse at making decisions. Studies have found that in these situations, people don’t consider something’s pros and cons as much or think about the long-term consequences.

So if you hear that, hey, someone is going to give you enough money to pay off all your student debt and your mortgage… well, like you gotta consider that at least for a second. This happens because, for better or worse, emotions play a major role in our brain’s decision-making process. This is a huge area of research, and studies suggest that the line between emotion and logic is super fuzzy, neurologically.

For example, parts of your brain famous for higher-level thinking, including the prefrontal cortex, might be involved in emotion, too. This could explain why studies have found that emotional triggers are strong enough to disrupt everything from our working memory to our cognitive control. And sometimes, people use that against us.

Another tactic scammers are famous for is called the foot-in-the-door method. It’s where you ask someone to do you a small favor, get them to agree, and then ask them to do an even bigger favor later. Online dating scams use this strategy all the time.

For instance, a scammer might form an online relationship with someone, and then ask them for a small sum of money for a supposed “emergency.” Then, once their victim has sent over the ten or twenty bucks, the scammer asks for more. And then more. And then more.

Until their victim finally, eventually catches on. There’s a couple of reasons this might work on us, but it often seems to come down to what psychologists call preference for consistency, or PFC. It’s a personality trait that varies from person to person, and those high in PFC place a lot of value on being personally consistent.

In many ways, this can be a great thing! For example, it might mean someone honors the promises they make to their friends. But it could also make them susceptible to a scam.

After all, if someone has already given a scammer a few bucks, their high PFC might drive them to keep giving in order to appear consistent. Just… you know. Exploiting the good things about people for profit.

It’s fine. This last strategy is also extremely common and pretty simple:. Scammers tie their messages to something that’s recently been popular on the news.

For instance, if you get a robocall asking you to donate to charity, it might mention how their organization has been helping earthquake victims in a country that did just experience an earthquake. This method can be really effective, but it doesn’t work because of a personality trait or some cognitive quirk. It relies on one of our brain’s biases, called the availability heuristic.

This says that, if you’ve had experience with something or have heard of it before, you’re more likely to believe that thing will happen. So if you were just reading tweets about that earthquake, and someone calls you about a donation, you might be more likely to believe they’re legit. This bias might sound like some weakness in our brains, but it’s actually very useful in everyday life.

We don’t have time to thoroughly evaluate every fact that comes our way, so heuristics like this help us make faster judgments. Like, if you just read about some flu sweeping the country, and you start to feel sniffly, you might not feel the need to spend all day reading WebMD pages. You might just head to the doctor and save yourself some time.

Many people see scam victims as the vulnerable — people who just didn’t know any better, or who were too trusting. But if studies say anything, it’s that anyone can be a victim of scams. And not because you’re not on your guard, but because your brain has its limits, and scammers know that.

But maybe by knowing just a little more about how they work, you’ll know what to look out for. This episode of SciShow Psych was brought to you by our patrons on Patreon! This amazing community of people supports the show and makes everything we do possible.

So if you’re a patron, thank you so much for joining us and helping us make content like this for free for everybody! If you’re interested in becoming a patron and helping out with that, you can learn more at patreon.com/scishow. And if you’re a new patron, feel free to stop by our Discord server!

We would love to say hello. [♪ OUTRO].