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The Psychology of Being Scammed

February 08, 2023

“[F]eeling cheated,” writes Prof. Tess Wilkinson-Ryan L’05, G’06, PhD’08 at TIME, “is so aversive that people will go way out of their way to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

Tess Wilkinson-Ryan L’05, G’06, PhD’08, Professor of Law and Psychology, recently explored “Why We Hate Being Scammed” at TIME.

Wilkinson-Ryan’s new book, Fool Proof: How Our Fear of Playing the Sucker Shapes Our Selves and the Social Order — and What We Can Do About It, brings evidence from studies in psychology, sociology, and economics to show how the sucker construct surreptitiously motivates our decisions both big and small.

From TIME:

It sucks to be a sucker. Think about how many sayings we toss around that all mean that very thing: “Don’t take any wooden nickels!” “A fool and his money are soon parted.” “If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.” “There’s one born every minute.”

The message is clear (don’t let that be you!), but it’s hard advice to follow; reality can feel like a relentless gauntlet of proto-frauds and fool’s games—at home, at work, and in the news. Is crypto for chumps? Are remote workers freeloading? Is student debt forgiveness compassionate, or sensible, or a slap in the face to the suckers who already paid theirs off?

My academic field is moral psychology, and especially the moral psychology of contracts, so thinking about suckers is a familiar part of my professional life. A consistent theme in my research, and in experimental studies from psychology and economics, is that feeling cheated is an unusually intense cognitive and emotional experience. It is so aversive that people will go way out of their way to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Sometimes avoidance is intentional or commonsense: I don’t open the emails in my spam folder. Even if they are offering me something that I really want (money! romance! international travel!), the baseline odds that a prince is holding money for me in trust are too low for it to be worth my time, much less the risk of malware. But other times, the urge to steer clear at the mere hint of a threat is more primal, less deliberate, and ultimately counterproductive to my own goals and values… . 

Wilkinson-Ryan studies the psychology of legal decision-making. Her research addresses the role of moral judgment in legal decision-making, with a particular focus on private contracts and negotiations.

Read the full piece at TIME.