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Fear of Playing the Sucker

March 14, 2023

Prof. Tess Wilkinson-Ryan L’05, G’06, PhD’08 discusses her new book, Fool Proof, in this short video.

In her new book, Fool Proof: How Fear of Playing the Sucker Shapes Our Selves and the Social Order — and What We Can Do About It, Tess Wilkinson-Ryan L’05, G’06, PhD’08, Professor of Law and Psychology, examines how fear of playing the fool as a universal psychological phenomenon and an underappreciated driver of human behavior.

Drawing on studies in psychology, sociology, and economics, Fool Proof shows how “the sucker” construct shapes, and distorts, human decision-making in contexts ranging from personal choices to cultural conflict — and how the threat of being suckered is deployed to perpetuate social and economic hierarchies.


My name is Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, and I am a Professor of Law and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. My research, broadly speaking, is about the psychology of legal decision making. And, more specifically, it’s about the moral psychology or people’s moral intuitions about contract law: how they decide when to breach a contract, how to draft a contract, what a contract means.

My new book is called Fool Proof: How Fear of Playing the Sucker Shapes Ourselves and the Social Order — And What We Can Do About It. This book makes the counterintuitive case that sometimes it’s worth playing the fool in a world in which the idea of being “a sucker” or feeling duped is so aversive that people will go way out of their way to avoid that experience.

So, the book takes a perspective from psychology, from behavioral economics, from sociology, and to some extent from pop culture to ask, “what does it do to us, as decision makers, to orient ourselves around this inchoate, often unnamed, fear that we might look like a fool?” Fools also come up a lot in my life as a contract professor, and so this book is also pulling from contracts and from legal decision making, as well as social sciences.

One of the things I’m trying to do in this book is to think about the way that the fear of playing a sucker affects decision-making that we care about: decision-making around things like social policy or altruism or charitable giving. And part of the argument is that, in some of these cases, you can see the fear of playing the sucker or the prospect of playing the sucker is invoked strategically to warn people away from some of their most generous instincts.

So, the possibility that a charity is actually a scam or that your money is going to be used for something that you didn’t intend or is going to go toward somebody who you think is undeserving is sometimes invoked in order to suggest that we should have less generous social policies or that we should be less generous personally. The other place you see these kinds of narratives come up a lot, although not always called out, is in the area of group stereotype and bias.

So, one of the things I’m trying to point out is that tropes about who’s a sucker and who’s a schemer often occupy the content or constitute the content of intergroup prejudice.

In the end, what I wanted to do with this book was to suggest that something that can feel a little distasteful, aversive — that reckoning openly with it can actually be a claim to moral agency. It can be a way to improve decision-making, to think clearly about what our goals are and what our vulnerabilities are, and how to live with integrity in a sucker’s world.

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