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‘Fool Me Once’

May 08, 2023

“The fear of playing the sucker can make it harder to read your own moral compass,” writes Prof. Tess Wilkinson-Ryan L’05, G’06, PhD’08 at The Pennsylvania Gazette.

At The Pennsylvania Gazette, Tess Wilkinson-Ryan L’05, G’06, PhD’08, Professor of Law and Psychology, explores “the upside of being a sucker.”

Wilkinson-Ryan studies the psychology of legal decision-making, and her research addresses the role of moral judgment in legal decision-making, with a particular focus on private contracts and negotiations. Her book, Fool Proof: How Fear of Playing the Sucker Shapes Our Selves and the Social Order — and What We Can Do About It, examines how fear of playing the fool as a universal psychological phenomenon and an underappreciated driver of human behavior.

From The Pennsylvania Gazette:

The first year of the pandemic, my fourth-grader and I did a lot of walking around Philadelphia. I would insist that we get out each day, cajoling her with pleas for “fresh air” or “stretching our legs.” To engage her on one of these walks, I told her she could be a subject in some of the studies I was reading for my research project, a book on suckers. I had been rereading economics and psychology studies from the last half-century to chart how the fear of playing the fool can distort human decision-making. I started my daughter off with a classic: a behavioral economics dilemma called the Ultimatum Game. It’s a simple game with two players; one has $10 and has to offer a portion to the other, who has none. The offeree can then accept (game over, money shared as proposed) or reject (game over, both players get nothing).

You can probably imagine how this plays out in real life; most players who get offered less than three or four dollars pick the lose–lose outcome, preferring to get nothing rather than the short end of the stick. I narrated it to my daughter with maximum dramatic effect. “You’re paired up. Your partner has $10 to share. You look at the message to see what you got, and you can’t believe it—they’re only giving you ONE DOLLAR!? What do you do??” I tried to sound anguished.

She was nonchalant. “Well, a dollar is better than no dollars. Keep the dollar,” she responded easily. I protested: What about fairness? What about honor?! Revenge!!!

“What? Mom? No.” She regarded me curiously. “What do you care if they get more than you?”

It’s a pretty good question! What do I care indeed?

Read the full piece at The Pennsylvania Gazette.