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‘Don’t Let Them Fool You’

July 19, 2023

At Aeon, Prof. Tess Wilkinson-Ryan L’05, G’06, PhD’08 writes that the fear of being duped can become “a true phobia.”

In “Don’t let them fool you,” published at Aeon, Tess Wilkinson-Ryan L’05, G’06, PhD’08, Professor of Law and Psychology, explores the fear of being a sucker.

“The fear of being duped is ubiquitous,” Wilkinson-Ryan writes, “but excessive scepticism makes it harder to trust one another and cooperate.”

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 Aeon:

In 2007, three experimental psychologists, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, coined the word ‘sugrophobia’, which would translate to something like a ‘fear of sucking’. The researchers – Kathleen Vohs, Roy Baumeister and Jason Chin – were looking to name the familiar and specific dread that people experience when they get the inkling that they’re ‘being a sucker’ – that someone is taking advantage of them, partly thanks to their own decisions. The idea that psychologists would study suckers academically seems almost ridiculous at first. But, once you start to look for it, it becomes clear that sugrophobia is not only real, it is a veritable epidemic. Its influence extends from the choices we make as individuals to the society-wide narratives that sow distrust and discrimination.

The number of ‘sucker’ synonyms alone suggests a cultural obsession: pawn, dupe, chump, fool, stooge, loser, mark, and so on. Public debates about a wide range of social policies and technological advances feature inchoate fears about who’s going to be swindled next. Will ChatGPT help students cheat unwitting teachers? Is remote work popular since the COVID-19 pandemic because employees can slack off more easily? Does forgiving student-loan debt let ‘slacker baristas’ exploit hardworking taxpayers, as one US politician suggested?

I have been thinking about the psychology of being a sucker for 15 years. When I describe my interest in the subject, people often infer that I study scams. But as the above examples show, sugrophobia is more than just a fear of being caught in a con. There are only so many Ponzi schemes or Enrons to get embroiled in, and most people will never find themselves in the thick of a high-stakes fraud. Yet the feeling of being a sucker – and the fear of that feeling – is much more commonplace. When your lunch costs more than you expected, when your co-worker calls in sick for the third time this month, when you let the insistent driver in the breakdown lane nose in front of you: for many people, these little interactions come with a special sting of self-recrimination: Wait, am I the fool here? The fear of being duped can be so aversive that it transcends rational prudence and becomes something more automatic and more intense – a true phobia… . 

Read Wilkinson-Ryan’s full piece at Aeon.