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The psychology of deception

Updated Thursday, 10th November 2005

Why has there been an explosion of phone and online fraud, and why do fraudsters find it so easy to fool us? The answers to both questions may lie in the nature of human psychology.

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The Great Phone Call Con looks at the problems of phone-line fraud and unsolicited telephone marketing. This made me wonder, why has there been an explosion of this sort of fraud, and why do they seem to find it so easy to fool us? The answers to both questions may lie in the nature of human psychology.

Why the massive surge in telephone fraud?

Fraud requires a supply of victims, weak safeguards and motivated crooks. Changes in technology have increased access to potential victims. It’s relatively cheap and easy to set up machines to communicate with people. It’s also possible to obscure the trail back to the fraudster. The widespread use of electronic money exchange (online banking, credit card use, etc) also makes it easier – by making it easy for us to part with our cash. Safeguards are poor; law enforcement has struggled to keep up with these new forms of fraud.

However, I don’t think the availability of new means of fraud, alone, is sufficient to explain why there is so much fraud going on. An important aspect of the recent surge in telephone and internet crime seems to be the seemingly endless supply of fraudsters.

Form to report a mail fraud

Successful fraud requires both a set of skills and a willingness to deliberately target and deceive others. The most successful fraudsters have a capacity to look us in the eye, to engage our trust and then betray it without a qualm. This capacity is actually quite rare and often associated with personality disorder (or perhaps politicians?!).

Typically, those committing fraud use psychological strategies to distance themselves from any sense of guilt. Criminologists refer to this as ‘neutralisation’. A common form of neutralisation is to view the victim as in some way to blame – “He had it coming; I couldn’t have taken him in if he wasn’t so greedy”. Another is to depersonalise or belittle the victim – for example the recently prosecuted perpetrators of a series of frauds on Ebay, referred to their 3,000 victims as ‘the idiots’. However, for most people, such attitudes are difficult to maintain in the face of personal contact with an intended victim.

By contrast, telephone or internet fraud guarantees a psychological distance between fraudster and victim. The technology already provides a significant amount of depersonalisation: a ready-made neutralisation strategy. Thus, people who would find the emotional costs of face-to-face fraud too high are much more able and willing to engage in remote fraud.

Why are we so easy to fool?

When we fall victim to fraud, or the more legal but related forms of advertising and marketing manipulation, we often assist in our own deception. Effective fraudsters don’t try to fill out all the gaps in a story. Like professional magicians, they know that manipulating us to reach a conclusion for ourselves is more powerful than making a direct statement. We’ll fill in the gaps in story for ourselves given the right motivation; and they know that greed and fear are both powerful motivators that they can easily manipulate.

If we believe someone can enrich us, or we think they can prevent something we dread, we want to believe them and will often explain away any holes in their story for ourselves.

Once we have become victims of deception, another factor comes into play. Fraud is often under-reported. For most of us, self-esteem is important; and we, often quite unconsciously, look for ways to protect it. For this reason, we tend to pay more attention to information that builds our own self-esteem than information that threatens it. So, many of us are quite reluctant to accept that we are victims and are even more reluctant to tell others.

Intelligence and education are not a protection here. Indeed, there is some evidence that highly educated people are easier to fool, because they don’t expect to be fooled.

There are important parallels between the traits that make many of us easily deceived by fraud and those that make traders in financial markets easily deceived by market movements. In my own research on the behaviour of traders in investment banks, I found these well educated, intelligent and highly trained professionals to be often prone to illusions about the extent to which they were in control and able to make unbiased financial judgements.

Fear, greed and the need to maintain self-esteem may make many of us more easily trapped by a telephone scam, but they also account for some major mishaps in financial markets.

Protecting yourself from fraud

So if the world is full of fraud and human psychology disposes us to be dupes, how can we protect ourselves? There is no foolproof solution, but some simple rules may help: 

  • If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  • If a person, or organisation, starts to play on your fears it may be that person or organisation that you should fear.
  • If you are fooled, it does not mean you are an idiot. You are in good company. Do take the time to report the scam.

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