Con science: Experts on why we fall for hoaxes and how to outsmart scammers

Authors of "Nobody's Fool" say "There's an unending arms race of people coming up with new ways to try to scam us"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 11, 2023 5:30AM (EDT)

Goldfish enticement (Getty Images/Chris Collins)
Goldfish enticement (Getty Images/Chris Collins)

Everybody loves a great scam, a hoax, a con. We love to ask, how could someone fall for that? It's the irresistible premise behind a glut of popular podcasts, bestselling books and docuseries. Whether it's Bernie Madoff or a Nigerian prince, we're drawn to the cat and mouse drama of humans trying to get over on other humans. It makes for "great storytelling," as author Daniel Simons observes. It's also an experience almost everyone can relate to — the stranger's sob story that doesn't quite check out, the email that looks almost exactly like it came from your credit card company.

As Simons and his coauthor Christopher Chabris write in "Nobody's Fool: Why We Get Taken In and What We Can Do About It," we're designed to be relatively trusting creatures. And for the most part, it serves us well to assume our pharmacist is giving us our real medication and that the voice on the other end of the phone is truly our best friend. How then do we balance our social need for a certain degree of mutually presumed integrity with a self-preserving requirement for some street smart skepticism of Greeks bearing gifts? 

Simons and Chabris, who first gained notoriety as the creators of the classic Invisible Gorilla experiment, know a thing or two about how our perceptions can trick us. And in their fascinating new book, they weave outrageous examples of art frauds and fabricated scholarly work with meticulously researched insights into why we fall for these deceivers, how we can avoid becoming patsies and why we shouldn't take it personally when someone tries to dupe us. "They're not trying to get you most of the time," Chabris says. "They're trying to get someone." 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

As soon as I found out this book existed, I couldn't wait to read it. Why are we so fascinated with being fooled? What is it about scams and hoodwinking that appeals to us in a visceral way that we want to read these stories, and we want to explore them?

"Scams just inherently have a great narrative structure."

Daniel Simons: Scams just inherently have a great narrative structure. There's the evil genius who's trying to manipulate people. There's the the victims who are typically portrayed as sympathetic. It's not the clueless person who got what was coming to them. It was the unfortunate mark who was taken in. And then in most of these sorts of stories, there's the wrap up. It all comes together in the catching of the criminal.

It has that classic movie narrative. It gets more and more in depth, it gets more and more removed from what reality is, and then it all comes crashing down at once. It's the classic hubris story of pride before the fall, and then you've got the fall, and then you've got the schadenfreude about this person getting caught. It has all of those elements wrapped up together, which makes for great storytelling, which is why they're so appealing to tell and so appealing to watch.

Christopher Chabris: I would add another angle on that, which is that deceptions and frauds and scams are like jokes. You think one thing is true, and then it turns out the opposite is true, or something completely different is actually going on. Kind of like magic. The story reveals that behind the curtain, something different is happening, or something that we assumed or thought we understood was in fact not happening. 

Reading this book and thinking about this moment in our culture, it feels like we are more skeptical and paranoid, and also more gullible and more vulnerable to misinformation. Is this a paradox that you've observed? 

Chabris: We have observed that there's more skepticism, even of research in our own field. On the other hand, there's also more scamming. We believe that fraud is on the rise. Of course, there's a little bit of a paradox and that fraud is on the rise only to the extent you can detect it. That leaves more undetected fraud that we don't know about. 

Partly what's going on is that people can be very skeptical of one thing, and think that they're a critical thinker and a skeptic and a contrarian, and yet completely fall for something else. The same people who might be all over you about health claims might be putting all their money into fraudulent crypto companies at the same time. Maybe they believe they're skeptical about fiat money and the Federal Reserve, so they've gone all in on crypto and could wind up in a bad place there. So it's not that everybody is more skeptical, and everyone's a better critical thinker. 

"The old three card monte guys had to wait for people to walk around. Now you can reach out and find the three card monte enthusiast, and get them to come to you."

The scammers are, I would say, getting a little better at crafting scams that will find their audience, find their victims. The old three card monte guys in New York had to wait for people to walk around. Now you can reach out and find the three card monte enthusiast and get them to come to you, instead of the other way around.

Simons: People who hold conspiracy theory beliefs will view themselves as completely skeptical and critical. It's because they've started with a different set of assumptions and committed to them being true. In healthcare, that might be that Big Pharma is evil. Once you are committed to that, and assume that's always the case, you can make things consistent with that by taking on other beliefs that are just not true. You think you're being skeptical and critical of Big Pharma, and don't realize that you're not being skeptical of the critics of Big Pharma. Anybody who is speaking out against Big Pharma, you assume that they're telling the truth.

It's really easy to fall into this circular logic. Once you've accepted something as a premise and committed to it, you can be entirely internally consistent and reach more and more outlandish conclusions.

We are all vulnerable to that. We all have sources that we trust, we have blind spots. Talk to me about the things that make us vulnerable to being fooled.

Simons: The first thing to keep in mind is that we have these cognitive habits and tendencies that for the most part work really, really well. It's useful to rely on familiarity. People you know and have learned to trust are likely to be beneficial to you to trust in the future. It allows you to be more efficient in interacting with the world. If you have always gotten straight information from somebody, you're probably going to continue to, and for the most part that works really well.

But the habits we have — things like relying on familiarity, focusing on the information that's right in front of us, or trusting that when something is really consistent, it's likely to be worth trusting — somebody who's looking to deceive us is going to capitalize on those. Bernie Madoff got most of his investors from people who were already familiar with him. That that ploy of taking advantage of familiarity, taking advantage of the sorts of habits we have and targeting them is how a lot of deception works. 

"Once you've accepted something as a premise and committed to it, you can be entirely internally consistent and reach more and more outlandish conclusions."

Chabris: This set of habits and tendencies and hooks, as we call them, that we all have, will work in different ways for different people. We all prefer the familiar, but what's familiar to each of us is completely different from everybody else. We all value precision in claims as compared to vagueness and concreteness as compared to abstractness. 

We'll each be paying attention to or be interested in some different kinds of topics. Some people might fall for absurdly precise health claims, because they're not at the stage of life where they really care about their health very much. But there'd be something else that they might really get hooked on using the same kind of hook. And everybody has different assumptions and commitments.

The notion of truth bias is important about what we all have in common. One precondition for scammers and frauds to get in is that we have to at least be willing to entertain that what they say could be true. It seems like there's something about the architecture of the mind that gives us that bias that we don't immediately react by saying, "That's not true."

We immediately react by maybe tagging something as true, keeping it in mind as true temporarily. If we get distracted by something else, or we don't have time to do more investigation, there might be a little truth labeling attached to it so that when we encounter it again, we're maybe started pushing gently down the hill towards deep enough acceptance that we then act on it. The truth bias is necessary for us to get around in the world. You can't even have a conversation unless you assume that people are actually trying to tell you true things.

"They're not trying to get you most of the time, they're trying to get someone."

It's such an everyday thing, that we don't even realize we're doing it. On the one hand, it's sort of obvious. On the other hand, it's really important that you know that's necessary for everything to work. There are some scams that if you look back on them, you'll say, "How did they possibly fall for that?" If they had disbelieved the very first word of it, or the very first sentence of it, it wouldn't have gone anywhere.

Many people do disbelieve the very first approach by a scammer or a con artist. But the other universal principle involved is that they're not trying to get you most of the time, they're trying to get someone. Therefore, they only need a few people to respond in order to start the ball rolling. That's the classic principle of the Nigerian [prince] scam. They will send out a million feelers and try to lure a few people into sending the money over and over and over again, which is an intensive process for them. They don't care that 99% of people just deleted the email or never saw it.

Yet it feels personal when you have been fooled, whether it's giving $5 to some sketchy charity, or buying that fake masterpiece. I had no idea there's so much art fraud. 

Simons: That's true for any largely unregulated market. Art fraud is a high dollar market. There are minimal regulations [and] it can often be used for money laundering. You're transferring these really valuable objects around. There are other markets that are a lot like that. Crypto has some elements of that as well. Any time you have massive amounts of money moving without a lot of regulation, it's just ripe for fraud.

So much has probably changed in just the time you sent this book to the printer, so I want to ask about AI and about the rise of deep fakes. Anyone can fake anything at this point. What does that mean in terms of the truth and reality? 

Simons: I don't think it actually fundamentally changes reality. The problem is it makes it harder to dig out what's real and what's not. We have to be prepared for that and aware of that. ChatGPT is pervasive in universities and high schools already. For us, it means that we have to completely restructure how we evaluate students. We no longer can count on generous take-home tests to accommodate for illness and other sorts of things. If we want to actually grade performance, we can't do that any more, because the chatbots and AIs are good enough to get most of the questions right. We have to be much more creative in how we evaluate. 

In the cases of fraud and deception, I think it becomes really important to figure out ways of preemptively trying to head those off. That's always the best way to go. It's always much better to see if you can find a way of preventing fraud in general, as opposed to having to respond to it in the moment when you're under time pressure, when somebody's being really effective at using all of these hooks to catch you. Having a way of sending testing in advance is really ideal. 

One of the common scams we didn't talk about in the book is the kidnapping hoax. This is a pretty common one now. Or it's also an injury scam. Somebody will call up a parent or grandparent, they've done enough research to know who the person's kids are. And it's devastating. I think it's one of the more evil forms of scamming. It's just preying on people's fears, their worries and concerns. The question is, how do you head that off? With AI, that's going to get that much worse, because if there's enough social content online and audio content online, people can synthesize voices. Imagine how powerful that is, if it sounds like it's coming from the kid. 

They sometimes will preemptively pay attention. They know the names of local officials, they'll know your name, they'll know enough about you to sound familiar and plausible. There are strategies to preemptively block that sort of thing. One is that my family has a passcode. If we ever get a call like that, we know that they're going to be high pressure. And the first question is, what's the passcode? And if they don't know it, hang up.

You talk in the book about ways that we can circumvent some of these cons while still being open and receptive. I want to trust my gut, but my gut is often wrong.

Chabris: There's no completely perfect solution to this problem. There's an unending arms race of innovations on all sides unfortunately, of people coming up with new ways to try to scam us and there are many pitfalls for us to fall into. I think of it as a lifelong process to try to become more objective. I don't want to say less emotional, I don't think it would be good to become non-emotional, but to become less attached to one's own pre-existing beliefs and identities. You need to have the emotions for a variety of reasons, and they're good things.

But the problematic ones are when we let aspects of our identity, which often turn out to be commitments, very strong assumptions — that whatever comes from our political party is correct, whatever people we like say is correct — control too much our interpretation of the information we get. I don't think it's easy to detach oneself from that. I think it takes it takes a while, and hopefully reading our book will help. But it's not an overnight solution. It's a long, long process. And I do think that people who claim to be completely objective may be fooling themselves a little bit also. There's a certain style of being a rationalist which is a good direction to go in. But I think sometimes people who claim to be objective and rational have their own commitments that need to be examined a little bit more. Nobody's perfect in that respect.

Simons: We can't just turn off our emotions. We're not going to become Spock or Data. That's not the goal. One of the key elements of this is to recognize when your emotions are leading you not to question. So when you hear something that you really love, that gels with your beliefs, that's when you should probably be more critical. Just recognizing that maybe that's what you say, "But is it really true?" It's really recognizing that when you find something so appealing that grabs your pulls on your heartstrings, those are the times when maybe you should say, "Let me give it a second thought." 

Chabris: Dan made a great point, but I think it really does go in both directions. If you find yourself really hating something, you should also question. The more emotion we're feeling about something, maybe then the more we should look into it. Strong positive emotion is an important time to check ourselves. Probably also when we're really feeling strongly negative about something, we should we should take a small step back as well. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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