Why do people fall for scams? Whether it’s a deal that’s too good to be true, a bait-and-switch or an outright fraud scheme, many of us feel cheated at some point in our lives. It might not even be something huge: sales professionals from waiters to insurance brokers often persuade us to make decisions that we later regret. So why don’t we notice scams when they’re happening?

Science tells us that the smoothest scam artists are actually able to override the parts of our brain that typically alerts us when someone or something is not to be trusted. Relatively recent research has shown that a couple of different regions of the human brain control things like doubt and our ability to question our own beliefs. The same parts of the brain also give us that “red flag” feeling when someone just seems like they’re dishonest.

The best tricksters, though, are able to completely slip past these defenses.


The Science of the Scam

When you’re trying to figure out whether or not something is going to be worth your time and/or money, you use a part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (also known as the vmPFC, which is a lot easier to both say and read), as researchers at the University of Iowa have discovered.

This part of your brain is located in the frontal lobe and is shaped like an oval. If yours isn’t working right, there’s a chance you’ll fall for just about anything.

A black-and-white photo of a very frustrated man burying his hands in his face for some unknowable reason.

It’s not all your fault! Clever con artists can literally fool our brains into making us feel as though everything is as it should be.

The vmPFC is instrumental in your ability to update and revise your beliefs, which are basically the yardstick you use as you interact with the world around you. If you think about it, every decision that you make is based upon something that you truly believe.

Beliefs aren’t set in stone, however, and the belief systems that we use are undergoing relatively constant adjustment, thanks in large part to the vmPFC. When something isn’t quite right, this part of your brain helps you to question the things you already believe, and as such, helps you dodge situations in which you might get conned out of your life’s savings.

Another important part of your brain when it comes to dodging scams is the anterior insula. This is the bit of your brain that helps you to instinctively figure out who’s honest and who isn’t. As Psychology Today notes:

“The anterior insula is supposed to be a guard waiting to give people a warning signal. It normally is a strong biological basis of disgust.”

Now, we understand that people with a vmPFC or anterior insula that has been somehow damaged have a much tougher time when it comes to avoiding scams and other situations in which they spend money they don’t truly want to spend. But what about the rest of us?


Scammers Slip Past our Brain’s Sensors

Great con artists and tricksters, as it turns out, are so good that they can literally fool our brains into telling us that everything is just fine — that you’ll be really glad you spent that extra $50 as soon as you leave the store. How could this happen? It’s because of a simple thing called serotonin.

As any good confidence artists will tell you, the key to convincing someone to part with their hard-earned money is to boost their confidence. Manipulation techniques like negative reinforcement or reverse psychology don’t typically succeed when it comes to getting people to go against their better judgement, and there’s a very good reason for this.

When you’re being effectively scammed, the extra confidence you keep receiving causes your brain to release a nice, healthy dose of serotonin. This chemical basically shuts off your critical senses and makes you feel like everything is just fine.

Our brains, as it turns out, just aren’t hard-wired to spot the tricks of the most practiced confidence artists and scammers. What does this mean? When you’re dealing with someone you don’t know, you have to actively work to catch the fraudster’s tricks before they take your money. Just because our brains aren’t naturally wired to stop scams doesn’t mean we can’t train ourselves to be on guard.


Avoid Scams: Put Away Your Wallet and Count to 10

The best way to avoid being scammed, of course, will vary from person to person. But above all else, give yourself a little time to think before you hand over your cash. Count to 10, call a friend for advice or grab your smartphone and do a quick mobile Scambook search. If a salesperson is really pressuring you to “act now or miss out,” it’s probably not a good deal.

Do you have a good technique for dodging scams and cons? Share in the comments!


See Also

How Scammers Make Fake ATM Cards and Steal Your Money
Beware “Reshipping” Job Scam on Sites like Craigslist, LinkedIn and CareerBuilder
10 Essential Tips to Avoid Used Car Salesman Scams

3 Responses

  1. Laurie

    Question whether you REALLY want or need something first. I do this by imagining the price is at least 10X the amount quoted. It keeps me from buying ‘bargains’ that aren’t bargains. If I wouldn’t pay $1000 for something, why should I part with $100? (It’s also the psychology of “if it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is”.


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