Just about everyone has received some kind of scam email. Most people just delete these emails, but many do not. According to the Federal Trade Commission, scammers stole nearly $3.3 billion in 2020. Con artists have numerous (and often believable) methods to trick people out of money. They may set up a fake dating profile and then ask for money for “emergencies.” Some impersonate government agencies, like the IRS, and threaten to arrest the victim unless they pay a fee. Retirees are often targeted because of their accumulated wealth, but scammers seek out people of all ages.
Many people assume that the victims have specific traits, such as being gullible, vulnerable, or less intelligent. However, in many cases, the person who falls for a scam does so because of the psychological techniques employed by the scammer—and not because of some personal flaw. Sophisticated scammers rely on social engineering, a form of psychological manipulation, to get someone to perform a specific action, such as divulging confidential information. Blaming the victim is akin to the “fundamental attribution error,” a well-known psychological principle that refers to an individual’s tendency to attribute another’s actions to their character or personality (while attributing their own behavior to external situational factors outside their control).
Noted psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini has written extensively on the science of influence. In his seminal work, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Dr. Cialdini identified six “universal principles of influence,” which scammers use to subtly persuade people to do certain things. Cialdini’s six principles include:
- Reciprocity: The natural tendency to repay others for providing us with something. Studies show that when someone receives something, they feel obliged to reciprocate. For example, social psychologists have found that giving a mint at the end of a meal can increase tipping by 20%.
- Consistency: Most people value reliability in others and try to be reliable themselves. Therefore, people are motivated to be consistent with their prior statements or actions, and after someone makes a choice, he is apt to behave consistently to justify that decision. Scammers take advantage of this desire to be consistent by initially asking for something small and inconsequential but then asking for more later.
- Social Proof: When someone is unsure, he is apt to look to others for cues as to how to behave. Even when someone is confident in their beliefs, consensus opinions can be very persuasive, and the more people are taking action, the more correct that action will seem.
- Liking: People are more likely to say yes to someone they like than to a stranger, but even a stranger can be persuasive if he is perceived as nice. Therefore, scammers spoof or hack email accounts to send phishing emails to that person’s contacts hoping that the victim’s friends will be more likely to respond positively to a friend.
- Authority: People are more likely to say “yes” to those seen as authorities or experts. In Stanley Milgram’s famous study, the experimenter convinced volunteers to deliver (what they thought) were electric shocks to other subjects who failed to answer questions correctly. The study demonstrated the powerful ability of those in authority to control others. Scammers may pose as an authority figure, such as a top executive, and demand quick action. When combined with urgency, people are often afraid to say no to an authority figure.
- Scarcity: When something is perceived to be in short supply, we are more likely to want it. For example, in one experiment, subjects judged cookies to be more appealing when there were only a few left. Scammers will take advantage of our desire for things in short supply by putting a time limit on their offer or by telling people that their account will be deactivated in 24-hours if they do not immediately respond.
Social engineering can be difficult to resist because it is based on our natural tendencies, such as curiosity, respect for authority, and desire to help our friends. By being aware of these powerful psychological principles at play, people can better protect themselves and avoid falling prey to scammers.
Dr. Kenneth Freundlich, the Morris Psychological Group’s Managing Partner, heads the Neuropsychology and Consulting Divisions. With over 35 years of experience, Dr. Freundlich’s practice is exclusively devoted to neuropsychological evaluation and management consultation.