The 5 Reasons We Get Suckered and Ripped Off

Protect yourself from liars and cheats.

Posted Sep 20, 2011

Photographee.eu / Shutterstock
Source: Photographee.eu / Shutterstock

Have you ever been ripped off, conned, cheated, or lied to, and never saw it coming? Did you say: "How could I have been so stupid?" It happens to all of us, and there are psychological reasons why we are so easily fooled.

1. The Trusting Bias

Humans are a social species. In our evolutionary history, we needed to cooperate to survive. As a result, we are programmed to trust others. Our default response is to trust—unless we have specific reasons to be suspicious.

In studies where people are asked to guess whether someone is lying or telling the truth, participants tend to see more truths than lies. Even when they are told beforehand that 50% of statements are lies, they still judge well more than 50% to be "truths."

What to Do: It's OK to trust people that we know, and we certainly don't want to go around suspecting that every stranger is lying to us. But if something doesn't sound right, investigate. Ask questions. Look for evidence and don't believe everything you hear.

2. The Norm of Reciprocity

We have a strong inclination to reciprocate. If someone does us a favor or gives us a gift, we want to pay them back. Psychologist Robert Cialdini has described how salespeople give "free gifts," or samples, because it triggers the urge to reciprocate. Typically, the unscrupulous ask for something in return—something that is far greater in value than the "free" item you were given.

What to Do: Realize that you don't always have to reciprocate, particularly if the gift-giver's motive is to get something bigger in return. So, eat those free samples without feeling obligated to buy the product (particularly if you don't like it). Realize that it's part of their game.

3. Fear of Embarrassment

My academic mentor once told me, "Embarrassment is a strong emotion, and avoiding embarrassment is a strong motivator." Sometimes, when we suspect that someone is ripping us off, we don't challenge or question them out of fear of embarrassment. We fear "calling someone out" because if we are wrong, it can be embarrassing. It's easier just to keep quiet, and sometimes that gets us into trouble.

What to Do: Of course we don't want to go around calling everyone out publicly, but realize that it's OK to ask the tough questions. You can do that politely without triggering embarrassment.

4. Belief in a Just World

We like to believe that the world is fair. We think that things will even out in the end, that our turn will come, and we will "get our due." But the world is not fair: Bad things happen to good people.

What to Do: Don't expect that just because you've had a run of bad luck, things will get better. Instead, work to make things better.

5. Cognitive Laziness

We tend to take mental shortcuts. Trusting others involves less mental effort than carefully analyzing what they are telling us. That's why we don't carefully read contracts or properly investigate claims.

What to Do: Engage your brain. Think, analyze, and question.

Realize that there are a lot of people out there who have learned the psychological rules of the game, and they don't play by the same rules of fairness that most of us subscribe to. Use this knowledge of psychological processes to protect yourself.


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