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Are You a Sucker?

Who gets conned and why

Social psychologist Robert Cialdini is an expert on manipulative communications (1). Yet, he was the first to admit that he was more vulnerable than most. He was the man accepting the “free” rose from a cult member when accosted in the street.

Cialdini recognized that the key to most influence strategies is to make people feel good about doing what you want them to do. He describes a scary human capacity to agree, to obey, to accept absurd religious claims, and to avoid reasoning and critical thought.

Anyone who stops to give the man on the corner with the “Homeless: Will Work For Food” sign five dollars probably feels good about helping the destitute. They would feel less good if they realized that the man with the sign made more from pan handling than they did from work.

The modern world is full of opportunities to get ripped off by confidence tricksters and most of them are not working the streets. Have you succumbed? Let me list some of the ways it could have happened whether you were aware of it or not.

You may be a sucker if …

There is a great variety of feel-good tactics deployed by influence practitioners. One of the most prevalent is the free gift/ sample. It is an axiom of marketing that there are no truly free gifts. One reason is that most people have a strongly-developed sense of fairness. That means that when you accept a gift, you incur a psychological obligation to repay. That often means purchasing something you do not need.

Otherwise, free gifts may be repaid by giving up personal information right down to credit card numbers. Take the one-month free trial offered by Netflix. This is free only in a monetary sense. It is purchased by giving up personal information that is far more valuable to Netflix than the one-month of free access. After all, the access costs them virtually nothing. Yet the information can be parlayed into a long term subscription worth hundreds of dollars.

Free gifts are not always concrete like the food samples given out in supermarkets, or of monetary value like a subscription. They may be social. There is a reason that sales people are often selected for their physical attractiveness. Attractive people boost the confidence and happiness of people with whom they interact. Their free gift is sex appeal. Sex sells because it is pleasant. When people feel optimistic, they are more likely to make purchases – even large and impulsive ones.

The manipulation of beauty in advertising is so obvious that it is hardly worth mentioning. Yet, there are intriguing wrinkles. One is that the models used to sell luxury cars are often sexy young females even though many of the customers are middle-aged men. The implication is that in this car the man will appeal to sexy women (2).

Such ads were first created by disgraced behaviorist psychologist John B. Watson who was inspired by Pavlov’s work with salivating dogs. The idea is that if the luxury car is paired with the sexy woman repeatedly, the car will elicit the same excitement as the woman.

So much for sexually salivating men! What do such ads have for women who are buying more and more luxury cars? Women likely identify with beautiful females and get something of a lift as though they were that attractive themselves. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain why ads in ladies’ magazines contain so many beautiful women. If men are being convinced that the product will get them beautiful lovers, women are being convinced that the product will make them highly desirable. It may be a false promise but most people are swayed by sexual advertising without even being aware of it (2).

Advertising exploits the sex appeal of women’s bodies and these are featured more often than men’s bodies (3). Advertisers are also attuned to refined messages transmitted by female body shape. Models selling to women are mostly slender evidently catering to the feminine desire to lose weight (2). Models selling to men are generally more curvaceous. Beer commercials that are targeted to comparatively low-income men feature large-breasted women (3) that are believed to appeal to this demographic, for example.

So we are all suckers in one way or another, allowing ourselves to accept as fact claims that make us feel good even as we recognize that they are deceitful, or wrong. Just because we resist the obvious frauds like e-mails promising to wire a hoard of money into our accounts, we get taken anyway.

1. Cialdini, R. B. (1988). Influence: Science and practice. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman/Little.

2. Reichert, T. (2003). Sex in advertising: Perspectives on the erotic appeal. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

3. Lijima Hall, C. C., & Crum, M. J. (1994). Women and “body-isms” in television beer commercials. Sex Roles, 31, 329-337.