Our Brains Weren’t Hardwired To Catch Con Artists

Why we fall victims to scams and bad sales tricks

Posted Dec 16, 2012

It's the second night at the same restaurant. You order the Chilean cabernet. It's reasonably priced at $32. The waiter disappears and after what seems to be hours he comes back with a different Chilean wine—not one on the wine list. "We are out of the Chilean cabernet," he says and decisively places the new bottle on the table. "But I can give you this exclusive Chilean blend for only $7 more. It’s an excellent bottle." As if in a trance you quietly nod in agreement. The con artist opens and pours. Déjà vu! Except last time it was a French Syrah. This time you and your partner agreed you wouldn't spend more than around $30 on wine, yet once again you ended up with a bottle closer to $40. Sales trick or not, it’s plainly obvious that you bought right into it.

You walk into a computer store intending to purchase one of those teensy $300 notebooks for your teen daughter but walk out with a $2,300 MacBook Air. It didn't feel like a spur-of-the-moment buy. Somewhere along the way your intentions shifted, and at the time you actually thought it was a brilliant idea to reach into your pocket for an additional $2,000. You are not quite sure how it happened, and now it’s too late.

Your fancy hairstylist notices that your hair is in a terrible condition and recommends a special product that only he can apply. "After only a few treatments, your hair will be like new!" The dude gazes at your split ends like he is about to fall in love with them. You agree to try it out. Afterwards your hair does look remarkably shiny and healthy. But it comes to $150. With the obligatory 20 percent tip, you have to dole out $180. "Shall we say next Tuesday same time?" Your stylist sends you a cute little smile. You check your Google calendar and nod.

Suddenly you find yourself (A) going every Tuesday and (B) being referred to around town as the guy's "Tuesday appointment." You are spending $1,000 a month on repairing damaged locks, and the treatment is not even working. The dude made it sound like the protein cure would repair your mane in a few treatments. But after salon session number eight, your frizzies are in the same shape as before—especially after the first hair wash post-appointment. How did you end up in this lavish and asinine circle?

Sales tricks happen a lot more often than we think, and for obvious reasons: Merchants want to sell their gear. Those who are skillful—like the stereotyped old-car salesmen—have the ability to raise your confidence and make you commit without you ever feeling a pinch of discomfort—that is, until after you have signed on.

Some people step into worse traps. You have written a 800-page novel. It took you ten years but you finally completed it. You send the manuscript to a few agents. No replies. You begin to feel frustrated, when all of a sudden you come across this small publisher that claims not to be a vanity press. “We are a real publisher”—only you have to come up with $10,000 to help with the costs of the extensive marketing program. In return, you will get a 50 percent royalty on any book sold. Not a bad deal, you think. You agree to the terms. At this point one of the two things happens. In scenario 1 your book does indeed come out. But it is poorly set, it's not in any of the regular bookstores, and you never get the interviews or book tours you were promised. The book doesn't sell. In scenario 2 you dole out the $10,000 and then you never hear from the “publisher” again. In both scenarios you feel like a fool. You wonder how you could have made such an insane decision. You already knew about these hustlers. You had read everything there is to read about vanity presses and the importance of getting an agent before attempting to publish. Yet you are now $10,000 poorer.

Your BFF knocks some sense into you with a duncan smash, and you reluctantly return to the slower and more tedious approach of sending queries to agents. A couple of them want to see more but don’t sign on. "The plot is great," they say, "but your writing style needs improvement." Your frustration is almost too great to bear. You have heard of ghostwriters—wordsmiths who help you narrate your brilliant plot. You sign a contract with one. The payment is $5,000 up front. She completes lots of pages of information. But at some point she stops. You keep asking when the book will be done. She keeps postponing. Weeks go by. Months. No book.

Eventually you decisively tell her that if she is not going to write the book, you want your $5,000 back. She says she doesn’t have the money; she is filing for bankruptcy. “Besides,” she adds, “I have already given you services worth significantly more than $5,000.” You kindly remind her of the contract and of the fact that the $5,000 was a payment for a finished book—a specific one. But she insists that you got your money’s worth and then sends you her bankruptcy lawyer's cell number. You still don't have a book, and you are now in debt. How did it happen? Why did you act in this impulsive way? Why didn't you learn your lesson the first time around? Do you have some kind of brain damage?

Researchers at University of Iowa examined various people with brain damage and found that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), an oval-shaped region in the frontal lobe, controls disbelief and doubt. If the vmPFC is defective, we are more likely to believe things we ought not believe and more likely to fail to doubt what we ought to doubt. 18 patients with damage to vmPFC and 21 patients with damage elsewhere as well as a control group with no brain damage were shown advertisements akin to real ads that had been labeled "misleading" by the Federal Trade Commission. Each volunteer was asked how much he believed the advertisement and how likely he was to buy the item. The study, which was published in the July, 2012 issue of Frontiers in Neuroscience, showed that patients with damage to vmPFC were twice as likely to believe misleading advertisements and were more likely to buy the item than the two other groups—even after all groups were informed that the advertisement contained misleading information. The results indicate that vmPFC is central to doubt and disbelief as well as belief updating and revision. The brain region is supposed to question the beliefs you already do hold when something is out of wrack.

Other recent results in neuroscience show that defects in the anterior insula—a brain region that sits in a fold among the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes—may influence our ability to determine who is honest and who is deceitful. The publication, which appeared in the December issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was based on two studies conducted by UCLA researchers. In the first study 119 older adults (mean age 68) and 24 younger adults (mean age 23) looked at 30 photographs of faces selected to look honest, dishonest or neutral. The participants were asked to assess how trustworthy or approachable the people portrayed were. There was no significant difference with respect to trustworthy and neutral faces but the older adults were more likely to rate the untrustworthy faces as trustworthy than the younger adults.

In the second study the researchers scanned participants' brains using fMRI. The anterior insula was activated during ratings of untrustworthy faces in the younger participants but not in the older volunteers. The older volunteers didn't seem to use the anterior insula at all in rating honesty. 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. But apparently it was not working in this way in older adults. Unlike the younger adults the older group did not enter the task with caution.

In all three studies, the participants who made poor decisions were outliers compared to the normal population. So what explains the fact hat those of us who (probably) don’t have deficits in the anterior insula or the vmPFC often are duped or make rash decisions we never planned to make?

The most natural answer is that sly or fraudulent, yet persuasive, salespeople signal to our brains that everything is as it should be. Their smooth behavior raises our confidence, thereby boosting our serotonin levels. The well-being chemical serotonin can turn off our critical sense and increase our feeling of content—so much so that our initial beliefs never are subjected to scrutiny in the vmPFC, and the anterior insula never gives us the warning sign that would make us step back and think.

It is perfectly natural that we fall victim to the confidence tricks of scam artists. Our brains were not hardwired to look through the clever schemes and confidence-installing tricks of skilled actors and con men trained in making our disbelief go away. Our gray matter can distinguish honesty from dishonesty and alarming situations from unruffled ones but it cannot instinctively detect dishonesty and fraud cleverly disguised.

Is there anything we can do to avoid these moments of crazy decision-making? Yes but only by intentionally turning on our hypercritical attitude before entering potential sales deals. Make it a habit to take a breather and think about a purchase before completing it. When the waiter brings a more expensive wine, ask to see the wine list again. You might end up going with the more expensive wine but looking over the list will give you a chance to think. When your hairdresser all of a sudden wants to make you his regular on Tuesdays, say that you will call in and make the next appointment. Perhaps your next appointment will be Tuesday, but you will have had a chance to make your own decision. Purchase electronic items by researching the market yourself and then purchase the product you decided on. And if you solicit the services of quasi-vanity publishers or ghostwriters, insist on paying only once the job is complete.