The Conman’s Advantage: Our Brains Easily Turn Off our Suspicious Nature

Chris Lee

Who does not like to watch a good movie about the conman at work, deceiving his marks with clever schemes and heading out into the sunset with buckets of cash? The latest in this genre is “Focus”, a romantic comedy portraying Will Smith as the con artist, who takes a young apprentice under his wing, becomes romantically involved, and then goes for the big bucks. His motto is “Never lose focus”, which tells you something about the process. A successful conman never loses sight of his intended prize.


There are several other favorites, ranging from Robert Redford in “The Sting” to Leonardo Dicaprio in “Catch Me If You Can”, but, as long as Hollywood entertains us, we do not feel taken, as if a clever con game had been played out upon us. Of course, we may feel duped if we had paid a high-ticket price to see a dud of a film, which is just one more example of how easily we can be persuaded to give up control of our minds.

There have been many studies in psychology devoted to determining what exactly is going on in our brains when we fall victim to another’s manipulative dishonesty. It happens quite frequently in everyday life when we are shopping or even in a restaurant. We often are nudged to indulge in buying a more expensive electronic device or bottle of wine by a salesperson that is very experienced in the art of persuasion. Typically, the tip-off is the empty pit in our stomachs that arises after we realize that we had made a decision that was not entirely of our own making.

Researchers have found that our brains are not truly up to the task of ferreting out a clever scheme in the making. In other words, eons of evolutionary change has not hardwired our brain cells to be wary soon enough to suspect that we are about to be had. Believe it or not, there is a specific psychology that applies to the conning process. Fraudsters are very aware of our touch-points and are also adept at following a step-wise set of rules to reel us in at every turn to prepare us for their big money score.

What have various brain studies revealed about the so-called art of persuasion?

Research on the brain has come a long way in the past few decades. Before modern technology, researchers would have to analyze people with specific brain damages to detect what parts of the brain controlled what areas of daily functioning. Analysis has shown that it is not quite as simple as that, since the combination of several parts may have to work in a coordinated fashion to achieve a desired goal. The advent of what is called Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) changed everything. “fMRI” is a functional neuro-imaging procedure using MRI technology that measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow.

From older studies, those employing unfortunate volunteers with brain damage, it has been determined that “the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), an oval-shaped region in the frontal lobe, controls disbelief and doubt.” Newer research, utilizing functional MRI scans, has shown that “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.” Both separate sections of the brain may act as protectors against doubtful situations or when sizing up an individual as to whether they may be trustworthy or not.

In these tests, the proper functioning of the “vmPFC” and the anterior insula was not the same across all test volunteers. Poor functioning of the “vmPFC” seemed confined to a smaller subset of people, while the anterior insula’s performance record seemed to wane with age, thereby suggesting a reason why the elderly are more apt to fall for a crook’s devices. If poor performance of brain function is not equally distributed, then why do all of us have such a strong tendency to be duped by a clever con artist?

The answer given by the researchers was that, “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.” Conmen have literally learned how to trick the brain into looking the other way, much in the same fashion as magicians with their feats of prestidigitation.

Psychological studies also reveal that there are seven principles of persuasion.

From a psychological perspective, we are all vulnerable to being scammed. We may not like being played for a fool, but neither our intelligence, nor our varied experiences offer protection from a clever scammer. We are hardwired for survival, but con artists have learned over the centuries how to maneuver by leveraging such things as our lack of self-control, trust in authority, wanting to behave in the same way as our friends, or a proclivity for acting consistently. These traits may protect us, but they set us up, as well.

The psychology of scamming is actually a thriving field of study these days. A host of studies have revealed that conmen rely upon seven key principles of persuasion. The fascinating conclusion of these efforts is that con artists have discovered these tricks on their own, without the benefit of conscious scientific prodding. According to Frank Stajano, a security and privacy researcher at the University of Cambridge, “I am surprised at the ingenuity of scammers who, perhaps subconsciously, have discovered such principles themselves without scientific studies. I can’t imagine individual scammers working it all out by themselves, so I wonder what kind of word-of-mouth network they use to learn the tricks of their trade?”

Here is a brief rundown of these seven principles of persuasion:

1)    Distraction: Nearly every hustle involves some form of distraction. Conmen know that your mind cannot take in every bit of information it has before it. The objective is to divert your attention just enough to provide an opening for a deceptive move. A “Bait-and-Switch” sales tactic is but one example;

2)    Social Compliance: Our minds are very accepting of authority figures or of situations that appear familiar to us. Hustlers are adept at exploiting this urge to comply or defer to authority. The modern example of this principle involves online “phishing” attempts to obtain your credit card numbers or your personal identity information by posing as a bank or respected company;

3)    Herd Principle: Whether we want to admit it or not, we prefer the security of being associated with a group or “herd”. We will act like sheep, if a shepherd appears to show us the way. Conmen may also employ “shills” to encourage us to follow, an added level of pressure that ensures conformity;

4)    Dishonesty: There is a bit more to do with this principle than you might think. It is not that the hustler simply lies to you. It is the way that he uses fear and dishonesty together. Typically, you will be set up in a scheme to make money that you soon realize is an illegal activity. If you report the scam, then you might be implicated, as well. You were had from the get go;

5)    Deception: We are often the victims of our own expectations, especially if a situation matches up with our experiences. Under the right circumstances, we can be easily tricked. The fraudster is well trained at impersonating figures that will gain our trust, if only for a short moment, enough for a good fleecing;

6)    Need and Greed: The perceived opportunity to make a quick buck often does us in. When the conman inserts desperation into the equation, then we can be easily manipulated to act quickly without thinking;

7)    Time Pressure: If we have no time to think, then we follow our emotions. Time pressure can make us pliable to a variety of clever schemes already noted above.

What are the steps that scammers follow to put these principles into practice?

With these principles in hand, conmen can now proceed, focused on their one and only mission — to steal you blind. They are much like sophisticated businessmen that assess the strengths and weaknesses of a situation, and then develop a strategy, along with specific tactics, to achieve their goals. According to researchers, the first step in the process is “to determine your personality profile and identify your needs. He or she might zero in on your pride, your ego, your fears, your dreams, visions of riches, religious conviction, an illness, or your desire to get a special deal, or a combination of several traits.”

As the conman establishes his initial beachhead, his next objective will be to create an overwhelming level of trust and, with that, a level of dependency that your dreams can only happen with this person firmly ensconced in your life. This step is where the conman excels. He is extremely skillful at building trust bonds, and he may play on your sympathies, insert a wedge between you and your family and friends, and create a feeling of security that he is the only one with the right answers. When the time is ripe, the conman will make his move for your money, but only after instilling a sense of fear so strong that you will delay approaching any authorities. The “fix” is in, so to speak.

Concluding Remarks

A fool and his money are soon parted, but it seems that we have all been hardwired to fall for the ploys of scammers, if the results of psychological studies are to be believed. Can you pick out the conman in the picture shown below?

Can you pick the conman?

Each person may or may not be a potential scammer. Looks can be deceiving, but the best advice is to turn up your hypercritical attitude before you interact with a stranger. You will be more inclined to be assertive and to control the decision making process that will follow, even if all you are dealing with is an ordinary salesperson or a waiter in a restaurant. If you are online, once again, be skeptical up front. If your “gut” is prepared ahead of time, then your brain will follow its instincts. Stay suspicious at all times!

Chris Lee

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