Weeding out the less gullible

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A report from Microsoft investigates why “Nigerian” scam artists and their ilk usually send out emails that might as well have “scam” written all over them: claims that they’re from Nigeria and other third world countries, bad spelling, outlandish and melodramatic stories.

The report’s answer, which involves a lot of math, is fairly simple: scammers only want really gullible people to respond to their initial query. These scams are complicated—they involve lots of negotiations, charm, and conning… it’s going to make his life much easier if his claim is so ridiculous—and so easy to debunk through Bing or Google—that only ten, and not a hundred, potential suckers respond.

So who falls for these emails, and why?

Some people equate gullibility with stupidity, which may play a part, but there’s more to it than that. I bet you know smart and experienced people who’ve fallen for ridiculous claims before. (Plus “smartness” and “stupidity” are complex traits, and people who demonstrate great intelligence in one area of life may show a lack of it in other areas.)

Maybe gullibility involves a lack of awareness of risk or danger? Greater impulsivity? Pronounced ignorance in a given area? A need to believe in something, especially if it comes from a particular source? A stronger-than-average tendency to maintain a belief even when presented with clear evidence refuting it? (What would constitute clear evidence for them, anyway?) A need to believe that there’s a shortcut or simple trick that will bypass years of work and effort for a clear shot at success? A stronger-than-average tendency to draw incorrect conclusions from current evidence and from past experiences? Pronounced gullibility is also a possible symptom of dementia.

We all have a tendency towards gullibility but what makes it so much stronger in some? So far I haven’t found that much research exploring the topic, only some counterintuitive findings: that suffering through harsh experiences while growing up may make you more gullible (you can come to mistrust your own judgments) and that people who are generally more trusting can be better at spotting liars, as opposed to thinking that everyone is full of good will and sunshine.

Here’s some advice on how to protect yourself from your own gullible tendencies. Even though you might not succumb to obvious scams, there are still more subtle ones. For instance, people who quickly detect the phoniness of a wildly spammy scam email and discard it may think that a much more legitimate-looking email is ok – an email that looks like it comes from the bank, asking you to quickly reply with just one key piece of information, or to log onto your account through the link they’ve helpfully provided you.

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