Taken for a Ride

In their new book, psychology professor Daniel Simons and co-author Christopher Chabris investigate why we fall for scams … and how we can protect ourselves.

Interviewed and written by Kim Schmidt

Deception is nothing new, but the publication of Professor Daniel Simons’s latest book seems especially timely. Our world is full of fake news, misinformation, and disinformation. There are battles over what is true in the media, not to mention images and text created by artificial intelligence flooding our social media. So, what do we do? Can we take anything at face value anymore?

Psychology professor Daniel Simons

As Simons writes in the book: “We’re left with a conundrum: We need to believe others, but if we trust too much, we’re in trouble—especially now. Given the ever-multiplying demands on our attention and the growth of deliberate attempts to misinform us, defaulting to belief puts us more at risk than ever.”

Using his expertise in psychology, Simons shares the cognitive reasons why so many of us are easily deceived and gives some advice about how to stay safe.

 


I’D NEVER FALL FOR THAT!

It is easy to say that other people are gullible and that we would never be duped, but we see scams only in retrospect—only the ones that get caught. In hindsight it is easier to see all the red flags, but when you’re in the midst of it, maybe under time pressure to make a decision, it is much harder. Scammers have more information than we do, so they have the upper hand. Think about going to see a magician. You know you will be lied to and deceived, and still, you can’t figure out how the tricks work. They don’t show you everything, and they don’t tell you everything they are doing. They tell you a story, and you buy into the story because you can’t think of the information you’re not given.

THINK LIKE A SCAMMER

Ask yourself this: If somebody were trying to scam me, what would they do? How would they present themselves? What information would they tell me? What would they not tell me? It’s like playing chess and anticipating the next move from your opponent—a great strategy. Thinking about the situation from the perspective of a scammer makes you aware of the ways that they might be tricky.

REMAIN UNCERTAIN

Grand cons are pretty rare. Most of us are not going to fall for a Bernie Madoff or Theranos. Most of the time, we’ll be deceived by phishing emails or things forwarded by our friends. There’s a lot of opportunity for being deceived in small ways. The best way to head off those is just to try to remain uncertain for a little longer, realizing that it takes work to have a justifiable opinion about something. We all have opinions or beliefs, but take a step back and think: Do I really know enough to hold that opinion that strongly? And what would cause me to change my opinion?

PROTECT YOURSELF

The best thing you can do to protect your identity is to use a password manager and use it consistently. There are free ones that work on all platforms and synchronize across all your devices. And they’re easy to use. Creating a 14-character string of characters makes it very hard for scammers to break. If somebody gets access to enough information about you, they can try logins at a wide range of companies, meaning they don’t have to do the hard work of hacking those individual companies directly. But, if you’re using a good password manager, it’s not worth a scammer’s effort. There are easier ways. Enough people set their password as . . . password.

BIG CONSEQUENCES? ASK BIG QUESTIONS

Beware of industries that are minimally regulated and where a lot of money is at stake, like art dealing or cryptocurrency. Banking is actually one of the most regulated industries, but if you are choosing a money manager from a small firm rather than picking a large, established on, make sure you check them out thoroughly. It turns out that many people who are frauds . . . have prior convictions for fraud. When the consequences could be devastating—investing your life savings, buying a house— ask more questions and do more research.

This story was published .