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Episode Transcript

DUCKWORTH: Oh! God, I have not been reading those emails carefully.

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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.

DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: Why do people fall for scams?

MAUGHAN: My brother had just returned from spending the summer in, you guessed it, Nigeria.


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DUCKWORTH: Mike, we have a great question that cuts a little close to the bone, at least in my own life. It’s from Raymond Chen and he asks: Why do people get scammed? Is everyone susceptible? How do we check ourselves before committing to a scam no matter what stage of life we’re in?

MAUGHAN: You just said it cuts close to the bone. I think it’s important that we be honest with our listeners from the beginning. I’m going to admit one as well, but do you want to start? Have you ever fallen for a scam?

DUCKWORTH: I am sure that I have, but I’ll tell you what’s at the very top of my memory. My mom, who you know, is amazing and wonderful. So she’s 88 now. So it was a few years ago and it cuts close to the bone because by the way, it was actually more than the money in this scam that was the real cost to her, and then by extension to me. So somebody calls my mom — and I can’t recreate the conversation because it wasn’t recorded, so I only have it from my mom’s rendition. But some conversation that was like, “Your grandson is in trouble.” And then my mom, I think, said something like, “Oh, my grandson, Bill?” And then, you know, it’s like, “Yes, your grandson, Bill.” So I think this conversation ended up convincing my mom quite definitively that her grandson was in jail in Florida and bail needed to be posted in cash immediately by my mom mailing $15,000 to a P.O. Box in Miami. And it was successful. I mean, from the scammer’s perspective, I think if I recall correctly, my mom had to make two separate withdrawals so she had to, like, make two separate mailings, I think like one through FedEx and one through U.P.S. to this place in Miami.

MAUGHAN: And was there some urgency to — I mean, was this like Bill’s going to — why would she not call Bill or you or —.

DUCKWORTH: You can ask that question. I cannot fully answer it. But I think the story that was shared was something like, “And you have to do it right now, and if you don’t do it right now, whatever.” And so whatever they said, I think I’m sure was entirely plausible.

MAUGHAN: What I’m not going to do is ask about Bill and whether it’s believable that he would be in jail —.

DUCKWORTH: Like, for the record, Bill is not in jail and never has been, nor to my knowledge has he ever been to Florida. There you go.

MAUGHAN: As brief aside, if you’re ever bored, which I know you’re not, but one of the most delightful things that you can ever do is just Google “Florida man”, and then see what comes up after it. Because I mean, I don’t know what men in Florida do, but —.

DUCKWORTH: I have been educated by the Florida man meme. I was like the last person to learn about it. But yeah, Florida man. In this case, Bill was not Florida man. But yeah, my mom was scammed and actually, I think she was really embarrassed, honestly. I think there was something shameful about having fallen for the scam. But I do know from research that when victims of scams are surveyed that, close to 80 percent of them will say that they suffered emotionally when only like 25 percent of them — I think the numbers are 79 and 24 here — but like 79 percent of scam victims say they’ve suffered emotionally. Only 24 percent say they suffered financially. So there’s something strangely, I think, shameful about falling for a scam that to me is the greater of the crimes.

MAUGHAN: Well, that’s — what’s crazy is so many people feel so embarrassed about these, but that’s what also perpetuates the ability for the schemes to keep going. I do think it’s fair that I share with you my —.

DUCKWORTH: Your scam story?

MAUGHAN: Yeah, so in fairness, I didn’t get scammed, but it’s like insanely embarrassing because it’s literally the worst, dumbest scam of all time. But let me just put it into context. The internet was relatively new-ish. Email was at the very beginning stages of ubiquitous use.

DUCKWORTH: So what year are we in?

MAUGHAN: We’re like 2003, maybe? And my brother I’m giving it away right now. My brother had just returned from spending the summer in, you guessed it, Nigeria.

DUCKWORTH: Oh God. Is there a prince in this story?

MAUGHAN: Like, it’s so dumb now, but just give me a little grace here. Okay? My brother’s just come home from Nigeria. I get this email using my name — and my email address does not have my actual name on it. So they had my actual name and they wrote about this — it wasn’t quite the Nigerian prince yet, but there was all this money in Nigeria for me and my family. And I did not believe it, but there was the hint of like — same when you play the lottery, you’re like, “Well, it’s not going to happen, but maybe —.”

DUCKWORTH: But wait. In this case, it’s not the Nigerian prince asking you to wire funds. It’s that you have somehow struck it rich.

MAUGHAN: Well, I think that’s how it always worked. It’s like, “Hey, there’s all this money here. If you wire this money, then we’ll send you all of the riches.”

DUCKWORTH: Oh! God, I have not been reading those emails carefully.

MAUGHAN: Now, in fairness, I did email back twice, but I never got to the point of like — basically, I just asked and I said, “How do you have my full name?” Like, “How do you know what my name is?” And they wrote back one more time and they’re like, “Hey, we need to da da da da da.” And I was like, “How do you know my name?” And then they never wrote back again.

DUCKWORTH: Did they say “Dear Mike,” or did they say, “Dear Mike Maughan”?

MAUGHAN: I assume “Dear Mike Maughan” would’ve given it away, but it had my full name in there somewhere.

DUCKWORTH: Got it. Somewhere they knew. And they didn’t reply. They didn’t tell you how they knew your full name.

MAUGHAN: Yeah. And that’s when we just stopped. But point is I’m dumb and I, at the very beginning, engaged with a Nigerian email scam. So yay for me. One thing that is interesting though — and this is a totally tangential aside — there’s this book called Yes Man. I think they later made a movie about it. But this guy, Danny Wallace, who lived in London, he was getting bored. His life was getting boring. His friends were worried about him. So he makes this decision that for six months he’s just going to say yes to literally everything. So any time someone says, “Do you want to go out tonight?” He says, “Yes.” Any time someone offers him whatever he says, “Yes.” And so he gets, of course, an email about some scam and he writes back and says, “Yes.” And the story goes that he never actually wires the money, but he does — he’s in London, he flies to Amsterdam, he like meets up with these people, and it’s just this idea of what happens if you always say, “Yes.” It’s a very beautiful and somewhat dangerous way to live. But I love this idea that he just was like, “Look, I’m just going to go for it. Let’s just fully engage with the scam and see what happens.”

DUCKWORTH: The happy ending because it’s a Hollywood film, right?

MAUGHAN: No, it’s a true book that then became a Hollywood movie.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, it’s a true story.

MAUGHAN: True story, yeah. Danny Wallace is a real human.

DUCKWORTH: And so the real world happy ending is that he goes far enough that he experiences new things, broadens his vistas, makes new friends, but doesn’t lose his shirt.

MAUGHAN: Right, I think the real-world happy ending is that he like meets his wife because he said yes to so many things. That has nothing to do with scams.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, that is a really good happy ending. No, it doesn’t but it’s a really — that’s a really good ending.

MAUGHAN: To all of our listeners who have not yet met the person of their dreams, the way to do it may be through saying yes and through engaging in scams. That’s bad advice.

DUCKWORTH: I don’t think I’m going to back you on that, just for the record. I did not agree with that. But I do think that what scams reveal is this difficult decision that we have to make continuously, if you’re on the knife edge between trust and distrust — between, “Sure, I’ll give it a go” and “No, I’m going to be conservative and risk averse” — then I guess there’s some wisdom in saying like, “Well, if you’re going to be on the knife edge, falling off on the side of trust and “yes” and “why not?” would not be the bad edge to fall off of, on average. That’s what’s interesting to me about scams. I haven’t fully understood the shame of it, but at the same time as we don’t want to fall for scams, I think we also want to give our fellow human beings the benefit of the doubt, and it’s hard to know how to do both those things at the same time. These things are in tension. You cannot both give people the benefit of the doubt, assume the best of intentions — and what is trust other than belief without fact. You can’t do all of that and prop up American democracy, etc., and also be like vigilantly scanning the horizon for scammers. I don’t know if they’re mutually exclusive in that you can’t do a little of one and a lot of the other, but I think they’re pulling us in different directions.

MAUGHAN: I agree. I think it’s a huge piece of how we have to decide how to live our lives and what kind of people we want to be and how we want to interact with others. That said, let’s ask a few questions for a second about who actually falls for scams and go into it. So I’ve got a “true or false.” Older people are more likely to fall for scams.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, well I’m going to test my knowledge because I looked into this a little bit. At least in part because of my own family’s experience and I’ve found this article by a professor of decision sciences named Yaniv Hanoch and Stacey Wood, who’s a professor of psychology. And they wrote a review article in my favorite journal — one of my favorite journals — Current Directions in Psychological Science. The title of this article is “The Scams Among Us: Who Falls Prey and Why?” So I’m going to answer your question with their summary which is that it’s not that the older you are, the more likely you are to fall for scams. I think the pattern that scientists are trying to put together almost doesn’t exist. Like, one study says one thing, another says another. So I’m going to go with no, false. It’s not older people, but it’s also not younger people. It defies any pattern.

MAUGHAN: Yeah, I think it’s interesting because every — I mean, I talked to a few people about scams and was just getting anecdotal research. And literally every person I talked to about scams, their response was something like, “Ugh, sounds like my dad.” Or, “Oh, you should talk to my parents.” Because there’s this idea—.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, it does seem like older people are the ones who are just constantly getting taken advantage of.

MAUGHAN: Right, they’re the ones who actually answer unknown phone numbers on their phone, and then they’re like, “Sure, yes, Billy is in jail.”

DUCKWORTH: The thing about this research is that I don’t think it’s very easy to do hypothetical lab studies on scams because these authors, Yaniv and Stacey, they defined what a scam is. And I’m going to read to you from this article. “Scams have several features that distinguish them from most, if not all, other crimes. The perpetrators can be and often are located far away from their potential victims. Also, potential victims must play an active role in the process. They provide personal information, send money, keep the activity secret, and fail to report it to the authorities. In fact, without the victim’s involvement, most scams would simply fail. Thus, although there is a large scope for researchers to examine the underlying mechanisms involved in individuals’ engagement with and adherence to scammer’s requests and demands, there is a paucity of data on the topic.” So this elemental feature of scams that — you know, somebody can pick your pocket, somebody can even mug you, an awful crime that happens to you. But scams have this additional feature where you unwittingly were part of the whole crime itself. Maybe — and I know we’re speculating here — but I don’t know, Mike, maybe this is why it’s such an emotional burden. Maybe this is why it’s embarrassing or even shameful, because unlike getting your pocket picked or your car broken into, or even being mugged, you somehow feel partly guilty.

MAUGHAN: Well, you participated in it. It only worked because you did it.

DUCKWORTH: Right. You played your part.

MAUGHAN: Which I believe a hundred percent, and that adds to the shame, which is what lets these things keep going. The U.S. Census Bureau put out some data on lost reports by age and fraud type. So older adults — which they define as 60 plus and then younger adults, which is 18 to 59-year-olds. So older adults were more likely to fall victims to scams with a business imposter, tech support — well, that makes sense, no offense — prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries. And then friend and family imposters. Younger adults are massively more likely to fall victims to scams in online shopping, investment scams, fake check scams — which, by the way, what person under the age of 60 even has a checkbook?

DUCKWORTH: I was going to say, do they even know what a check is?

MAUGHAN: Well, maybe that’s why they fall victim to the scam so much. I mean, literally there’s nothing more frustrating than the one out of 470 million times you go to the grocery store and someone still has a checkbook. You’re like, “Really?” It’s like a rotary phone.

DUCKWORTH: Yes, these technologies have advanced. But your point is, I guess, that the nature of the scam varies by age. So it’s not like, old people fall for scams, young people don’t. I think that’s also one reason why this is hard to study scientifically. It’s not like scammers are doing what they do randomly in the population. When they call people — I don’t know who got my mom’s number and I don’t know how, but they were talking about grandchildren. They weren’t talking about dating. It’s happening in the real world and different demographic groups are being targeted differently. Do you have any idea, by the way — I don’t — how do they get these phone numbers? Like how did that person in 2003, which is a long time ago, or thereabouts — how did they know your name was Mike Maughan?

MAUGHAN: I don’t know. But, when Covid-19 first came out, everybody starts going to work from home and everyone’s doing Zoom from their home office or something like that. I had a good friend who’s in cybersecurity who basically said, “I can probably figure out everything about you from your Zoom background. So be very careful—” and talked about putting blurs on or different fake backgrounds, etc.

DUCKWORTH: Wait, what? From your Zoom background? You mean like books on your shelf?

MAUGHAN: Books, but you might have a picture of your spouse or your kids. You might have a sporting insignia that shows that you like certain teams or you live in certain geographies. And scammers are very sophisticated. And so it was like, how do you protect yourself against all that? So one of the latest trends right now is these A.I. scams, and it’s incredibly scary. So a few weeks ago, someone that lives just three neighbors away from me fell victim to this awful A.I. scam. His wife and daughter have left to go to the doctor. He has started driving across town where he is going to babysit two of his grandkids, and he gets a phone call saying that his wife and daughter saw a drug deal going down and the drug dealers kidnapped them. So he’s thinking to himself, “Well, maybe this is a scam.” But then the man on the phone said, “We need you to talk to your daughter. She’s having a meltdown.” And then he hears his daughter’s voice saying, “Dad, Dad, help me. I don’t know what to do.” And then she breaks into sobs. And he is 100 percent convinced that was the voice of his daughter. Now, granted, he’s in an emotional state. But they’ve taken her voice — because all of us have voicemails, there’s some video on social media, you and I have this podcast, etc., etc. You can grab people’s voice. A.I. then took it and created her saying, “Dad, Dad, help me. I don’t know what to do.” And then they made him stay on the phone for the next like eight hours and he had to talk to them every 15 seconds. And so he never could call anyone. And they said, “We’ll kill them if you don’t send us —.” So he’s getting all this money. Same thing, participating in it and mailing and wiring all this money until finally he sends the last payment. They hang up. His whole family’s been trying to get ahold of him all day, da da, da.

DUCKWORTH: He’s not answering his phone. They’re freaking out.

MAUGHAN: To your point earlier, the financial toll was one thing, but the emotional toll was way bigger. And there’s this new movement in using A.I. to model the voice. And so everyone’s saying, “Make sure you have a code word with your family.” So if someone says they’re kidnapped, it’s like, “What’s the word?” You know what I mean? Stuff like that. But it’s a crazy new trend.

DUCKWORTH: I had not heard of that at all. Wait, really? This actually happened? Okay, wait. And then eventually he’s reunited with his family. None of this imperiled physical safety. He never got the money back. Right?

MAUGHAN: No, of course not.

DUCKWORTH: So in that case, his suffering was happening during those eight hours where — oh my God, I can’t even think how I would —.

MAUGHAN: Well, and during that time, his family — so he never shows up at his grandkids’ house to babysit. So they’re thinking he’s been in an accident. They’re literally calling every hospital. They’re driving every road to see if there was an accident. They have the police looking for him. The police are like, “Well, maybe it’s a scam,” finally, at one point. So they are pinging his cell phone. They go look into his bank accounts. They see that he’s withdrawn money. They go find the security footage from this bank and they see him walking out. He’s totally in control. It looks normal. But the fact that he just withdrew thousands of dollars in cash is throwing up alarm bells, so his whole family thinks that he’s being followed by these people who are making him spend all this money.

DUCKWORTH: Did he or they feel embarrassment or shame afterwards? Or was it like, “Wow, we were the victims of this horrible crime and we don’t have the lingering feeling that, like, we played our part”? I’m only asking because I know it’s happened to other people who are close to me, but did they feel it?

MAUGHAN: I think theirs is different because they had basically gotten the entire neighborhood and police and everybody engaged in looking for this guy because they thought he’d been in an accident. And so their response was, “Everybody knows something happened to us anyway.” So they sent an email — a very detailed email out to the entire neighborhood just saying, “Here’s what happened. Protect yourself. Here are the things that you should do so that you don’t have the same experience we had.”

DUCKWORTH: You don’t think they’re going to do anything differently in the future then? I mean, other than being vigilant about code words.

MAUGHAN: Code words, not answering phone numbers they don’t know, etc. But the A.I. thing makes it really, really scary. It’s just a whole different ball game now. We want to hear from you, our listeners. Have you ever fallen for a scam? There’s no shame here, but you can be anonymous if you want. If so, just record in a quiet place. Put the phone close to your mouth and email it to us at and maybe you’ll hear your voice on a future episode of the show.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: How did scams work in the past?

DUCKWORTH: I guess Stanley’s Snake Oil was just a scam?

MAUGHAN: Oh, come on Angela. We were just talking about gullibility.


MAUGHAN: You’re like, “Where do I buy some?”

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Now, back to Angela and Mike’s conversation about scams.

DUCKWORTH: You know, I was surprised that there wasn’t more research on scamming, but there is — and not that much — a little research on gullibility. I think not only would I say that I am gullible, I think I’m almost willfully gullible. I don’t want to be — not just cynical. I don’t even want to be, like, sophisticated or shrewd. I don’t know why.

MAUGHAN: What is the most silly, gullible thing you’ve believed?

DUCKWORTH: Oh God, Mike, I would believe almost anything. I don’t know. I’m very credulous. I mean, almost anything that you told me, I would be like, “Really?” But I wouldn’t be like, “Really?” I’d be like, “Really?”

MAUGHAN: You’d be like, “Wow, that’s amazing.”

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. I’d be like, “That’s so interesting.”

MAUGHAN: You’re one of those people who would’ve fallen victim maybe to the snake oil salesman back in the 1800s.

DUCKWORTH: Which was, I think, like a real thing, right? It’s not just a metaphor. Like oil of a snake?

MAUGHAN: Oh no, it was 100 percent. Yes. So what happened is back in the day, early 1800s, you had all of these Chinese medicines, including snake oil from this Chinese water snake that had really high amounts of omega-3 acids in it and would help reduce inflammation. And so these workers in the U.S. who were working on the Transcontinental Railroad would come and they’d used it for centuries in China and they’d rub it on their joints after a long day of work and all these things. So all these crooked Americans start seeing this — and that was real Chinese snake oil, and it really worked. But then you have these people who start looking at it. So this one guy, Clark Stanley, he started making something called Stanley’s Snake Oil, which was just based on this idea of the Chinese snake oil, but didn’t have any of the omega-3 acid in it. And so he’s selling it and in 1917, the U.S. seizes a whole shipment of his oil. And it’s — do you want to guess what’s in it? You probably don’t.

DUCKWORTH: Baby oil? I don’t know?

MAUGHAN: Great guess. That would’ve been way nicer and would’ve smelled way better.

DUCKWORTH: Oh God, what was it?

MAUGHAN: Okay, it was a mineral oil with fatty oil that was filled with beef fat, red pepper, and turpentine. It just makes you want to roll around in it, doesn’t it?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, or cook something in it.

MAUGHAN: No. Turpentine?

DUCKWORTH: No, the turpentine. But two out of the three things could have made for a nice casserole.

MAUGHAN: And then the turpentine could have been the, like, “And you die at the end.”

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I was going to say, I think that’s fatal. When you said snake oil, I was like, “Oh, right.” And I heard that it was a real thing, but I didn’t actually know that it was a Chinese / Chinese-American thing. I did know about Tiger Balm. Have you ever heard of Tiger Balm?


DUCKWORTH: So I know just enough to be dangerous, but when I was growing up, there was these little tins of this ointment called Tiger Balm that doesn’t sound at all like Stanley’s Snake Oil, but it would be like a very mentholated version of Vaseline. So you would, if you were sick, if you had a fever, put Tiger Balm behind your ear lobes or something. And if you cut yourself, you’d use Tiger Balm.

MAUGHAN: It’s like the duct tape of balm?

DUCKWORTH: It was the duct tape of medicine for my household. And I believe many other households who were either Chinese or I think it was extended beyond China to other Asian countries. I thought what you were going to say is that, like, Stanley’s Snake Oil ended up actually being effective in clinical trials. So that’s not — I guess Stanley’s Snake Oil was just a scam?

MAUGHAN: Oh, come on Angela. We were just talking about gullibility.


MAUGHAN: You’re like, “Where do I buy some?”

DUCKWORTH: See, I was like, “Oh my gosh, really?” But that’s the thing. We’re constantly, like, are we going to be gullible or not? And I did mention so, I dipped my toe in this research on gullibility and there’s not a lot on it, but I read this review called “How Gullible Are We? A Review of the Evidence from Psychology and Social Science.” And this came out not long ago, 2017.

MAUGHAN: Did it come out on April 1st? Like are they just pranking you by —

DUCKWORTH: It did not come out on April 1st. No. And by the way, on April 1st, I never anticipate April Fools things. I’m always like, “Oh my gosh, really?”

MAUGHAN: Like you buy into anything that happens that day?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, totally. It could be any other day. It’s all the same to me. So I don’t think this came out April 1st, and I don’t think it’s a joke. It came out in 2017, I don’t know what day, in the Review of General Psychology. And the author was a research scientist at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences in France, and his name is French, so I’ll not even pretend to say it the right way, but it’s Hugo Mercier. I guess I did attempt there. But anyway, Hugo Mercier comes to the conclusion, after reviewing everything that’s known circa 2017, that on the whole — and I’ll quote the review: “On the whole, this evidence shows epistemic vigilance to be efficient in that it relies on sensible cues and enables individuals to reject most misleading messages.” So this phrase, epistemic vigilance is — you know, “epistemic” meaning like that which we know, the study of what we know, how do we know what we know? And “vigilance” — I think his claim is that on the whole, human beings are not so gullible. On the whole, we’re not all rubes waiting to get taken advantage of.

MAUGHAN: I think that’s true. I think there are two things I want to point out. One has nothing to do with this, but I think that listeners should know that when Angela gets tired — most people have to think hard to use big words, but Angela, when she’s on top of her game, knows she has to like, dumb down to a normal audience. But when she’s tired, she uses words like epistemic vigilance all the time, so be wary of talking to her on a day when she’s tired, kids. Unless you have a theorist with you that you can access very quickly, you will not understand her.

DUCKWORTH: If I let slip a multi-syllabic term like epistemic, it might be a good day to take advantage of me. It’d be like, “Now. Go.”

MAUGHAN: She is ripe for fraud. Everybody, run.

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. You know, I was quoting that paper. I don’t think that counts, Mike. That was Hugo Mercier, but yeah.

MAUGHAN: My favorite was one day you were so tired and I was like, “What is going on? I don’t understand anything she’s saying.” And you’re like, “It’s really hard for me when I’m tired to not use huge words.” I thought, “Well that’s unique.”

DUCKWORTH: It is true. It is a very weird inverse thing and it’s a hundred percent true, and I don’t say that proudly. There’s nothing better about multisyllabic words.

MAUGHAN: Well, here’s what I want to say about Hugo Mercier. Just kidding. Hugo Mercier.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, we don’t even say the H if we want to go all — like, Hugo Mercier. Go on, yes. What do you want to say about him?

MAUGHAN: I think that’s absolutely right. I believe the research, I’m not going to try to confront that, but there is also the element of confirmation bias. And so when something sort of plays to what we already believe, then we want it to be true. And we want to believe, for example, that we are the kind of people who would help others out when they’re really in need. And so if someone’s calling and says, “Hey, X bad thing is going to happen if you don’t come —.” even if it’s not a threat, it’s like, “Oh, this person will die, or these people need medical care.” Or we want to believe that someone would love us and find us attractive and engaging so we fall victim to these romance scams, or we want to believe that we’re exceptional, so, of course, someone’s bringing us a uniquely rewarding financial investment. And that’s where I wonder —.

DUCKWORTH: Wait, wait, Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. I need to say: Yes, for some scams. No, for others. So if somebody says something flattering to you or says that you have family fortune locked up in Nigeria, that might be something that you want to believe, but I don’t know that anybody wants to believe that their grandson is in jail and needs bail. I think confirmation bias applies here, but not to that early part where you’re like, “I want to believe this.” I think there are other biases, like self-serving bias or positivity bias. I mean, there’s a bias to believe things that you just want to be true or that make you feel good about yourself. Then there’s confirmation bias, which is whatever you believe to be true, you selectively filter out your subsequent experiences to confirm it. I think that plays a role here, but I don’t think that early thing that you said — which is like, “we wanted to believe it’s true.” Like, I don’t think that’s true for all scams, but once they get started, I do think for any scam, it’s gotta be helpful to the scammer that people are, in the middle of it, going to look for evidence to affirm whatever you got them to believe in the first place, that false thing.

MAUGHAN: And once you’re started, you just get deeper and deeper and keep going.

DUCKWORTH: So I have to believe that a bunch of cognitive biases allow scams to fulfill their arc, which is kind of at the end you’re like, “This is so improbable. How would anybody ever fall for that?” But when you’re in the middle of it — and there’s one more I think, which is that human beings are like causation machines. We love stories, not like we just love them to listen to them and they make us feel good, but we’re always building stories that have very strong causal arcs, like, “he did that because of this, and then this happened, and then because of that, that happened.” And these scammers, I don’t know if they all read Judgment and Decision Making articles, but they’re definitely preying upon that too. They paint you a causal story and you’re like, “That makes sense.” And I don’t think your brain is looking for an alternative causal story.

MAUGHAN: I think that’s fair. I think one thing that is related to this, but not exactly on the idea of, of these biases — do you know where the name “con man” comes from? Any guess?

DUCKWORTH: Con man? So now I’m thinking like “convict,” like — okay, no.

MAUGHAN: So it started with this guy, William Thompson, and the original phrase was “confidence man.”

DUCKWORTH: Oh, so not convict.

MAUGHAN: No, confidence. Because we tend to believe — you know, I’ve always said to people, “You can get anywhere in the world if you just act confident when you walk in.” And this William Thompson would walk up to people. He would make it seem like they had met before, you know, some sort of remembered — “have we met before?” And then he would ask them this line: “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” And a shocking number of people would just hand him their watch. He got arrested and it became really a popular trick.

DUCKWORTH: I was going to say, is he a social scientist? And then he would give it back to them and, like, write something down on his clipboard and move on to the next bar? No, he actually took their watch.

MAUGHAN: He really took their watch. And he inspired this whole group of people to become con men and women. And so some of the more famous ones you may be aware of — there’s this guy, Victor Lustig, don’t know the pronunciation. Victor Lustig in 1925, he heard how incredibly expensive it was to maintain the Eiffel Tower. And so he used that as a story to go to these scrap dealers in France and tell them that it’s so expensive to maintain that we’re just selling it all for scrap. And he sold the Eiffel Tower to this scrap dealer. And then left the country with massive bags of cash. The guy was so embarrassed, like we’ve talked about, that he didn’t go to the police. The same thing happened in the U.S. A guy named George Parker sold the Brooklyn Bridge several times, and people would only figure it out when they went to construct toll booths on the bridge. And they’re like, “No, no, no. I bought the Brooklyn Bridge so I can put up these toll booths now.” And of course, no one would let them. So that’s where a “con man” comes from. Confidence man.

DUCKWORTH: You know, Mike, this whole conversation on scamming, like, who gets scammed, why do we feel so embarrassed when we get scammed? If I gave Raymond — who sent us this question, why do people get scammed? What’s your advice? If I gave Raymond the best advice, I think it would be go read Influence by Bob Cialdini. And I know you and I have both read Influence and we’re both big fans. And the reason why I suggest that is that what Bob Cialdini as a psychologist did was to document the half dozen basic principles by which human beings persuade other people to do and believe things. And I want to recommend this to Raymond, not only because like, wow, how do I not fall prey to these techniques? Well, learn them from the master. But when I got to know Bob in the last several years, I came to discover something that I didn’t realize from reading Influence the first time, which is that he is like the most morally upright person. And I think what truly has motivated him is just the idea that his moral duty is to kind of inoculate all of us against scams and against being had and against being fooled and taken advantage of by writing as clearly as possible about how it is that that happens. And he’s not even a cynical person. So he falls off on the knife edge of trust and belief and goodwill, but at the same time, he knows what he’s doing.

MAUGHAN: And Raymond, we just want to say that if you use Bob Cialdini’s book Influence for evil and perpetuate scams, that’s not cool.

DUCKWORTH: It is not cool and something really bad is going to happen to you and we’ll figure it out later. But yes, Influence for good and trust for good and Bob Cialdini for good.

MAUGHAN: For good.

This episode of No Stupid Questions was produced by me, Katherine Moncure, with help from our production associate, Lyric Bowditch.

Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts about last week’s episode on making friends in adulthood:

 Debbie DOWNES: Hi, I’m Debbie. I am an expat and like a lot of expats, I’m adept at making friends for a season. We move so frequently and we need friends in the present spot so that we can have fun. One thing you mentioned is earbuds and headphones. I try not to use them in public because they get in the way of talking to random strangers. I love Gillian Sandstrom’s work on talking to strangers and I’ll keep talking to strangers no matter how much it embarrasses my kids, because I love those brief connections. I particularly love airport bars. I get a unique enjoyment from hearing someone’s story in a fleeting moment over a beer before we head to different gates and probably different parts of the world. It helps me to continue believing that the world’s full of interesting and awesome people. However, I’m finding devices make those encounters more and more rare.

Lizzie ENG: I recently moved to Japan for work and it’s been difficult making new friends even though I speak the language fluently. However, I did manage to make a few new friends, mostly by actively joining group classes and getting curious about people around me, even if it’s just a simple “Hello,” and “What brings you here?” to the stranger behind me as we’re queuing up for drinks at a bar, I also make it a point to catch up at least once a week with acquaintances whom I click with. Though it can feel one-sided at times because people are quite reserved here, I find that there will always be folks that appreciate the effort and in turn introduce their friends as well, and that’s how we all get to make new friends.

MyLe LE CHALIFOUX: Hi, my name is MyLe Le Chalifoux, and I’m from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I have always struggled to make friends I moved to a new city when I was 17 and it was sort of an awkward time to make friends in a new city on your own. I later found out that I am actually neurodiverse. I was diagnosed when I was 32. I eventually got a career as a social worker and started a job at a nonprofit where I was able to meet a lot of people who were just, sort of cool with who I am as me. And then I started playing Dungeons and Dragons, and that’s when I really built my friend group as an adult. So for anybody looking to make some new friends, I highly recommend finding a Dungeons and Dragons group.

That was, respectively, Debbie Downes, Lizzie Eng, and MyLe Le Chalifoux. Thanks so much to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. And remember, we’d still love to hear about a time when you got scammed. Send a voice memo to Let us know your name and whether you’d like to remain anonymous. You might hear your voice on the show!

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Is there value in being mediocre?

DUCKWORTH: I need to go and, like, think about this really hard because it’s blowing my mind.

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne and we had research help from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Thanks for listening! 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, what is it, peroration?

MAUGHAN: It’s a word you use when you’re tired.

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  • Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University.
  • Yaniv Hanoch, professor of decision sciences at University of Southampton.
  • Hugo Mercier, research scientist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.
  • George Parker, 19-20th century American con artist.
  • Clark Stanley, 19th century American herbalist and quack doctor.
  • William Thompson, 19th century American criminal and con artist.
  • Danny Wallace, British filmmaker, comedian, writer, and actor.
  • Stacey Wood, professor of psychology at Scripps College.



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