Photo credit: Zachary Dripps
Con artists and scammers occupy a unique space in the public consciousness these days. Just as they repulse us, so too do they draw us in. We feel the need to re-enact their stories in Hollywood: Enron, Bernie Madoff, Elizabeth Holmes…. Do we relive the con because the villains themselves are fascinating? Or out of fear and curiosity, as if hoping to inoculate ourselves against the next swindle?
This was what professor of psychology Daniel Simons delved into at the latest Science & Entertainment Exchange event. From Ponzi schemes to fake art, fraudulent science to magicians, all deception—Daniel asserts—boils down to psychology.
The talk took place in the trellised outdoor back patio of Alta, a West Adams restaurant staple, with about 50 guests, whose jobs ranged across the spectrum of the entertainment industry and the STEM community. After a Southern-style buffet lunch and drinks, the guests gathered for an informal talk.
Photo credit: Zachary Dripps
You may be somewhat familiar with Daniel already; his initial claim to internet fame was his “selective attention test” that went viral. The video tasks you with counting the number of passes between basketball players. By the end, after you are done counting, the video replays and shocks you by pointing out a person in a gorilla suit walking right through the scene. How could you miss that? It is this manipulation of selective attention, Daniel went on to explain, that plays a key role in scams as well.
There are psychological “habits and hooks” that can be used to lure us in. The first is commitment—that you commit to a key assumption that forms the foundation of the con. For example, victims of Bernie Madoff committed to the idea that he was a trustworthy investor. The idea that he came with reputable recommendations means they did not question his practice or his word. Next, consistency. Madoff did not promise unrealistic returns on their investment, he actually “underperformed” the S&P on average, but his month-to-month earnings were consistent. Or at least, consistent enough that no one questioned them.
Another hook, focus. As with the gorilla video, magicians draw your focus away from where the con is happening—to the card in front of you and not the hand behind their back. Separately, there is the key habit of efficiency. Daniel explained one scam currently afflicting many of his academic colleagues: a professor gets a call from a “travel coordinator” who claims to work at their upcoming conference panel. Said professor, falling into the efficiency trap, assumes this is normal part of the planning process and does not stop to question the person when they ask for their credit card for incidentals. A simple solution, Daniel offers, “Never give your credit card information to anyone who calls you.” Always call the number you have on file to confirm first.
Then there is familiarity, like your familiarity and affinity with one of your favorite celebrities. If you see them advertising for an “exciting new investment opportunity in crypto,” for example, you may decide it is a good investment because you like them—but not because you have actually questioned the validity of the proposal.
Daniel concluded with the last of the habits and hooks, prediction. “Magicians say that skeptics are the easiest to fool, because you can hint at a ‘clue’ and they will jump on it, while the clue actually distracts them from the truth.” We are all susceptible when properly targeted, even skeptics.
Whether it is the now-ubiquitous Nigerian prince email scam or the elaborate fraud behind Bernie Madoff, all cons ultimately depend on good storytelling. A story that puts their mark at the heart of the story and uses hallmarks of strong narrative to keep them distracted: high stakes, suspense, and urgency. The general antidote, Daniel advises, is to ask questions. What am I missing? Is this really true? The bigger the risk, the more questions you should ask, he added, “Don’t worry too much, but worry when it matters.”
After Daniel’s talk, there was an open Q&A and the topics ranged widely. Regarding generative artificial intelligence (AI)—yes, future scams will get larger in scale, but people will also become more cynical of online content. One short-term example is scam calls that use voice synthesis AI to mimic the voices of our loved ones. So, be on the lookout. Regarding the distrust of government institutions, Daniel stressed that we need to verify sources transparently and consistently. We should be able to trust large and well-vetted organizations more than unverified content from individuals online.
The guests received free copies of his book, Nobody’s Fool, that delves further into his studies of deception. Amid the mingling that followed, guests mused on how Daniel’s stories affected them. Maria Baltazzi, a producer, said she gained insight into what questions to ask to avoid scams, “I won’t be more paranoid, but I can be more prepared.”
Screenwriter Ryan Rowe added that he is eager to read Daniel’s book, and that he was interested in how this question of trust could affect his own storytelling, “There’s a positive side to trust. If we can think about how someone can be led down a path, that can play with one’s writing—to help trust the character” and trust the storyteller as well. On the topic of truth, Ryan called back to The Exchange itself, “[It] fits in with this exact conversation. It’s a fantastic organization that gets quality information out there—to help us get closer to the truth.”