In the first six months of 2015 Australians were fleeced of $45 million. The loss raises questions about how you avoid being scammed and the secret could be to get grumpy.
Sad subjects are better judges of deception than happy ones, according to a University of New South Wales study cited by 100-plus sources. Sydney area psychologist Leanne Donoghue-Tamplin confirms positivity can breed gullibility. “I would say anecdotally, from my client-based experience, I think optimistic or positive thinking people probably do end up being more gullible. I think they tend to look for the best in people and situations and try to look past the negative.”
Still, she emphasises that the thoughtfulness spurred by negativity can spark paralysis – overwhelm the decision-making process altogether. Worse, she says, a negative attitude curbs access to opportunity.
The head of the Queensland-based Mood and Mind Centre, Angela Bradley, is also sceptical about the benefits of negative thinking. Negative people have a negative filter, meaning they notice more negative things, because they are already scanning for them, she says. That trait can make them less gullible, but it can also deceive them into seeing negativity when it is absent. “Much like a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she says.
Still, the suspicion that positivity can easily shade into credulity is deeply ingrained. Witness that classic 18th-century denunciation of optimism, Candide, by the mathematician and lottery syndicate magnate, Voltaire. The satire centres on a young man called Candide, who veers from one stuff-up to another, instilled with false hope by his mentor, Professor Pangloss, whose name came to symbolise baseless optimism.
According to psychologist and commentator Dr Gail Gross, if like Candide you believe in the best of all possible worlds, you may have an unrealistic take on a current dangerous predicament or trouble ahead. Consequently, you may make poor choices and decisions.
Another problem with optimism, seen in teenagers in particular, is the belief that they are all-powerful – that trouble always happens to someone else. The attitude makes them particularly vulnerable – unable to “self-protect”, says Gross, adding that optimists’ brains fail to code mistakes when evaluating negative events, which makes them easily scammed or cheated.
Marketing professor Andrew Wilson agrees that optimism is a risky business. Consumers who believe in a just world and assume you get what you deserve are prone to arrive at favourable trust judgments, which can leave them vulnerable to merchants’ wiles.
Worse, optimists holding the just-world belief cling to it, Wilson says, adding that their trusting take is a prop that lets them cope with the discomfort sparked by making decisions.
That said, when a clear cue that a merchant has an ulterior motive comes to light, devout optimists adjust, according to Wilson. For example, when a merchant tries to up-sell, an otherwise suggestible consumer may turn off the coping mechanism. So positive thinkers are no dupes, says Wilson; they just give the benefit of the doubt unless a good reason to do the reverse emerges.
A key determinant of credulity is an attribute over which you hold no control: your age. Goldilocks-style, you should be neither too young nor too old, because oldies and youngsters are more easily duped, according to research by neuroscientist Erik Asp.
Asp should know because he is credited with pinpointing the part of your brain that dictates your capacity for scepticism: the ventromedial area of the prefrontal cortex, just above the eyes. The area comes into play when you pause and address whether something you read or hear is true.
In children, the prefrontal cortex is still growing and only reaches maturity in the late teens or early 20s. In old age, it degenerates, meaning suggestibility in seniors and teens is biologically based, rather than the result of lazy thinking.
If the key ventromedial area is harmed, the victim becomes far more credulous – twice as likely to believe misleading ads and more easily enticed by touted products. Indeed, even highly intelligent patients with ventromedial damage fall for obvious scams, according to a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.
But here’s the good news. Assuming your brain is in full working order, you can always raise your game, according to developmental psychologist Stephen Greenspan in his 2008 meditation on daftness, Annals of Gullibility.
“Because gullibility resistance increases as a function of wisdom acquired in the course of human experience, I am optimistic about my own, and others’, ability to become less gullible. As one accumulates experience with people, their schemes, and their foibles, one can acquire the ability to recognise some idea or proposed action as possibly unwise,” Greenspan wrote.
The ability to resist the overtures of some shill selling a dream can grow with experience, according to Greenspan, whose take is personal; he lost 30 per cent of his retirement savings to arch-fraudster Bernie Madoff.
According to Gross, the best inoculation against fraud is to adopt a feedback system – test your information; compare notes with people you trust, she says. Also, slow down your decision-making process and assess all options. “Take time to do your homework, gather as much information as possible, use a good feedback system – yours and others’, before moving onto a course of action. Whether it’s finance or health or relationships, it serves the optimist to always get a second opinion.”
Scammers raise their game
The consumer watchdog has urged people to stop sending money or personal details to strangers after $45 million was reported lost and 45,000 complaints made in the first six months of 2015.
Tricksters are becoming increasingly sophisticated in trying to extract your money or personal details, according to Delia Rickard, deputy chair of the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission.
Scams succeed because they look like the real thing and catch you off guard, Rickard says, adding that scams target people of all backgrounds, ages and income levels.
No one group is more likely to fall prey; everyone may be vulnerable at some time. So know who you are dealing with. If you have only ever met someone online or are unsure of a business’ legitimacy, do your homework. Subject photos to an online image search or scour the internet for others who have dealt with the organisation.
Dating and romance scams led to $10 million lost in the six months with investment schemes just behind on about $9.1 million. Other common scams included inheritance scams, reaping $3.5 million, Nigerian scams at $2.3 million and betting schemes at $1.3 million.
Women were more likely to be fleeced than men, by a factor of 9 per cent. Despite the rise of the internet, most scams 45 per cent – are done over the phone and 33 per cent by email. The most vulnerable group to deception is the over-65s.
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