How and why do we get conned? According to Paul J. Zak neuro-economist, and columnist for Psychology Today it’s about brain chemicals

A COLLEAGUE of mine got caught in a Nigerian money scam before much was known about them. And he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was bright, head of a leading company, and savvy. None of his friends understood how he could have been roped in.

There was also a story recently about a legal case the judge ruled was “so fantastic as to strain credulity, but true”. Gosford obstetrician Neil Wallman signed up to a supposed dating agency and was set up with Lily – a mystery blonde – for $200,000. After hitting it off with her, he was convinced by the owner of the agency that Lily was madly in love with him.

Wallman was then taken for an 18-month ride by the agency owner to the tune of $3 million. “Lily” kept asking for money to “unlock funds overseas” and then vanished. And even then the agency owner scammed more money to track her down overseas. The judge described the whole thing as an elaborate hoax.

So how and why do we get conned?

According to Paul J. Zak – neuroeconomist and columnist for Psychology Today – it’s about brain chemicals. Social interactions engage a powerful brain circuit that releases the neurochemical oxytocin, otherwise known as “the cuddle chemical”. It’s a feel-good chemical associated with love and can be triggered when we are trusted, which induces in us a desire to reciprocate even with strangers.

“The key to a con is not that you trust the conman, but that he shows he trusts you. Conmen ply their trade by appearing fragile or needing help, by seeming vulnerable. Because of oxytocin and its effect on the brain, we feel good when we help others; this is the basis for attachment to family and friends and co-operation with strangers. ‘I need your help’ is a potent stimulus for action,” Zak says.

Both situations mentioned fit in with this premise. In the case of my colleague, he thought he was helping some poor victim access his money in Nigeria; the doctor thought he was helping Lily to get funds for her sick father. But there is also a second powerful motivation that sets in: greed; the greed for a reward, be it a cash reward, sex, or the chance of love. The neurochemical associated with reward is dopamine.

Thus in the con, two important chemicals are triggered, allowing us to be roped in.

Knowing this can help us be less gullible. But at the same time, don’t be too cynical, Zak says. He quotes Russian playwright Anton Chekhov: “You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.”

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