Tess Wilkinson-Ryan is a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Below, Tess shares 5 key insights from her new book, Fool Proof: How Fear of Playing the Sucker Shapes Our Selves and the Social Order—and What We Can Do About It. Listen to the audio version—read by Tess herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Don’t let fear of being a sucker swamp the rest of your personal cost-benefit analysis.
The risk of being a sucker should be one consideration among many, but sometimes it takes up more space than it deserves, becoming a deal-breaker, rather than a minor risk. There are possibilities of being made a fool all over the place. If I was inclined to be suspicious, I might assume a new grocery store in my neighborhood is overcharging me, that my colleagues are shunting their committee work onto me, or even that my kids are exaggerating their needs. Day to day, there are little fools’ games everywhere and it’s natural to overreact to the risk of being suckered.
One of the ways I want to think of that overreaction is by thinking about a study from a couple of psychologists at Stanford. Here’s the gist: Imagine you’ve been given $100 and an opportunity to invest in a startup. An expert panel tells you the odds of success. They say there’s an 80 percent chance that this goes nowhere but you get your money back. There’s a 15 percent chance you’re going to double your money, and there’s a five percent chance of losing everything. The participants in this study were randomized into two groups. Both groups heard the basic setup but then different context about that five percent risk of loss. In one group, they heard that the five percent risk of losing everything was because the founders of the company might have overestimated market demand for their product. In the other group, they heard that it was because the founders might be total frauds. So, the question for the participants was how much of your $100 would you invest?
The nature of the downside risk turned out to be a big deal. The same people who might be willing to invest $60 dollars in the normal market risk situation were only willing to invest $37 if the risk was a risk of fraud. There might be reasonable explanations for this, like maybe the embarrassment of being associated with a scam, but it seems to me that if I’m investing money in something it’s because I want to make more money—and financially those two risks are equivalent. The study suggests that people under-invest in that second company because of the quite small risk of being a sucker.
2. Fear of playing the sucker can interfere with community or generosity in ways that conflict with our overarching values or goals.
The same way that sucker fears warn against personal or financial investments, they also warn against acts of generosity. When people want to help, or donate, one thing that stops them is concern that their charitable instincts could make them easy marks. People who want to give money, want to be generous, end up making less valuable donations because they’re trying to scam-proof their altruism. This is why, for example, it’s sometimes easier to get donations that are in kind; when you’re trying to do a Christmas gift drive, for example, it’s easier to get people to donate cans of food than cash.
“People who want to give money, want to be generous, end up making less valuable donations because they’re trying to scam-proof their altruism.”
Cash feels like it could be exploited. It could be used for the wrong person or the wrong reason in a way that a can of beans does not implicate. But one thing that food pantries, for example, often say is please give us cash instead. Don’t spend time going to the store paying retail prices for food. They buy in bulk, which saves transportation and product costs and the food pantry gets more value for the money because they know what their clients actually need.
This reminds me of a statistic that operates at the systematic level. Almost two-thirds of Americans think that the government spends too little on assistance to the poor, but only a quarter think that the government spends too little on welfare. Sociologists have noted that welfare is associated mentally with people taking money when they could be working, essentially people gaming the system. The prospect of feeling suckered sometimes steers those who want to aid the less fortunate away from the means to the ends that they actually want.
3. Big scams are a big deal, but the little ones get more attention.
Some scams are obvious. I think we all get what Bernie Madoff was up to (a Ponzi scheme), no matter what we think about the psychology of feeling suckered. On the margins though, it can be easier to see the hustle from a person asking for bus fare, for example, than to see the hustle from the CEO of an investment bank. There’s a reason that the archetypal grifters are often marginal characters in myths and novels, even though the stakes are higher when there’s more money and power involved.
People are more attuned to hustles from people on the margins. It’s just easier to accuse people with less power of taking advantage, which is kind of perverse. I’ll give you an example. When my sister was a medical resident, she and her peers worked incredibly hard. Her program was in obstetrics and gynecology and her group had six or eight women in their 20s and 30s, some of whom were having children at this stage in their training. When they did have kids, they would take their measly six weeks of leave, during which time their co-residents had to absorb the extra work. These new doctors who are also new moms come back to work and still have to deal with all the normal stuff that happens to parents of babies, like daycare viruses, babysitters calling off, or taking breaks to pump. This team of residents, the youngest people on the hierarchy of physicians, had to absorb the work and it was easy for resentment to bubble up. It’s easy to craft a narrative about how a new parent is shirking duties or getting special treatment.
“People are more attuned to hustles from people on the margins.”
For some reason, those complaints generate instinctive indignation, rather than the complaint that hey, the hospital administrators could do a better job supporting these hardworking residents. That latter critique is the more important one. It looks at structural problems, but it’s easier to reframe exploitative choices from institutions as choices that are good for business. People seem naturally attuned to minor scams from those with less social capital, but when people or institutional bodies with power are arguably exploitative, it’s more likely to be described in positive terms such as savvy or cost-effective. Even if we know that minor scams are minor deals, they make bigger waves psychologically than systematic exploitation.
4. Spot the stereotypes so you can choose not to buy in.
Stereotypes about suckers and scammers are surprisingly common and they’re often deployed to undermine our capacity for empathy. There are times when we want to signal that we are genuinely worried about something exploitative. I think this is what people are doing when we talk about big something—big tobacco or big pharma—you’re trying to signal a distrust. But sometimes the warnings about who’s doing the scamming are more subtle and invidious.
Warnings about suckers and schemers are baked into some of the most offensive stereotypes, sometimes in a way where we know they’re there but don’t discuss them explicitly. If you flip through a mental catalog of racial and ethnic stereotypes, I bet you can spot sucker warnings. As an example, I used to teach a class on wills and trusts, and in this class, there are a lot of family disputes. Who challenges a will? Usually, family members who think that they deserve to inherit more than somebody else, and there’s a recurrent pattern where the adult children of a deceased parent are arguing to a court that their (most often) stepmother doesn’t deserve her inheritance. Here lies an offensive implicit accusation that doesn’t quite get said: the stepmother is a gold digger.
In the US, this is specifically a stereotype about women, and usually women of limited means. So, there’s also a class component. When I started re-reading cases with this gold digger stereotype in mind, I started understanding that this implicit accusation that women who have been oftentimes in these long-term marriages or engaged in intensive caretaking, the accusation that these women are gold diggers is a manifestation of regular old sexism. It’s gender stereotyping. Accusations of being a gold digger undermine claims of real connection by claiming that the love is a front for a desire for money.
“Warnings about suckers and schemers are baked into some of the most offensive stereotypes.”
People are so acutely sensitive to even a hint that someone is a con artist that it warps their perception of who deserves sympathy or help or respect. Even for those of us who would prefer not to let stereotypes affect our thinking, the implicit accusation is there and if you don’t face it head on it can be hard to ignore it.
5. Put your psychological energy where your values and goals are.
This distorting effect of sucker fears can be mitigated by focusing on affirmative goals and deep values. We are better able to avoid the pitfalls of sucker phobias by keeping our eyes on the prize. For example, my sister lives in Vermont and she was out biking with her friends on the weekend. She’s a great athlete, but she has a full-time job as a doctor and some of her friends are serious bikers. She was on a relatively difficult ride and was struggling to keep up. At one point they all coasted into a little town with a general store, and she was so relieved because she was genuinely getting nervous that she needed to rehydrate asap. In the store, she realizes that it’s not a regular general store, it’s a tourist trap. She sees that the Gatorade is double the usual price and had this moment of thinking I’m not going to pay tourist prices for a Gatorade. But then she stopped and thought her priorities were askew. She thought, I have a goal right now and it’s to be able to ride home with my friends and enjoy my weekend. I’m so thirsty, a Gatorade would be worth literally $100 to me right now. Even if that does make me a sucker in some way, what do I care if this store gets the win this time?
I know the example can feel a little trivial, but the principle works in deeper ways. The goal should be the guiding light. Imagine a student comes to me and asks for an extension due to illness. I can easily get distracted by whether the story has been verified or if she’s just trying to get more time because she’s behind on her work. I could ask for a doctor’s note, but what I hope I do is keep my eye on my real goal as a professor which, in this case, is modeling professional compassion and grace. The goal of this interaction is to let this student, another human, know that she has support at this institution. The answers to where your values and goals are tell you where to put your psychological energy.
To listen to the audio version read by author Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, download the Next Big Idea App today: