Follow Slashdot blog updates by subscribing to our blog RSS feed


Forgot your password?
Security Science

The Neurological Basis of Con Games 218

Hugh Pickens writes "If we humans have such big brains, how can we get conned? Neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak has an interesting post on Psychology Today in which he recounts how he was the victim of a classic con called 'The Pigeon Drop' when he was a teenager and explains how con men take advantage of the Human Oxytocin Mediated Attachment System, called THOMAS, a powerful brain circuit that releases the neurochemical oxytocin when we are trusted and induces a desire to reciprocate the trust we have been shown. 'The key to a con is not that you trust the con man, but that he shows he trusts you. Con men ply their trade by appearing fragile or needing help, by seeming vulnerable,' writes Zak. 'Because of THOMAS, the human brain makes us feel good when we help others — this is the basis for attachment to family and friends and cooperation with strangers.' Zak's laboratory studies have shown that two percent of the college students he tested are 'unconditional nonreciprocators' who have learned how to simulate trustworthiness and would make good con men. Watch a video of Skeptics Society founder Michael Shermer running the classic pigeon drop on an unsuspecting victim and see if you wouldn't be taken in by a professional con man yourself."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

The Neurological Basis of Con Games

Comments Filter:
  • Uh... (Score:5, Funny)

    by jornak ( 1377831 ) on Tuesday November 18, 2008 @06:05PM (#25809087)
    How we can we know this article is truthful? Can we really trust the author? He's a con man, after all.
    • According to the wikipedia, Oxytocin is responsible for general feel-good behavior such as sexual excitement, trust and bonding, maternal feelings, etc. It's also very involved with the effects of Chocolate and MDMA [] and, according to aforementioned article, caused spontaneous erections after being injected in rats.

      Just be careful before you reach for the MDMA as repeated use may experience a collection of symptoms involving diminished emotions, colloquially known as being an "E-Tard ism".
    • How we can we know this article is truthful? Can we really trust the author? He's a con man, after all.

      You're right, nothing said above is valid...

      Say... did you drop your wallet?

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by NFN_NLN ( 633283 )

      "If we humans have such big brains, how can we get conned?"

      Ummm... if god is so powerful can he make a rock so big he can't move it?

      There is a spectrum of intelligence. Some of the more intelligent people are coming up with cons. People of lower intelligence fall for them. No magic here.

      • Re:Uh... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by KevMar ( 471257 ) on Tuesday November 18, 2008 @07:41PM (#25810283) Homepage Journal

        At the same time, people can be over confident and what they know can deceive them. I would bet there is a set of cons that hit smart people harder.

        On that note, I have meet some very smart but very stupid people.

        • Re:Uh... (Score:5, Informative)

          by Vellmont ( 569020 ) on Tuesday November 18, 2008 @07:55PM (#25810429) Homepage

          I would bet there is a set of cons that hit smart people harder.

          You mean something like this stuff? []. Richard Feynman once observed that some smart people get taken because they don't want to believe they can be fooled. He was referring to people fooled by Uri Geller. He said he was different because "I'm smart enough to know that I'm dumb". Which is one of my favorite quotes of anything.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Mr. Slippery ( 47854 )

        Some of the more intelligent people are coming up with cons. People of lower intelligence fall for them. No magic here.

        Smart people fall for cons too. I knew a guy back in graduate school, finishing up his PhD in CS, smart fellow. He fell for the Three Card Monte [] the first time he went to New York City.

        Smart != street smart.

        • Some of the more intelligent people are coming up with cons. People of lower intelligence fall for them. No magic here.

          Smart people fall for cons too.

          Smart or not smart has little to do with it, but many people seem to think "lazy" and "greedy" people are also generally less smart.

          Greedy people fall for cons, while people who believe that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is don't get conned. "Greedy" doesn't have to mean they'd steal money, or run cons themselves. "Greedy" means that if they think they can make a quick buck with no work involved, they will.

          In the first linked article, the guy fell for the con because he saw he could get a

  • by cayenne8 ( 626475 ) on Tuesday November 18, 2008 @06:06PM (#25809113) Homepage Journal
    I' make a good one I think. My resume and jobs I've landed attest to that a bit.

    I think most fairly successful people in business have to have a little con man in them to some degree.

  • by fish_in_the_c ( 577259 ) on Tuesday November 18, 2008 @06:08PM (#25809129)

    If you know you would be taken in by a profession con man ... I'll trust you to let me know ;)

  • The trouble is, I have to get to a job interview. I have a client coming around right now with the cash. Can you do me a favour? I'll split the proceeds of the sale with you, but because I have to go, I'll grab my share now. That fine with you?



    I was trying to think of something serious to say, but honestly, I couldn't. I even read the first article and loaded up the video and second article. I guess I could make a random attack on capitalism as an economic system, but that would probably be unsubsta

  • Doesn't everyone do this subconsciously, when they feel they would benefit from it? I know i have to stop myself sometimes, when i put myself in "vulnerable mode" to make people trust me more. I don't try to con people, i just do it because it... works? On the other hand, I'm into computer security. Maybe stuff like that is just part of the "security mindset" Bruce Schneier et. al. espouses? 2% sounds like a surprisingly small figure though.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mevets ( 322601 )

      2% probably depends on the college. They should sample politicians and inmates.

  • Explanation (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Eudial ( 590661 ) on Tuesday November 18, 2008 @06:13PM (#25809217)

    J.R. "Bob" Dobbs explains it eloquently: "You know how dumb the average person is? Well, by definition, half of 'em are even dumber than THAT."

    • Re:Explanation (Score:5, Informative)

      by humphrm ( 18130 ) on Tuesday November 18, 2008 @06:38PM (#25809555) Homepage

      Actually, that's originally a George Carlin joke.

      And when most people retell it, they inevitably get into a geek debate about mean vs. average.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Eudial ( 590661 )

        You say tomato, I say potato. I call upon my license to fail I paid "Bob" 30 bucks for.

      • by PCM2 ( 4486 )

        Assume normal distribution of IQ (as most do), and mean and median are the same. The joke is the truth.

        • by naoursla ( 99850 )

          Oh, man. I just love the old "assume a normal distribution" con. Do you have any idea how much money I have made with that one?

          How does that one work? I'll show you.

          Let's play a game. Assuming I have a fair coin, I flip the coin and it comes up heads 9 times in a row. What is the probability of the coin coming up heads on the 10th flip?

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Vellmont ( 569020 )

            What is the probability of the coin coming up heads on the 10th flip?

            0%, since of course you switched out the coin with a two-tailed coin after flip 9.

            • by naoursla ( 99850 )

              No. No. No.

              That is the old "shell game" con. And while I just love that con, it isn't the one I was playing. If you were watching for the switch you would be deeply disappointed.

              Also, you obviously don't fall for the old "assume a normal distribution" scam. I would have to play the old "inverted pyramid" scam with you. I just love the old "inverted pyramid" scam. It works especially well with stock newsletters. You can play this game as an inverted pyramid scam, but it only pays off once every 1024 times.

          • I don't think you understand the term "distribution" very well.

            It can't be applied to a single trial.

            Also, (honest) coin flips aren't a normal'll get 50% heads and 50% tails with no outliers.

            Or, perhaps you are thinking of the fact that in the combinations of heads and tails for a given number of flips, each number of heads (or tails) generates a normal distribution. But, your first 9 flips are an outlier for either 9 or 10 flips. So logic says the next flip would be heads because despi

            • by naoursla ( 99850 )

              The fairness of a coin can be modelled by a binomial distribution. If you take the Taylor series expansion of a binomial distribution and then use the first two elements of the expansion to model the binomial you get a normal distribution.

              "Assume a normal distribution" is close enough for confidence work.

      • geek debate about mean vs. average

        You just had to bring that up didn't you...

      • And someone always points out that the distinction is immaterial based on their claim that it's a normal distribution.

    • by naoursla ( 99850 )

      Oh, man. I just love the old "mean vs. average" con.

  • "My research has demonstrated that they have highly dysregulated THOMASes."
    so in otherwods if you are bastard it is because you have brain damage ;)

    Seriouly though, does anyone know if this kind of research argues for better or an inborn train as opposed to one the 'grew' later on within a person enviourment. ( otherwise known as raised that way?)

    • That general line of research might turn out to be useful in answering the nature/nurture question; but it isn't good enough right now. We know that the brain is influenced by genetics; but we also know that it rewires itself like crazy during development, and to a lesser extent for the entire life of the organism. There is also some research out there suggesting that an individual's developmental trajectory can be permanently altered by conditions in utero, which can be affected by, for instance, maternal
  • by russotto ( 537200 ) on Tuesday November 18, 2008 @06:18PM (#25809287) Journal

    If cons work by making us feel good about helping the con man, then how come so many are based on the mark trying to rip off someone? In the pigeon drop, the mark is trying to rip off the con man. In insider-knowledge scams, the mark is trying to rip off honest traders or gamblers. With "white van" scams, the mark thinks he's buying stolen goods.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by erroneus ( 253617 )

      Someone else said it as well. It is all about "I want." It always has been and it always will be. This is why TV commercials work -- you want whatever they say you want and they do their best to make it look as good as possible. This is why spam works -- they know they are offering something that some people want more than their good senses can control. This is why religion works as well.

    • by conner_bw ( 120497 ) on Tuesday November 18, 2008 @06:39PM (#25809565) Journal

      Pack mentality.

      In the video there were four choices:

      1) Yes, that's my money, hand it over.
      2) Give me the wallet, then we discuss.
      3) Confusion, look for leaders.
      4) Walk away

      It's not about greed. The most greedy is choice #1. Choice #2 was clearly possible, that's "fight", choice #3 is what most humans fall under, even if they delude themselves into thinking that's not true, and choice #4 was "flight".

      • by Erpo ( 237853 )

        You're missing a choice:

        5) "We're not splitting the money. That's stealing, and if you try it with the other guy I'm calling the cops. Now, let's find a phone book and call the owner."

        And before you say nobody would ever do that, I've done exactly that in the past. I'm not sure if it was going to be a con, but it worked out well enough in the end.

        • Well no, that's a result after making choice #2. Ready to fight.

        • by Rary ( 566291 )

          5) "We're not splitting the money. That's stealing, and if you try it with the other guy I'm calling the cops. Now, let's find a phone book and call the owner."

          The con generally involves a wallet that has no ID in it so that it's impossible to call the owner. The con works in part because option #5 has been removed.

    • by ShadowRangerRIT ( 1301549 ) on Tuesday November 18, 2008 @06:48PM (#25809681)
      The con works by making you *trust* the con man. Very different from feeling good about helping. So if the conman makes you believe he trusts you, offers an easy opportunity to rip him off (buy a diamond at a massive discount), you may trust the premise of his offer (e.g. the diamond is real). If he makes you feel good about "helping" him in any substantial way (he needs money for a train ticket), it helps the more honest marks justify it to themselves (I'm making a profit, but I'm also helping the poor man).

    • With "white van" scams, the mark thinks he's buying stolen goods.

      Interesting. I didn't realize this was such a well known scam. About 10 years ago in College while walking from my car to class I would occasionally get stopped by slimy looking guys driving around in a van saying they were from "Sound Design", and repeated some ridiculous story about "extra" speakers being ordered, etc. This happened more than once, so I knew there was some form of scam here but didn't find out exactly what until later.


    • I think it has to do with the return of investment. Only a shady deal can get the chump such riches for doing basically nothing. A scam that promises a 25% return over 30 days and is backed by a major bank and well known will make people a little more thoughtful over their risk assessment. The whole "Too good to be true" mentality kicks in. When there's an element of illegality or shadiness. . .then it seems plausible and you just happen to get "lucky" and got in on it by happenstance. Hit that lucky emotio
  • Not me. (Score:5, Funny)

    by wcrowe ( 94389 ) on Tuesday November 18, 2008 @06:24PM (#25809341)

    I don't easily trust strangers who inexplicably trust me. I'm not easily conned. I guess I have a doubting THOMAS.

    • Re:Not me. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Foobar of Borg ( 690622 ) on Tuesday November 18, 2008 @06:37PM (#25809539)

      I don't easily trust strangers who inexplicably trust me. I'm not easily conned. I guess I have a doubting THOMAS.

      Sounds like you have an inherent understanding of Thoreau. "If a man comes to you with the obvious intention of doing you good, run for your life."

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by cp.tar ( 871488 )

      I don't easily trust strangers who inexplicably trust me. I'm not easily conned. I guess I have a doubting THOMAS.

      I wouldn't have fallen for it for one reason only: I would not have touched the money or the envelope with the money in it. Or the envelope I thought it had the money in it. If there is no personal information in the wallet, yet it seems loaded with money, my paranoia kicks in. If there is personal information inside, then I'd rather find the owner and hand it over.
      Somehow, I'd rather earn $300 than steal $1000, though I'd give it back even without the finder's fee.

      Besides, I remember American Gods and two

  • We feel good when we help others?

    "You just stay the hell away from me, ALAS []. I won't be your patsy. I won't be your vector."

  • Because of THOMAS, the human brain makes us feel good when we help others -- this is the basis for attachment to family and friends and cooperation with strangers.

    I suggest this guy needs to read Dostoevsky as a matter of urgency. He clearly has limited experience with actual members of the human race. Greed is the primary motivation for most of the species.

  • by tinrobot ( 314936 ) on Tuesday November 18, 2008 @06:28PM (#25809387)

    Con men ply their trade by appearing fragile or needing help, by seeming vulnerable...

    Sounds like a few women I've dated. Sometimes, love and romance is also a con game, now isn't it?

  • by corbettw ( 214229 ) <corbettw@ y a h o o . com> on Tuesday November 18, 2008 @06:33PM (#25809489) Journal

    So about 6 million in America alone.

    Say, isn't that about the population of Los Angeles and Manhattan (just the island, not the rest of NYC) combined? That would explain a lot.

    • I have to say, I just moved to Manhattan a few months ago, and in general I haven't noticed a lot of meanness/bastardliness (though presumably *someone* is peeing in the subway entrances). People are in fact generally helpful when it doesn't benefit them at all (providing street and subway directions). Of course, you can't trust me saying this, since now that I'm living here, I'm obviously a conman.
  • The example they give is ridiculous... The swindle has NOTHING to do with it. They could have just as easily been honest and carried on the act, giving the guy his share of the money afterward.

    The point was to win someone's trust. Betraying him afterward is an afterthought, and completely irrelevant.
  • It takes a certain amount of 'nad to appear weak and helpless, get people to help you, and then rob them blind and walk way.

    I certainly don't have the stomach for it...


  • Request for urgent business relationship

    First, I must solicit your strictest confidence in this transaction. This is by virtue of its nature as being utterly confidential and 'top secret'. I am sure and have confidence of your ability and reliability to prosecute a transaction of this great magnitude involving a pending transaction requiring maxiimum confidence.

    We are top official of the federal government contract review panel who are interested in imporation of goods into our country with funds which are

  • by drooling-dog ( 189103 ) on Tuesday November 18, 2008 @06:47PM (#25809673)'s because you're a gullible fool. When I get conned, it's because someone "took advantage of the human oxytocin-mediated attachment system". Well, who wouldn't fall for that?

  • I love the voters!

    Invest in me = invest in YOURSELF!
  • That explains all the suspicious "please help me" posts on Craigslist.

    One of these days I'm going to open CL and see this:

    Dear Esteemed Sir;
    I represent mYself, a poor Nigerian pe asant with FIVE MILLION CHILDREN to feed. I beg of you please do not send food or it will be STOLEN by corrupt officials. Instead please wire THE SUM OF 10 MILLIION US DOLLARS to [Western Union recipient information deleted for posting to Slashdot] so that I may buy food for my fAamily and pay off the police so they don't rape my

  • by istartedi ( 132515 ) on Tuesday November 18, 2008 @07:17PM (#25810005) Journal

    When dealing with $3,000 a light has to go off in your head that says "there are procedures for dealing with this". Go to the police. Tell the guy you'll walk to the nearest police station with him, or that you'll call the non-emergency number with your cel phone. The police will hold the money for a statutory limit, and if nobody claims it, THEN you might get it. YMMV on the laws in your jurisdiction and how honest the cops are.

    Now, if you're not a totally honest man a different light goes off in your head. That light says "How can I get this money, nevermind the victim or due process".

    • A totally honest man doesn't exist. Remember in DnD (2nd edition I believe, wow i'm a nerd but at least I was young) when one of the suggested methods of destroying an artifact item was to have it crushed under the heel of an honest man? I believe one of the other ones was to throw it into the center of the sun.
    • A successful con needs only a single lapse in judgment, regardless of the mark's character. Anyone can be a victim, and most everyone is at one point in time or another.

  • by gacl ( 1078259 )

    A huge Ponzi network just fell in Colombia, encompassing many cities and more than a billion dollars in loses: [] []

    I've heard somthing similar also happened in Bolivia. I think it's all about greed/dreams of easy money.

  • by LockeOnLogic ( 723968 ) on Tuesday November 18, 2008 @07:35PM (#25810201)
    There is no doubt that functional imaging such as fMRI ( PET ( and MEG ( have been a tremendous boon to the field of neuroscience. But seeing localized activity in the brain and then drawing a conclusion about the mechanisms of behavior is the wrong way to interpret the data. I hate Psychology Today for pulling this crap all the time, activity in the brain is simply data to be interpreted, not a conclusion in itself. This is like when a segment of DNA is implicated in some sort of behavior or developmental trait, and we see the headlines "X gene discovered!!!". The question is simply too complex to answer with that kind of analysis.

    We cannot view the brain as a simple modular system, which merely needs a circuit diagram drawn to discover its mysteries. Functional specialization no doubt exists, but in an interconnected and complex way that resists simple explanations of "oh, this part of the brain lit up during this therefore this". Localization alone tells us little, it is only in complement with studies of neurotransmitter mechanisms, single cell recordings, computational theories, and numerous other techniques of brain exploration that any real answers are going to be found. THOMAS doesn't explain anything, its just a piece in the puzzle.
    • by PPH ( 736903 )
      Put this helmet with all these wires sticking out on my my head? Trust you? No f*king way, man!
  • Germany during World War II, for example, most believed and followed Hitler. Germany had some smart people, but they made stupid decisions and fell for Hitler's scam.

    The same is true of Democratic and Republican US citizens falling for their candidate's scams. Once elected into office, do you really think they will keep every promise they made and do what they told their supporters they would do?

    If it sounds too good to be true, most of the time it isn't true at all, it is a scam.

    If, for example, you get an email saying you won the UK lottery chances are it is a scam, or Bill Gates giving out millions if you forward this email to 20 of your friends and family, it is a scam, or someone dying in Nigeria with your last name and has $10 million waiting to be wired to you and need your contact info and banking numbers etc, it is a scam.

  • by rasteroid ( 264986 ) on Tuesday November 18, 2008 @08:19PM (#25810677)

    If, as the article claims, oxytocin "induces a desire to reciprocate [trust]", whether it could form the basis of some sort of truth serum? Inject some oxytocin into somebody who has something to hide, and introduce this person to an actor who pretends to be very trusting. I wonder if this would encourage the oxytocin-induced person to reveal secrets once sufficient trust is gained by the actor...

  • You can't cheat an honest man because an honest man doesn't want something for nothing. -Hustle
    • But I don't. --It doesn't stop me from endeavoring to be honest, but there are certain types of cons which honest people fall for, perhaps more easily than the corrupt.

      Like this whole sham economy we have running around us. Ideas like, paying back the bank interest feels natural because an honest man doesn't want something for nothing. And yet it's arguably one of the biggest, most willfully destructive scams currently going.

      Just a thought.


  • by VoidCrow ( 836595 ) on Wednesday November 19, 2008 @07:39AM (#25815539)

    Someone tried to con me over the chat (initially via OKStupid) a while back. It wasn't the usual brand of 419 scam (email full of hilarious malapropisms, bizarrely pompous status claims, heavily reliance on affiliation with God, et cetera).

    It was personal.

    The person put time into it. I'll use 'she' because she presented as a woman, a Dutch woman in her mid 50s. I can usually tell when a guy is trying to pass as a woman in chat as the conversation devolves to sex within about two minutes and thirty seconds; there's zero emotional content.

    She was dying of cancer. She was straight. I'm not, but in any case, and in all truth, she wasn't the kind of person I'd choose as a partner. No matter, she seemed like a sweet and decent person. Not overly smart, not stupid. Good at connecting; she liked talking about emotions and the people in her life. So do I. She told me about her husband and how much she'd loved and missed him (he'd died not long before). We talked about all sorts of inconsequential trivia. She talked, off and on, for about three months. She told me about her faith. How sweet - I'm an atheist, but I honestly find the nicer Christians to be good and sincere company (not *you*, you dribbling neocon fuckwits). About half-way through the three months, she said she wanted to arrange a will, and that she had no-one left that she could trust to act as executor. She wanted *me* to play that role. I was surprised and flattered, and not so certain of my own moral compass (I was really down on cash and a student at the time) that I felt comfortable with the idea. I told her I was an atheist (I hadn't brought it up until then - I don't tend to preach). She said it didn't matter; she said that she trusted me. I told her I'd think about it.

    She didn't press the issue, until about six weeks later. This time ostensibly from her hospital bed in London (she'd been mobile and functional up until that point).

    She underlined her desperation. She talked about practical mechanisms by means of which I could accomplish my role. She made one mistake: she asked for my bank account details. I asked her why she couldn't open a new account on which I would have signing powers. After all, it would keep the finances clean and separate and allow for proof that I'd fulfilled my duties correctly, should need arise. She didn't give a satisfactory answer, and at *that* point, the penny dropped. I felt hurt and stupid. I voiced my feelings. I stopped talking to her.

    There was still the nagging doubt that she might have been for-real, so I did nothing beyond this. I continued to feel guilty about the possibility that her story was true until time, and continual analysis of the event, satisfied me that she was full of shit.

    Why, though, did she target *me*? I was a *poor* physics student at the time. And why did she spend so much time on it? We probably chatted a total of maybe 16-20 hours. In that time she could have made more money working at McDonalds than she'd have made out of *my* account...

    Unless there are other identity-theft related uses for a genuine bank account belonging to a real human. With history.

Loose bits sink chips.