For years, I’ve leased cars from a no-haggle dealership. I don’t know if I’m getting a better price than if I went elsewhere and tried to negotiate savings. But the thought of a salesman trying to make a sucker out of me with gimmicks and backroom deals induces such moral outrage that I’m unwilling to experience the aggravation.
According to Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, a University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School professor, the fear of getting suckered is powerful and deeply rooted. We’re taught to be afraid of getting duped at a young age through fables like “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and constant warnings socially reinforce the message. If “there’s a sucker born every minute,” you don’t want to be the one tricked into buying the Brooklyn Bridge.
The problem, as Wilkinson-Ryan argues in “Fool Proof: How Fear of Playing the Sucker Shapes Our Selves and the Social Order — And What We Can Do About It,” is that we can be too concerned with lowering our guard. Drawing from psychology, game theory, sociology, and legal scholarship, she explains why the fear of being suckered is so potent, how it influences policies, and how it is implicated in stereotypes. She also clarifies how to carefully assess our options when we’re feeling vulnerable and worried about being played for a fool.
My interview with her has been edited and condensed.
Experimental psychologists coined the term “sugrophobia,” which links the Latin roots for “sucking” and “fear.” What is it?
The term “sugrophobia” is a little tongue-in-cheek, and it was coined in a great paper called “Feeling Duped.” The idea is that the fear of playing the fool is a specific human aversion — that it’s not the same thing as being a victim. The fear motivates people to protect themselves rationally in some situations and overreact in others.
What’s an example?
Imagine I’ve offered you a business opportunity to invest in a company. It’s got pretty good prospects — there’s a real shot that you’ll double your money. However, there’s a 5 percent chance that the founders of this startup have mistaken the market demand for their product, in which case you’ll lose everything. And so, you go, OK, maybe I’ll invest a little bit of money.
But now imagine that instead, I warn you there’s a 5 percent chance that the founders of this company are total frauds.
This scenario is actually from a study by a couple of Stanford psychologists. They found that people were willing to invest much less money in the maybe-fraud company than in the maybe-mistaken company, even though the math was exactly the same.
The idea is that the fear of being suckered does a lot of work for people trying to think through a problem about making money. It looks like that unwillingness to invest in the maybe-fraud situation is possibly doing something irrational. It’s not necessarily beneficial to stay away from something just because of the possibility that you’ll lose money because of a con.
But what if you have a moral aversion to fraud and don’t want to be complicit?
I know what you mean. But arguably, there’s always a chance that something turns out not to be on the level, right? This isn’t a situation in which you’ve chosen to sign up for something where the people are obviously con artists. There’s a 95 percent chance that they are legitimate. My guess is that if you show the same experimental subjects the two cases side by side, their willingness to invest gets much closer.
Is the fear of being a sucker universal?
If it’s not universal, it’s at least widely shared. So far, I haven’t talked to anyone who doesn’t have a story from their own cultural background that warns about being scammed. And one of the ways you know it’s widespread is by the sheer number of synonyms for sucker: chump, fool, mark, and pawn. We’re also swimming in warnings. There are fables and aphorisms like, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
What does being taken for a sucker have to do with status?
It has everything to do with status — that playing someone for a fool is humiliating and is understood as taking them down a peg. When people are super vigilant about the possibility of being taken advantage of, one of the things they are doing is guarding their social position. And there is a perverse consequence to that guarding, where people are especially attuned to being duped by scammers who they perceive as low status, because that would mean being taken down a peg by someone they thought they had already climbed over. One of the concerns I’m raising in the book is that there is an incredible amount of effort spent on surveillance and policing low-level “scams,” like videotaping warehouse workers and limiting their bathroom breaks.
How has the fear of being a sucker been associated with gender?
Social psychological research suggests something that is relatively intuitive. The implications of playing the fool are really different for men and women. In the traditional understanding of what it means to be masculine, looking weak or gullible is a norm violation. On the other hand, it’s not that women are supposed to be gullible, exactly. But it’s not nearly the same kind of violation. Traditionally, women are supposed to be cheerful, friendly, patient, and yielding. If you’re going to be patient and yielding all the time, you’re going to have to suffer some fools gladly.
How does the fear of playing the sucker limit our moral imagination?
I often have a goal that’s really important to me. Let’s say it’s to care for somebody else, teach somebody, or be a friend, mother, or sister. And then some decision within these broader goals will suddenly raise my sucker hackles. I start to think, “Oh, wait, hang on! Am I being played for a fool here?” That thought can change a decision that was supposed to be about compassion or integrity into whether I might lose.
Imagine a relative asks for a loan, and I wonder, “Will they pay me back? Am I going to end up looking like an idiot?” Sometimes it really matters that I’ll get paid back. I can’t make the loan unless that’s the case. But, often, what matters is that I’m trying to improve their life — that the relationship means a great deal and the money is relatively low stakes. So, part of the concern is that it can be self-absorbed in some circumstances to focus on whether or not I’m the sucker. Sometimes, our fear of being a sucker can make us less trusting, blunt our empathy, get in the way of our moral goals, and prevent us from being our best selves.
In the end, there’s no foolproof way to avoid being suckered, right?
You can’t be a human in the social world and our economy and avoid the possibility. These things require being somewhat vulnerable. We should be frank about the risks and focus on which ones are acceptable and which ones aren’t. Sometimes in your life, it’s really important not to look foolish. But, often, it’s like, what does it matter if everyone thinks I was foolish for doing something if, in the end, I got the place I needed to go?
Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology; an affiliate scholar at Northeastern University’s Center for Law, Innovation, and Creativity; and a scholar in residence at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. Follow him on Twitter @evanselinger.