From the slew of untruths we happily tell ourselves every day, to the lies we tell others and the lies we’re told, our capacity to deceive and be deceived is alarming.
Australians lost a record $3.1 billion to scams in 2022, and many studies suggest that women are still more at risk of becoming victims of online fraud than other genders.
We don’t have any control over who lies to us, but we do over the way we receive and interpret the information.
In this article, author and neuroscience expert Annie McCubbin helps you to recognise the cognitive flaws that allow us to be deceived and offers some failsafe strategies using critical thinking to keep your internal lie detector in top shape.
We need an anti-scam vaccination
We’re in the middle of a scamming pandemic. We can’t stop the scammers scamming. What we can do is vaccinate ourselves by understanding how they take advantage of our cognitive biases.
It’s an unfortunate truth that in the world we live in, so much scammy marketing and pseudo-spiritual nonsense is aimed at women.
Women are still more at risk of becoming victims of online fraud than other genders. An Australian study found that females are 50 per cent more likely than males to report identity theft, and identity theft victims over 65 years of age were almost exclusively female.
Scammers are getting smarter, and we’re ashamed of our gullibility. In 2022, $568 million in scams were reported to Scamwatch, and it’s estimated this represents only 12 per cent of money lost to scams.
A whopping 87 per cent of the victims never reported. Why? We’re embarrassed. We shouldn’t be. We are designed to trust other people. We’re tribal. We need people to survive. Our intrinsic nature betrays us.
We have a stone age brain
Our brains are awash with cognitive biases which are unconscious errors in thinking. These biases are strikingly pervasive and make us putty in the hands of scammers. We are stuck with a stone age brain trying to make sense of the complex world we live in.
We think our rational brain is in charge when, in fact, it is our unconscious emotional drivers that are calling the shots. We’ve all picked up a call and found a potential scammer on the other end. This is just the beginning of the story. Falling for it can be avoided.
Disturbingly, once our brains have bought the lie that the guy on the phone is genuine, or the potential partner we’ve just met is amazing, or the online offer is too good to pass up, it’s difficult to take a step back. Reason being is that once our brains have decided something, consistency bias kicks in. We are disinclined to change our minds about something. We don’t like to be seen as inconsistent.
Uh oh, Jason is calling
We are primed to believe that Jason who’s called and says he’s from the bank is the real deal. He’s charming and sounds certain.
Perhaps you went to school with a guy called Jason. He was charming and confident. Your brain is now under the thrall of confirmation bias. This is where your brain cherry-picks the available data to confirm what you already think, and so the scam begins.
We are suckers for charm and authority. In the face of a charming individual, we suspend our critical thinking. And we are naturally predisposed to be compliant in the face of authority, so using words and images that evoke a trusted organisation – like a bank – makes us more vulnerable.
All this is happening at the subconscious level. An authoritative-sounding voice can circumvent any scepticism we may have about the person on the phone.
“But I am smart,” I hear you say. You may well be, but intelligence is no defence. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. Our defences are undone by our brain wiring.
Think about your thinking
Liars are out there, so when you find yourself inclined to give away some information to someone on the phone, or to buy a wellness product online, or to agree to go on a second date even if you had a creepy feeling from the first, slow the process down.
Give yourself the time to invest in metacognition: thinking about your thinking.
In the absence of meta-cognition, we trust our gut. Women, especially, are told that our intuition is a hotline to the truth. The cold fact is that sometimes our intuition is on the money and sometimes it’s way off. If our habit is to perennially trust our gut and allow ourselves to be driven by our feelings, we’re going to get scammed.
So, if you’re about to agree to something on offer, stop. Where’s the evidence that the offer is real? Where is the proof that they are who they say they are? Or that what they promise is credible?
Test your reasoning. How have you come to your conclusion? Is this a rational decision or are you going with the way you feel? If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
If it is an important decision, go outside your bubble. Talk to someone that won’t automatically agree with you. They may be able to see the potential deception that you cannot.
Regulations and spam filters are not enough to protect us. We need to understand how tricky and entrenched these biases are.
As negative as this might sound, somewhere, someday, you’re going to be someone’s target. Be prepared.