Ever wonder how likely you are to fall for a scam? Get sucked into a bad business deal or deceived by a charming liar who claims to offer a great business opportunity? Now you can find out. A research team led by Alessandra Teunisse at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia has created a simple 12-question test that measures gullibility and takes about five minutes to complete. Then they tested it against a wide range of participants who were either known to be gullible (for example, because they'd fallen for scams in the past) or skeptical. The test turns out to be a surprisingly accurate predictor of how savvy, or how easily fooled you are.
As the researchers note, "In 2017, financial and romantic scams cost consumers in the United States more than US$1.42 billion." And yet, little psychological research has delved into the qualities that make people susceptible to scams, or why some people are more vulnerable than others.
Many people assume that being fooled by a scam is a sign of stupidity, but clearly there's more to it than that. Many highly intelligent and successful people have been sucked in by scammers, most notably the long list of A-list celebrities and successful business leaders who were drawn into Bernie Madoff's infamous Ponzi scheme.
Teunisse and her team hypothesized that there are two characteristics that can leave you particularly vulnerable to a scam artist. The first is persuadability. Most of us have, at one time or another, been talked into buying something we didn't actually need or want by an especially effective salesperson. But if this happens to you frequently, or if you often find that other people can get you to change your opinions or do things you don't really want to do, then you may be highly persuadable and thus vulnerable to scam artists.
The second is what the researchers call "insensitivity to cues of untrustworthiness." That is, there are plenty of indications that suggest that someone is lying, but somehow you miss them. This can result from wishful thinking. For example, if you're in financial straits and someone offers a "sure-fire" investment with a 200 percent return, you might be tempted to believe it because you so badly want it to be true. But it could also be that you're bad at picking up on cues that someone is untruthful, and perhaps that you're bad at seeing social cues in general. If you can't read these signs, it can lead to what some psychologists call "deception blindness," and it can make you especially vulnerable to being scammed.
Can you learn to be less gullible?
Is there anything you can do to change these traits if you have them? The researchers were focused on creating an accurate test for these qualities, not on curing them. They believe gullibility is a fixed personality trait and one not likely to change. But that seems wrong to me, because research shows that people's personalities do change quite a bit over a lifetime. And besides, the very unpleasant experience of learning that you've been taken in by a scam artist is likely to make you more cautious next time.
Whether you fear that you're an easy mark or you feel confident that no one can get over on you, it's worth a few minutes of your time to take this research-supported test and see how you do. If you are more gullible than you'd like to be, the researchers advise giving yourself a chance to check in with your gut feelings (or perhaps get advice from trusted friends or family members) before embarking on a new venture with an appealing partner, making a large investment, or pursuing a romantic relationship with someone you don't yet know well. Remember that there is rarely, if ever, a good reason to rush into a big decision. Even though everything from one-day sales to so-called "once-in-a-lifetime opportunities" is designed to convince you that there is.