Would you believe a man who said he could sell you the Taj Mahal or Rashtrapati Bhavan?
Fat chance, you’re thinking.
It’s likely, then, that you never crossed paths with Mr Natwarlal, India’s best-known (and, by many, hero-worshipped) conman, whose ingenious larceny inspired an Amitabh Bachchan starrer with an eponymous title. Natwarlal is said to have sold off the Taj Mahal to foreigners thrice, the Red Fort twice, Rashtrapati Bhavan once, and (by forging the President’s signature) Parliament House with, for good measure, its 545 Lok Sabha members. He also conned hard-boiled Indian corporate moguls, besides of course hundreds of smaller stars in the firmament such as shop-owners, by posing as a needy person or a social worker.
But he couldn’t have fooled you, right? You can see flim-flam for what it is, in fact you can see it coming a mile away. You are careful about talking to strangers, parting with your money and never keying in your Password when someone’s too close by for comfort.
The fact is, most scammees (that is, those at the receiving end of a scam) never see it coming until it’s too late. A corollary fact is that most human beings trust too much. We are far easier targets for deception than we might imagine. If you think no one can pull a fast one over you, consider these questions. Haven’t you ever been lied to, cheated or conned – and never saw it coming? Didn’t you kick yourself afterward and say, “Why was I so trusting?” How often have you given money to door-to-door canvassers claiming to be from a prestigious NGO – without checking their credentials at all? Haven’t you believed at least some of those Internet hoaxes that cram social media – perhaps the one about UNESCO declaring Jana Gana Mana to be “the world’s best national anthem”; or the “WHO study” predicting the extinction of the natural blonde hair gene; or the one about the man who died when his contact lenses melted from the heat at a BBQ grill?
If you have occasionally (or often) been gulled by a smooth-talking salesman, a scam artist or a ‘godman’, you are far from being alone. In the annals of history, great populations have fallen for the wiles of a slick orator or a mind manipulator. Hitler offers the worst-case scenario, bending the minds of Germany’s educated millions to his will. In more recent times, for several years running, multitudes of people across the globe implicitly believed what was later exposed as an extremely successful disinformation campaign to foster the fiction that “weapons of mass destruction” were the reason for the invasion of Iraq. Hundreds of psychopaths have, over the centuries, charmed hundreds of women into a tryst and to their deaths. Call it naivete or innocence or trust – or call it by its real name – gullibility is a facet of the human personality that has probably been with us ever since a caveman detected the first conman.
A growing area of worry today is the naive trust that envelopes social media. Kids — and too many of their parents — are incredibly trusting and open. By the millions, they post their personal data and deepest thoughts on Facebook. They send out compromising selfies on their smart phones. They sext love notes to each other. These over-trusting souls tell the whole world where they live, what they own, where they’re partying tonight, and when and where they’re going away on vacation.
WHY IT HAPPENS
Though gullibility is pervasive, we are not all equally easy prey. Whereas some people seem to be sitting ducks for purveyors of baloney, it takes certain situational aspects for others to be bamboozled. There are six key psychological reasons that lie behind the human susceptibility to persuasion:
Cognitive Laziness. We take mental shortcuts. One shortcut that causes us to trust too much is neglecting to analyze what others are telling us. That’s why we don’t carefully read fine print in contracts or investigate claims. It takes less cognitive effort.
We secretly yearn to believe. Some part of gullibility is spawned by the greed that is virtually a given of human nature. Inside most people lurks that subterranean yearning, almost, to believe propositions that, if true, will make them sinfully rich. Despite so many Ponzi schemes going belly up each year, people from every walk of life continue to demonstrate their ability to abandon common sense and believe in something that is simply too good to be true. It raises the question: are some of us willingly gullible because it is delicious to imagine winning a bumper lottery – or greeting space aliens?
The bait of a trusted name. When “Tata Agro Holding Ltd” offered dazzling online investment plans, with returns of up to 100% every month, investors rushed in, believing its claim of being a subsidiary of the Indian conglomerate, Tata group, and that they could invest with their eyes closed. But it turned out to be a British Virgin Islands entity fraudulently using the Tata name to lure the unwary public to buy into a scheme with a Ponzi–like pyramid marketing structure.
Those who put out Internet hoaxes that find their way onto your Facebook page make sure they attribute the information to a trusted source. A string of scientific hoaxes has been attributed to NASA; other heavyweights hauled in to lend their names include the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai, WHO, UNESCO, the Vatican and NDTV.
The icon said so. This is closely related to trusting a reputed corporate entity. Millions of people the world over, for instance, implicitly believe every utterance that spills out of the mouth of Warren Buffett when he’s talking investments. A decidedly smaller – but still fairly impressive – number trust the guidance of “India’s Warren Buffet”, Rakesh Jhunjhunwala. The fact that all stock-market experts – self-styled or media-crowned – have been dismally wrong in several of their predictions does not stop people from blindly believing their pronouncements. Buffett himself was self-confessedly “dead wrong” in his prediction that the U. S. housing market would begin to recover by early 2012. That wrong prediction proved painful for five of Buffett’s own companies that rely heavily on construction activity; and of course it proved costly for those who blindly trusted his prediction and made the wrong investments. But who has stopped believing every syllable that emanates from the “Oracle of Omaha”? We want to believe he’s 24-carat, so we do.
When you learn that Stephen Greenspan, the author of Annals of Gullibility, and considered the world’s foremost scientific authority on gullibility, had put $400,000 of his own retirement savings into funds that invested with Bernie Madoff (an experienced trader and co-founder and one-time chairman of NASDAQ, who sired the biggest Ponzi rip-off in history, and is now serving a 150-year prison term), you can believe that all of us are vulnerable to being duped.
Being human. Are we homo sapiens or bozo sapiens? Crooks believe we are the latter, and that they are only making suckers out of suckers. One weakness that they tap into is our very human susceptibility to lap up a good story. Charles Ponzi (the original Ponzi, after whom all those borrow-from-Peter-to- pay-Paul scams are named) claimed he was exploiting a price difference in international postal reply coupons to make a financial killing. So (he said), a postal reply coupon bought in Spain could be exchanged in the U.S. for dollars at a 10% profit because of the fall in the Spanish peseta in relation to the dollar. It was a big idea – one that the Boston-based Ponzi managed to sell to tens of thousands of people by claiming he had elaborate networks of agents throughout Europe who were making bulk purchases of postal coupons on his behalf, and that he was using his own financial wizardry to turn those piles of paper coupons into larger piles of greenbacks in the U.S. Of course, there was no network of agents; nor was Ponzi himself expending any sweat on redeeming any coupons. But it had all the markings of a novel way to hitch a wild ride to riches. And nearly half a lakh people joined the feeding frenzy – before an angry scamee shook off his blinkers and filed a suit.
The second susceptibility that scamsters exploit is that nobody wants to be left out of the party. This feeds on the shared buzz of mutual investment: “All our friends are talking about it.” Ponzi schemes fatten themselves on the fact that potential investors keep hearing about the high payoffs that have been earned by other (earlier) investors – and the historical success of the investment makes them want a slice of the big pie, too.
Being too smart for our own good. Magicians have often said that scientists make the best audience because they think they’re too smart and observant not to trust what they see with their own eyes. “The ideal audience would be Nobel Prize winners,” sleight-of-hand master Ricky Jay said on 60 Minutes. “They often carry around an ego that says, ‘I am really smart, so I can’t be fooled.’ No one is easier to fool.” Also, scientists have had so much practice believing all kinds of amazing things – black holes, string theory, mini-mammoths, rats on Prozac and chorusing batfish, to state just a few – that they have no trouble believing (to cite an April Fool Discover hoax) “an extraordinary new evanescent particle called the bigon, a bowling ball-size object whose existence might account for ball lightning, migraines, collapsed soufflés, spontaneous human combustion and earthquakes”.
Gullibility is not generally seen as an affliction, yet it can do us terrible harm: losing our life savings to a swindler, falling in love with a sweet-talking scoundrel, putting our health in the hands of a Dr. Feelgood.
What is the antidote to too much trust? It is not too much distrust, which can be self-destructive. Without trust, civilization could not survive, nor human interaction or mental wellness thrive: a society of paranoids and cynics would not function as a society. Instead, intelligently placed and intelligently refused trust is the proper aim. But how do you know if you trust the “right” amount or the right persons or entities? Unfortunately, there are no simple criteria by which to determine these things. However, here are 9 rules of thumb that would be helpful to keep in mind.
Trust but verify. Sounds like an oxymoron but at a subliminal level we all know what it connotes. While a given slice or source of information might be considered reliable, it is imperative to check (and sometimes re-check) to verify that it is indeed accurate and trustworthy. “Trust but verify” is a Russian folk proverb but, in delicious irony, during the Cold War and the U.S. -U.S.S.R. talks on disarmament, President Reagan used the nugget often when he shared the dais with his Russian counterpart, Gorbachev. At one such encounter, Gorbachev said to Reagan, “You say that every time.” Laughingly, Reagan riposted, “I like it.”
As an approach, we should like it, too. Due diligence prior to any commitment is non-negotiable.
Listen to your gut. If something doesn’t look right or sound right, or if somebody’s body language is at variance with what he’s saying, or if you feel someone’s smiling far too much for comfort, or acting far too friendly, or seems to suddenly fit perfectly into your life – in short, if you’re hearing some warning bells, pay heed.
If there’s a mismatch between a person’s body language and his words, then something may be amiss. Don’t obsess about giving that person “the benefit of the doubt.” Give yourself the benefit of the doubt, instead. Proceed with the assumption of civility, but stay cautious in dealing with the person. He could just be socially inept, of course. All the same, take it slow and easy until you get a better sense of the dynamic of what’s happening.
Put his behaviour under the microscope. Look at people’s track records and how they deal with others. Give more weight to what they do than to what they say. Are they fair in their assessment of, and actions toward, mutual acquaintances; do they cheat in business or on a romantic partner; do they take responsibility for their own actions; have they ever lied to you about anything more important than their age? You might want to overlook or discount some below-par behaviour, but at least take note of it and make the ‘free pass’ a conscious decision.
Is she spilling secrets? Do not trust anyone who is indiscreet in his or her speech or behaviour. Her character may otherwise be stellar. But if she’s spilling someone else’s secrets into your ears, her discretion cannot be trusted. If you blurt out private information to such a person, you might as well have thrown that information into the wind or flashed it in front-page ads in the leading newspapers.
Caution is not cowardly. And carelessness is not cool. Do not invest more than a casual level of trust in people you know only casually. In today’s whirl of social media, people “fall in love” with texters they’ve never met in person. Fall in love if you wish, but do not give out passwords, information about assets, your location, or anything that compromises you or leaves you legally vulnerable. For one thing, if you haven’t actually met someone in person, the identity of the person you are texting is not clear.
Those 3 little words. Beware of people who say “Just trust me,” because such people are usually the least trustworthy. “Just trust me” is the signature of the con artist and the psychopath.
Another line to be wary about: “You know that I’ll pay you back; our friendship means too much to me to let money get in the way.” Probably means the party wanting the loan has no intention of paying you back, and is trusting that you'll not let money get in the way of friendship.
Think before you post. In an age when everyone with an iPhone believes (s)he’s a news reporter, trusting everyone with your frank opinion is not a smart idea, no matter what your phone calls itself. Ask Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan, formerly based in Palghar, Maharashtra. You’ll remember Dhada as the 21-year-old who had posted a comment on Facebook questioning the Mumbai shutdown that followed the death of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray. And Srinivasan, her friend, “liked” the comment on Facebook. A few hours later, they were under arrest, following an FIR filed by the head of the Palghar unit of the Shiv Sena. The lesson: Think before you post. You can’t trust “social” media to keep your private thoughts from going public.
Once bitten… Accept the risk that you’ll sometimes be let down. Some people will lie, will deceive you. While you can’t prevent the possibility of occasional betrayals by co-workers, acquaintances and even friends, you do have a choice about how to respond when it happens. You can wallow in hurt, resentment and bitterness. You can blame and abdicate responsibility. Or you can choose to live your values, take responsibility and work through it.
And, in conclusion… As the old saying goes, if you lend someone fifty bucks and never see them again, it was probably worth it!
(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, now works as a counselling therapist)