So, we’ve been in a big day-long meeting at the Foundation, and one of the things I learned was about how we helped fund Dr. Paul Zak’s research into the role the brain chemical oxytocin plays in warm, fuzzy emotions. I just googled up a Zak blog post in which he describes how a con man once rooked him out of $100 by manipulating his oxytocin. Excerpt:

The key to a con is not that you trust the conman, but that he shows he trusts you. Conmen ply their trade by appearing fragile or needing help, by seeming vulnerable. Because of oxytocin and its effect on other parts of the brain, we feel good when we help others–this is the basis for attachment to family and friends and cooperation with strangers. “I need your help” is a potent stimulus for action.

Let’s break down the oxytocin hooks that caused me to get conned. The first hook was the desire to help the man get this nice gift to his undoubtedly sweet wife. He needed my help. The second was the man who wanted to give the necklace back but who was late for his interview. If only I could help him get that job. My oxytocin system was in high-gear, urging me to reciprocate the trust I had been shown and help these people. Only then does greed kick in. Hey, I can help both men, make a wife happy, and walk away with $100-what a deal! Yes, suspend all suspicion and give up the cash. Cons often work better when a confederate poses as an innocent bystander who “just wants to help.” We are social creatures after all, and we often do what others think we should do.

A similar thing happened to me a couple of summers ago in Istanbul. I was walking back to my hotel and stopped for a second to consult a map when a shoeshine man asked me if I needed directions. No, I told him, I don’t. He started to talk to me in a friendly, but not pushy way. We discussed life in Istanbul, mostly, in the same way you would if you met a friendly local on the street. Then he asked me if I needed a shoeshine. I knew instantly I was being set up, but he quoted me a reasonable price, and he looked needy, so I said okay. Rather than feeling snookered, I felt like I was doing a kindness to this poor man. I didn’t really need a shoeshine, but he needed the money, it seemed, and I thought I would give him the opportunity to earn it.

But after he finished, the price went way up. Way up. I told him no way, that we had agreed on X, and that was going to be that. He never threatened me physically, but he started in on how I was a rich American tourist, and he was just a poor working Turk, and how could I in good conscience yadda yadda yadda. I paid him what I owed him and walked off, with him yakking behind me, but I tell you, it was hard to walk away from that. Reading Dr. Zak’s remarks, I’m wondering if the good feeling I felt while the con man was shining my shoes — look at me, the beneficent foreigner, doing a kindness to this hard-working fellow — made it that much harder for me to walk away from this guy. I didn’t for a minute buy his crude line about me being a rich foreigner who had some moral obligation to let him take advantage of me. But I had so enjoyed those pleasant minutes of friendly banter with him, during which he took me into his confidence, and made me feel that I was not a shallow tourist just off the boat, but a man of the world who had a real interest in his country and his culture. In other words, by subtly and skillfully flattering me into thinking I’d made a real human connection, and that he saw me differently from other tourists, he set the hook. Brilliant.

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