May 30, 2023

Oxytocin and the Pigeon Scam

Posted on March 24, 2010 by in Psycology

Getting Scammed Plays into Our Human Nature

Ever been a victim of a con? Don’t feel bad. Research shows that the same brain chemical that makes us vulnerable to being scammed is also behind trust and family bonds. Dr. Paul Zak, Professor of Economics and the founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, explains in this WNYC Radio Interview About Being Scammed.

It’s interesting that getting scammed is being associated with brain chemistry. The chemical is called oxytocin. Victims of scams are not just greedy — they really want to help that Nigerian king get the money out. The fact that they’re also going to benefit is important, of course, but they wouldn’t believe the scammer unless they really felt like they were helping the scammer and that they felt like the scammer trusted them (and therefore, the victim feels a great need to reciprocate the trust.)

Consider the classic pigeon scam, a scene which goes down this way:

Customer:  “Hey, i just found this diamond necklace under the sink in
the lady’s room”

Waiter: “Wow, a woman* just called and asked if it was here and offered
a $500 reward — those must be real diamonds”

Customer: “Ya, feel how heavy it is..(handing the diamonds to the waiter**) I wish I could pawn it because it’s probably worth at least $2500 and I could sure use the money for my kid’s soccer camp.

Waiter: I could use $2500 too!

Customer: But I’d never feel right by keeping it and I’ve got to catch a bus in 10 minutes so I can’t return it right now….hey, you look trustworthy…if I leave it with you would you split the reward with me?”

Waiter: “sure!!!”

Customer: (leaves with $250 never to be seen again)

* The Customer and the lady who called offering the reward are actually the same person.

** The Customer establishes trust by handing the diamonds to the waiter…this is an essential moment in the scam, where the scammer demonstrates trust to and therefore baits the need for the victim to reciprocate.

The radio show mentioned the addictive quality of oxytocin — once you get the fix you keep coming back, which is why people get grafted for up to $400K and more instead of the $100 they started with.

Watch out for those oxytocins people! If you have a story about getting scammed, we’d love to hear about it. Post it here in the comments section.

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