Sunday, November 16, 2008

How cons work

I found this article on a Psychology Today blog relevant in the context of the orphanage and NGO scams here in Cambodia. (See Orphanages for non-orphans and Volunteer scams in Cambodia on this blog).

Paul J. Zak is a neuroeconomist and director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA, who writes a blog on the Moral Molecule--his lab in 2004 discovered a measurable and manipulable brain chemical called oxytocin that drives moral behaviour. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker calls the desire to help others, or avoid hurting them, our moral instinct. It is how we can live and work together, cooperating with complete strangers.

On his blog, Zak explains how he fell for a con when he was in high school. It all boils down to "THOMAS", The Human Oxytocin Mediated Attachment System.

He explains: "THOMAS is a powerful brain circuit that releases the neurochemical oxytocin when we are trusted and induces a desire to reciprocate the trust we have been shown--even with strangers.

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 THOMAS, the human brain makes us 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."

Interestingly, Zak's lab has a term for these con-people: Bastards. Exactly the name I called them in this post: The dangers of volunteering in Cambodia. There really is no other word for these people, whom Zak likens to sociopaths.

So if you have been conned while volunteering in Cambodia, don't beat yourself over it. You were just acting on a natural stimulus. And Zak says only 2 per cent of people are bastards (why does it seem higher in SCambodia??).

He concludes: "THOMAS causes us to empathize with others, the key to building social relationships. Russian playwright Anton Chekov said 'You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.' I'd say that's about right-just watch for the occasional con."

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