The Half-full flaw: Optimists more likely to fall for phone scams

PLYMOUTH, England — Sometimes, a little pessimism may good for you in the long run. A new study finds that people who see the glass being half full may be more likely to fall for scams because they view the reward potential greater than the risk.

Mass marketing scams (MMS) often promise large sums of money, as long as the victim sends the perpetrator a seemingly smaller amount first. Researchers from the University of Plymouth and Scripps College found that optimistic people tend to focus on the benefits in possible scams — or getting the big payout — and thus are more susceptible to the scammers’ tricks than those who are focused on the perceived risks.

Man talking on phone
A new study finds that people who see the glass being half full may be more likely to fall for scams because they view the reward potential greater than the risk.

The study surveyed 500 adults over two experiments and sought to find the underlying psychological factors that makes people decide to ignore red flags and instead take a risk to “win” a large payout from a scheme that turns out to be a hoax. The experiment was based off of 25 real scams that often “hooked in the victim” in Los Angeles by promising the chance to win large sums of money.

The researchers found that the single most important factor influencing people making these dubious decisions is the individual’s assessment of the risk versus the reward. For example, if an MMS promises a payout of $25,000 for only a $5 entry fee, that influences the decision. While about half the participants were interested in the scheme before being told about the entry fee, nearly a quarter still maintained interest when told of an activation fee that ranged from $5 to $100. Naturally, high activation fees kept the most susceptible participants from continuing on.

Age and education also tended to play a role in whether someone would fall for the scam. Older adults and those with higher levels of education were less likely to be victims.

“While prior research models have explored primarily the way the marketing ploys are presented to consumers, the recent research delves into the individual differences of the scam victims themselves,” explains Yaniv Hanoch, Professor of Decision Science at the school, in a release. “On the one hand, consumers are for the most part able to recognize potential scams. But the lure of the prize is largely driving individuals’ behaviours, leading many of them to discount the possible risks. The sentiment seems to be, ‘after all, what harm can be done by just responding to a letter?’

The authors say that MMS are among the fastest growing crimes across the globe, and consumers should be better educated in prevention techniques. They believe that people should spend focus more often on the risk as opposed to the reward so they don’t get hooked into believing that the false promises by the scammer may even have some chance of being true.

“It’s important to look at these factors so that consumer education can be improved and targeted,” adds Hanoch.” Given that perception of benefits and risks were the most important factors in intention to comply in both experiments, one clear option is to encourage individuals to focus only on the risk and discount the benefits.”

The full study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

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