The Prince of Nigeria Relies on Your Gullibility
In 2007, Arthur Stimpson of Norfolk, England—a university graduate and member of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors—received an email telling him that he had won £2.7 million in the Spanish National Lottery. However, before he could receive his prize money, he was informed that there would be some “administrative costs” in transferring the money to him. Over the course of two years, he surrendered not only £50,000 of his own money but also convinced at least thirteen people in his village to lend him money to pay the “transfer fees.” His loans ranged from £10,000 to £400,000. In the end, the respectable and intelligent Arthur Stimpson lost all that he owned, accrued unmanageable debt to his former friends, and was jailed for fraud.
Unfortunately, cases like that of Arthur Stimpson are not uncommon. According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, in 2018, scams cost consumers US$2.71 billion (an increase of nearly one billion dollars from 2017), with more than 900 complaints received per day. Given the enormous financial and emotional costs of scams, there is a need to understand the factors that contribute to people’s susceptibility to falling victim to them.
Although most people have received a scam email at some point, most people don’t respond to them. This suggests that people clearly differ in the likelihood they will be “taken in” by scams. I was interested in examining whether there was anything about the personalities of the victims that made them more vulnerable to being scammed.
My collaborators and I thought that gullibility might be a key part of whether someone got scammed or not. But what is gullibility? It turns out that psychology hadn’t really explored the construct of gullibility. So that is what my colleagues and I set out to do.
Gullibility can be defined as an acceptance of a false premise in the presence of cues that indicate that the source may be untrustworthy. Essentially, when evaluating a situation, a gullible person is either unable or unwilling to see the signals that the people involved are not trustworthy. These signals or cues can vary from obvious (the Prince of Nigeria is contacting you personally) to subtle (receiving an email from your bank to an email address that the bank does not have).
In the first part of our research project, my co-authors and I developed a questionnaire to measure gullibility. This measure included items such as “I guess I’m more gullible than the average person” and “If anyone is likely to fall for a scam, it’s me.” We then had people complete this new measure of gullibility, along with measures of other psychological variables.
We believed that gullibility is different from trust. Trust is a generalized expectancy that people can be relied upon, so someone who is trusting expects that people will be honest. Gullibility, on the other hand, is the acceptance of a false premise in the presence of untrustworthiness cues. In other words, someone who is gullible has problems detecting cues of untrustworthiness. As we expected, our data showed that gullibility and trust weren’t related to each other.
So, what factors are related to a person’s gullibility?
Our results showed that the more gullible people were, the less social intelligence they had. In other words, gullibility was related to people’s inability to read social cues, to infer other people’s motives, and to predict other people’s intentions in a social context. However, gullibility was not related to people’s general intelligence (that is, to their cognitive ability). In other words, gullible people tend to struggle with reading social cues but they aren’t less intelligent overall.
But the most interesting result was from a study in which a sample of Americans completed the Gullibility Scale and then rated several examples of scam emails. Overall, we found that people who had higher gullibility scores found those scam emails to be much more persuasive. More gullible participants also indicated that they would be much more likely to respond to those emails than people who scored lower in gullibility. This finding demonstrated that the personality trait of gullibility can influence how people perceive scam emails and might also influence the likelihood that they will respond to those emails.
This project has just started the research on gullibility and will hopefully be the catalyst to inspire much more research on the personality traits that could lead to victimization. Gullibility can put people at risk of a calculating scammer stealing their money, a cruel abuser convincing them to stay in an abusive relationship, or an enigmatic cult leader denying them their liberties or encouraging them to take their own lives.
To protect yourself, be mindful that scams exist and never make impulsive decisions regarding your personal information, your money, or your safety. (I have linked a site below with more tips and information about avoiding scams). Carpenters sometimes say “measure twice and cut once.” When it comes to emails, perhaps that adage can be adapted to say “check twice and decide once.”
For Further Reading
Teunisse, A. K., Case, T. I., Fitness, J., & Sweller, N. (2020). I should have known better: Development of a self-report measure of gullibility. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46(3), 408–423. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167219858641
The case of Arthur Stimpson: (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2078292/The-village-ruined-gullible-man-Britain-Incredible-story-chartered-surveyor-email-pledging-3m-lotto-win-neighbours-impoverished-web-sheer-greed.html)
Protecting yourself from scams: https://www.scamwatch.gov.au/get-help/protect-yourself-from-scams
Alessandra K. Teunisse is a doctoral student in social and personality psychology at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. She studies how personality traits influence victimization. She also writes on a blog that covers strategies that helped in the Ph.D. process, the process of searching for an academic job, and the successes and struggles on the way: www.phdandbeyond.com