Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone in Douglas Sirk’s film Written on the Wind (1956). Photo by Universal Pictures/Alamy


Don’t let them fool you

The fear of being duped is ubiquitous, but excessive scepticism makes it harder to trust one another and cooperate

by Tess Wilkinson-Ryan + BIO

Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone in Douglas Sirk’s film Written on the Wind (1956). Photo by Universal Pictures/Alamy

In 2007, three experimental psychologists, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, coined the word ‘sugrophobia’, which would translate to something like a ‘fear of sucking’. The researchers – Kathleen Vohs, Roy Baumeister and Jason Chin – were looking to name the familiar and specific dread that people experience when they get the inkling that they’re ‘being a sucker’ – that someone is taking advantage of them, partly thanks to their own decisions. The idea that psychologists would study suckers academically seems almost ridiculous at first. But, once you start to look for it, it becomes clear that sugrophobia is not only real, it is a veritable epidemic. Its influence extends from the choices we make as individuals to the society-wide narratives that sow distrust and discrimination.

The number of ‘sucker’ synonyms alone suggests a cultural obsession: pawn, dupe, chump, fool, stooge, loser, mark, and so on. Public debates about a wide range of social policies and technological advances feature inchoate fears about who’s going to be swindled next. Will ChatGPT help students cheat unwitting teachers? Is remote work popular since the COVID-19 pandemic because employees can slack off more easily? Does forgiving student-loan debt let ‘slacker baristas’ exploit hardworking taxpayers, as one US politician suggested?

I have been thinking about the psychology of being a sucker for 15 years. When I describe my interest in the subject, people often infer that I study scams. But as the above examples show, sugrophobia is more than just a fear of being caught in a con. There are only so many Ponzi schemes or Enrons to get embroiled in, and most people will never find themselves in the thick of a high-stakes fraud. Yet the feeling of being a sucker – and the fear of that feeling – is much more commonplace. When your lunch costs more than you expected, when your co-worker calls in sick for the third time this month, when you let the insistent driver in the breakdown lane nose in front of you: for many people, these little interactions come with a special sting of self-recrimination: Wait, am I the fool here? The fear of being duped can be so aversive that it transcends rational prudence and becomes something more automatic and more intense – a true phobia.

It makes sense to be wary of scams: you should not reply to your spam emails, no matter how much you’d like to help a prince retrieve millions from his trust fund. But there are costs to excessive scepticism, too, for both the self and the social order. A diverse body of evidence from psychology and behavioural economics can help us understand those costs. On a personal level, the fear of being suckered can encourage someone to be risk averse, to avoid the kind of cooperation that is essential to any new venture. At the systemic level, the stakes of distrust are even higher. The fear of being a sucker can become an excuse to reject solidarity, to hold people under suspicion. Deployed at scale, sucker tropes help to perpetuate group stereotypes – about who can be trusted and who should be policed – and reinforce traditional class, race and gender hierarchies in ways that we scarcely appreciate.

To get inside the sucker fear, let’s engage in a brief thought experiment. Imagine that I agree to donate to a charitable cause. Soon, I get a fraud alert from my bank telling me that the charge to my card is from a suspect source. To my chagrin, I discover that I have given my credit card number to a scammer, not a volunteer from a charity. Even if the bank resolves the issue and blocks the charge, even if the only cost to me is a little bit of hassle on the phone, I know that I would feel worse than the hassle alone would suggest I should. Not only that, it might even be reasonable, or adaptive, to experience outsized self-recrimination. First, the bad feeling I have may reflect the real social costs of my blunder: if my spouse or my friends find out that I gave credit card information to a scammer, it is embarrassing. Moreover, that sharp pang of regret is useful. This is the kind of harm I could have avoided – presumably a quick Google search or some follow-up enquiries could have induced appropriate wariness – so, if I feel extra bad now, it might save me from similar situations in the future. Fair enough!

But there is good evidence that the aversion to being suckered contaminates decision-making even when it isn’t doing anything useful. A lot of the evidence for this knee-jerk aversion comes from experimental economics studies that try to pare down human transactions to their bare bones. This helps researchers rule out competing explanations for what they observe. The studies commonly involve experimental games that have real incentives – participants can really make or lose money, depending on the outcome – but the players don’t meet each other or know each other’s identities. There are no real social consequences involved in any of the transactions. This makes it possible for researchers to ask: even if no one else has to find out what happened during an interaction, even if there is no precedent to set or example to make, do people still overreact to the risk of being conned?

Enter the Trust Game. A Trust Game is a simple experimental protocol in which players are paired up for a short series of transactions. One player is chosen to be the ‘Investor’. The Investor starts the game with, say, $10, and she has to make a choice: how much, if any, should she transfer to the other player (the ‘Trustee’)? Whatever she transfers to the Trustee will be automatically multiplied. Once the Trustee knows how much he has received, he gets to make the final move and decide how much money, if any, to pass back to the Investor. You can see why it’s called the Trust Game. If both players cooperate and make generous transfers – which they often do – then both leave better off. For the Investor, though, that first move is risky: she could give most or all of her money away, only to receive little or nothing in return. The risk of feeling like a sucker is hard to miss.

They were more willing to bet on a random-number generator than they were to trust a human

Over the years, some people have argued that reticent Investors are not worried about being chumps; they’re just being rationally risk averse. The psychologists Daniel Effron and Dale Miller tried to get at this directly with a clever twist on the protocol. In their version, Investors could transfe­r either $10 or nothing. If the Investor chose to transfer money, it would be multiplied, and the Trustee could pass back either $15 (half of the final sum, a fair return) or $8 (a stingy return). (The study involved a points-based currency, but I’m using dollar amounts here for ease of exposition.) Some of the Investors were told that the amount their partner returned would be determined randomly, based on a computer-generated number. Other Investors were told that their partner would make a decision themselves. In both cases, the Investors were led to believe that the likelihood of receiving an unfair return was 30 per cent. That is, some risked losing out because a computer gamble didn’t go their way; others had the same chance of losing out because of an untrustworthy partner. The question was: how many would choose to transfer their $10?

Now, transferring the money was a good bet for Investors, no matter what – but they were significantly more willing to bet on a random-number generator than they were to trust a human, even though the odds of losing out were the same. Think about it this way: the player who takes home only $8 thanks to random chance has lost out on a couple of dollars. But the player who takes home less than their fair share due to misplaced trust in another person is a ‘loser’ in a whole different way. The players never met one another; there were no reputations at stake. The risk only felt different because cooperating with a selfish person makes you the sucker. When the researchers followed up with the participants to ask them about their risk calculation, the consideration that stood out was the element of self-blame. They anticipated that they would castigate themselves for misplaced trust.

Other research complements this finding. A person who might be willing to cover for a weak partner on a two-person task will slack off, on principle, when dealing with a lazy partner. Research participants will invest more money on a risky startup if they fear the founders might be misguided than they will if they fear the founders might be fraudsters, even if the risk level is exactly the same. People who are asked about the allocation of welfare benefits to low-income families are more supportive of aid vouchers and in-kind donations than cash subsidies – because it’s ‘too easy to abuse the privilege’ of receiving cash. When people perceive the threat of exploitation, it seems to shift their attention from the risk of material loss to what the situation means for the self – if I let you take advantage, what does that make me?

In a Trust Game or out in the real world, the prospect of being a sucker warns people off. It cautions them not to share, not to cooperate, not to engage. In risky financial scenarios, the stakes are clear and they are on everyone’s mind, no matter how the situation is described. The fear of being a sucker is automatic. But sometimes, the ‘sucker’ framing is a rhetorical choice, a weaponisation of the sugrophobic tendency.

When Donald Trump was running for president of the United States in 2016, he used to repeat a little fable that he had taken from an old song. It was the story of a woman who finds a snake, shivering and hungry on a path. The snake begs her for help, pleading ‘Take me in, oh tender woman,’ until she relents – at which point the snake promptly gives her a fatal bite. As she protests her unfair fate, the snake snarls: ‘You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.’ The recitation was in fact lifted word for word from a 1960s civil rights anthem (‘The Snake’, by Oscar Brown Jr), but Trump was invoking it for a very different purpose: to chide Americans for being too lax on immigration. The persuasive function of the fable was to reject a human-rights framing of refugee relief, to insist that Americans who thought that there was a moral imperative to offer humanitarian asylum were being duped. You think you’re a saint, but you’re really just a sucker. The goal was to put some distance between Americans and their compassionate instincts, to trigger instead the visceral revulsion that follows the threat of being tricked.

This rhetorical framing was not surprising coming from Trump, who is notoriously obsessed with losers and chumps. But it should be a little bit startling that his reframing of the moral stakes of immigration policy had any purchase at all, since the purported exploiters he was warning about – often desperately poor migrants, including families with young children – had very little political or economic power.

What Trump seemed to understand is that sucker rhetoric taps into a deep status anxiety. If I can be fooled by a peer, or even by someone whom I thought had a weaker position than mine, that takes me down a peg. The fear of that social demotion helps explain a common tendency that people have to guard against exploitation by outsiders and strivers more vigilantly than exploitation by those with the power to do real harm. Workers who might be cheating employers, or students who might be tricking faculty – these fears are especially salient because they undermine the baseline power structure.

Sucker tropes are a core component of the social construction of ‘them’

I work for a university, and if the administration exploited my goodwill – say, the provost put me on too many committees, or the dean underpaid me even though I was doing a lot of unpleasant service – I would be frustrated to be sure, but not humiliated. Exploitation by those with power is more or less business as usual, not welcome but basically predictable. If I find that my students are exploiting my goodwill, such as by cheating on tests or lying to get leniency, then that is humiliating. If I care about getting played, students taking advantage of me makes me look weak and foolish.

That is, of course, a trivial (and fictional) example. But at scale, the special vigilance that people have about being exploited by those who are lower than them in the status hierarchy has real consequences. One way to keep a group of people subordinated is to tell stories about their scheming intentions, to leverage the fear of duplicity to play on the status anxiety of those who have power. The pitch, whether it’s subtle or overt, is: if you let ‘them’ have what they want (eg, status, money, citizenship, equality), you’ll make a fool of yourself.

In fact, sucker tropes are a core component of the social construction of ‘them’. The psychologist Jim Sidanius argued that every human society creates group categories and stratifies itself accordingly. In their book Social Dominance (1999), Sidanius and his colleague Felicia Pratto wrote that ‘group prejudices, stereotypes, ideologies of group superiority and inferiority … both help produce and are reflections of this group-based social hierarchy.’ Put simply, the goal of discrimination is power.

To see how scam rhetoric contributes to intergroup alienation, you only have to do a quick scan of the slang expressions for ‘ripped off’. A stunning number of synonyms have their roots in something racist, antisemitic, xenophobic or misogynistic. The offensive verb ‘to gyp’ is a reference to a widespread stereotype about the Roma. (The source of the slur is a shorthand for ‘Egyptian’, making it not only bigoted but also incorrect; the Roma migrated from northern India.) If someone is accused of ‘welching’ on a deal, it is an allusion to stories of untrustworthy racetrack bettors from Wales. And, of course, there is a long list of words for women who pretend to offer love when they are actually scheming for money (they start at ‘gold-digger’ and get worse from there).

Sidanius and Pratto argued that the stories a culture tells about who deserves what are the ‘legitimising myths’ of social domination, providing ‘moral and intellectual justification’ for social inequality. They include stories like: These people don’t want to be your friends; they want to take your stuff. Or: They don’t need your help; they’re just trying to take your jobs.

The study of stereotypes, especially stereotypes about women and Black people, suggests that a major ‘legitimising myth’ of some social hierarchies (including those in the US) is that there is less discrimination than historically marginalised groups claim there is. That is: They aren’t being discriminated against; they just want ‘special favours’.

Psychologists have long been in the business of measuring prejudice and, starting in the 1970s, a few research teams developed scales to try to measure racial prejudice by looking specifically at antagonism toward Black social power and economic gains. The items on the resulting Modern Racism Scale were designed to evaluate ‘covert’ racism as best as possible – not just raw animus, but something closer to resentment. The beliefs that characterise ‘modern racism’ have been summarised aptly, if starkly, in this way:

(1) discrimination is no longer an issue for Black people who (2) continue to make excessive demands for changes to the status quo – demands that are unfair because Black people have all the rights they need; (3) consequently, the attention Black people receive from the government and other institutions is undeserved and constitutes ‘special treatment’. Two additional tenets are: (1) the aforementioned three beliefs are empirical facts, and thus, (2) individuals endorsing these beliefs are not racist.

In other words, the research suggests that a core manifestation of racism is the belief that, when Black people protest discrimination, they are actually plotting for ‘undeserved’ power. From this perspective, those who take the discrimination claims seriously are being played for fools.

Sugrophobia has a hair trigger, and the ‘special treatment’ framing sets it off

Similar narratives show up in psychological studies of misogyny. Researchers have found that the propensity to engage in gender-based discrimination is associated with a set of sexist views such as: Women exaggerate problems they have at work; and Many women are actually seeking special favours, such as hiring policies that favour them over men, under the guise of asking for ‘equality’.

This aversion to ‘special treatment’ is a form of prejudice that relies on an automatic reaction: perceive a scam, repudiate the scammers. If members of a marginalised social group are seen as genuinely asking for equality, then they are making a deep moral claim that’s hard to dismiss. Morally and intuitively, the right response to inequality is solidarity and cooperation. But if those people are instead perceived as asking for ‘special favours’, then it seems morally optional to grant what they want. And if they are thought to be asking for special treatment but pretending they only want equality, that just seems like a scam, a reason to reject them out of hand.

It can be hard to perceive the force of this ‘special favours’ discourse, but the social science around feeling like a sucker helps make it clearer. Sugrophobia has a hair trigger, and the ‘special treatment’ framing sets it off, making the aversion to feeling suckered an underappreciated but powerful brake on social progress.

When we talk about the fear of being a sucker, the scams that come most easily to mind might be the big, obvious ones – Theranos, Ponzi, the guy who ‘sold’ the Brooklyn Bridge. But the scams that trouble us in the day-to-day are squishier, more ambiguous, and sometimes just the figment of a politician’s imagination. Often that means seeing threats where none exist – or, to put a finer point on it, suspecting cynical ploys from the people who actually deserve help or recourse. When the threat of a scam is raised, it may be helpful for all of us to ask: who really has power here? Whose status is threatened by the story I’m hearing?

The ‘sucker’ is a malleable construct. Human social life is complicated, and people are inclined to believe the most convenient or appealing narrative about who’s a fool and what’s a scam. Studying – and even just naming – the fear of being a sucker allows us to challenge the use of a construct that does its most pernicious work when no one is looking.