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Cognitive hiccups
June 30, 2013 9:11 PM   Subscribe

Our Brains Weren’t Hardwired To Catch Con Artists

An Interview with NYU’s Adam Alter
4. What is your favorite experiment in the book?

Adam: One of my favorites is a study that overturned the widely held belief that the Müller-Lyer illusion is universal.
DISFLUENCY - A Conversation with Adam Alter
ADAM ALTER is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Stern School of Business, NYU. He is the author of Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave.
How A Simple Psychological Trick Can Help You Get The Most Out Of Others
Secrets from the Science of Persuasion
posted by the man of twists and turns (80 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
I read the whole thing and I STILL don't know the one weird old trick.
posted by Curious Artificer at 9:18 PM on June 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


Our Brains Weren’t Hardwired To Catch Con Artists

Our brains really aren't wired for it in my experience, you have to learn. I'm glad I learned about it in Ultima Online instead of with real money and property. Cutthroat MMORPG games can provide a social benefit for young people!
posted by Drinky Die at 9:23 PM on June 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Curious Artificer: I'll tell you what the trick is because it's totally something I know you'd help me out with if I was missing something.
posted by Mercaptan at 9:33 PM on June 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Waitaminute, I thought our brains were hardwired to BE con artists...
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:51 PM on June 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


You walk into a computer store intending to purchase one of those teensy $300 notebooks for your teen daughter but walk out with a $2,300 MacBook Air

That would indeed be quite a trick.
posted by dersins at 9:53 PM on June 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ya know, there's not really a whole lot our brains are hardwired for. Maybe the basic senses and a default interpretation of the world. But whether you believe in free will or not, the fact that we can at least allow ourselves the illusion of free will implies a great deal.

You can't hold your breath indefinitely, but can until you get dizzy. (Technically that's the autonomic nervous system, anyway.) People can voluntarily refuse to eat or drink even to starvation or dehydration. The sex drive is strong, but it isn't overruling. And people kill themselves all the time, which is by definition a self-destructive behavior you'd think would have been evolutionarily bred out of us.

There's things we're predisposed to, sure. We have hunger, thirst, pain and libido that push us in those directions. But that doesn't mean we have to go.
posted by JHarris at 10:05 PM on June 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


I liked the study in which 143 participants "looked at 30 photographs of faces selected to look honest, dishonest or neutral." The older participants failed to agree with the choices made by the study designers about what makes for an "untrustworthy face."

In general, I'm quite fond of bubblegum psychology.
posted by fredludd at 10:13 PM on June 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


You are spending $1,000 a month on repairing damaged locks, and the treatment is not even working.

Well, there is difference between being conned and being thick.
posted by Mario Speedwagon at 10:23 PM on June 30, 2013 [9 favorites]


If you read the article but didn't understand it in full, well, I'm here to help. I've written up a simple, easy-to-understand brochure that explains this phenomenon in clear and concise English. For a copy just send $2 (to cover postage and handling) to me and I'll get it right out to you.
posted by komara at 10:24 PM on June 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Sales tricks?

Spending $2000 extra on a laptop and not knowing why? Spending $1000/mo on *anything* related to your hair? Paying someone untrusted $10k to "self-publish" your book? SPENDING $5000 TO HAVE SOMEONE GHOST WRITE YOUR BOOK FOR YOU BECAUSE YOU'RE A SHITTY WRITER?!?!

These aren't sales tricks. These are the actions of a moron who doesn't pay attention to the world around them. Come the fuck on.
posted by chasing at 10:35 PM on June 30, 2013 [23 favorites]


I dunno I feel kind of like I was conned by the article considering that only about 500 words out of 1700 were something other than redundant descriptions of 'being conned' and even those were just kind of repetitive statements.

(also , "out of wrack"???)
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 10:45 PM on June 30, 2013 [10 favorites]


Sales tricks?

Spending $2000 extra on a laptop and not knowing why? Spending $1000/mo on *anything* related to your hair? Paying someone untrusted $10k to "self-publish" your book? SPENDING $5000 TO HAVE SOMEONE GHOST WRITE YOUR BOOK FOR YOU BECAUSE YOU'RE A SHITTY WRITER?!?!

These aren't sales tricks. These are the actions of a moron who doesn't pay attention to the world around them. Come the fuck on.


Make a serious effort to ask your smartest friends and family about times they have been scammed. You will be depressed.
posted by Drinky Die at 10:49 PM on June 30, 2013 [10 favorites]


Our Brains Weren’t Hardwired To Catch Con Artists

Well of course they aren't. That's why there are successful con artists.
posted by Decani at 10:51 PM on June 30, 2013


Make a serious effort to ask your smartest friends and family about times they have been scammed. You will be depressed.

Yah, I get that. But I'd still put all of these examples firmly in the "you need to wake up and learn to take care of yourself" category.

Which, just to say: Our brains aren't hardwired to do much of what we do on a daily basis. And yet we do it. So I think there's an issue of education, here...

One thing our educational systems aren't hardwired to do is teach people how to pay attention to money and make smart financial decisions. Which is a tremendous flaw.
posted by chasing at 10:58 PM on June 30, 2013


What I hate is when I catch family members about to fall for a scam and they almost rush to do it before I can reveal whatever scam it is or why they shouldn't buy it. It's like they know the balloon is about to be popped so they quickly try to suck in the helium.

Or something. I don't know. But I've had this happen with several friends and relatives. I guess it's too depressing to know that there are people and businesses that will happily scam you every chance they get.
posted by cashman at 11:03 PM on June 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


We aren't hardwired to distrust the right things. We are hardwired to distrust based on looks, and boy does that open a massive exploit.

Financially educated people, they get scammed too.
posted by Drinky Die at 11:07 PM on June 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's all about tribes. In a group of 200 or so there can't be a grifter because you know everyone by name and when they try their con you just come up and take your thing back, kill them, whatever.

This is just a subset of the "we aren't evolved for mass civilization" issue.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:10 PM on June 30, 2013 [13 favorites]


chasing: "Yah, I get that. But I'd still put all of these examples firmly in the "you need to wake up and learn to take care of yourself" category."

The kind of deception that happens is tailored to emotional responses rather than rationality. It's easier to con someone who is a pathological narcissist, generally speaking, because there is already a lot of denial going on to bury self-loathing and prop up a self-image that is highly sensitive to others' approval. It's the emperor's new clothes. People who are like this can be highly intelligent but have a warped image of themselves which makes them very vulnerable to deception in some ways.
posted by krinklyfig at 11:23 PM on June 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


I had one friend who fell for the Nigerian Scam then a Sweetheart Scam a few years later. I spotted both scams. The first time her reaction was 'What do you have against someone making money?!'
I said to her, that I had plenty against people being conned and that she was about to be taken for a ride.
She did not extricate herself from the situation. Some con artist in Nogeria made a lot of money off her.
Then the sweet-heart scam..
Terrible... Again she defended her view of the situation.
Never mind that all her friends were telling her this was a scam.
I ended up telling her I was sick of the stupidity and the drama.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:31 PM on June 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Oh and she is financially so badly off that she really can't afford the loss. It really is painful. I saw that this would happen again and again. These com-artists use drama.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:33 PM on June 30, 2013


"Yah, I get that. But I'd still put all of these examples firmly in the 'you need to wake up and learn to take care of yourself category".

There's a big difference between everyday gullibility and how con-artists actually work. You know how scientists/engineers are, in general, easier to fool than the average person? (Mostly with regard to paranormal con-artists and such, according to James Randi and others.) This is pretty much the exact same thing that real con-artists rely upon. Your overconfidence is a key component of what they exploit. The absolute core of what they exploit is self-interest, of course, but they work with your skepticism, not against it, by redirecting your attention where they want it to be. They know what you'll be skeptical of, they give you things to look at and which will then ease your suspicions. It's really, really unhelpful to think of yourself as someone who can't be conned.

More everyday stuff, sure, that's about just not being gullible. You're not going to earn $5,000 a month in that multi-level marketing thing. That once-in-a-lifetime deal almost certainly isn't. I've always been boggled that people fall for that sort of thing for my entire life, and still am, but I'm as vulnerable to an actual skilled con-artist as anyone else. Excepting perhaps that I've read a number of books on the subject and would recognize most of the classics. But being conned is pretty much exactly like watching a magic trick and not understanding how it was done. Don't think otherwise.

"Ya know, there's not really a whole lot our brains are hardwired for."

That's so not true. I think the evidence is pretty weak for anything like Cosmides and Tooby's notion of evolutionary psychology where the mind is a big basket of discrete psychological modular adaptations, but there's pretty much unambiguous evidence for modularity at a bunch of levels of cognition. We certainly are hardwired in how all our sensory input is processed, what we do and don't notice.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:42 PM on June 30, 2013 [15 favorites]


krinklyfig:

I completely agree with you. But I also do believe that there's a severe lack of financial literacy going on, here. If nothing else, having a sense of how money actually works can make it more obvious the scam that's going on.

And I believe what comes with having money is an obligation to understand money and to use it in ways that are healthy to oneself and our society (or, at least, non-destructive). The more money, the more obligation. And when the amount of money you have outweighs your understanding of money, well, you're going to get scammed. In some way or other. See also: Many lottery winners, many professional athletes, etc.
posted by chasing at 11:49 PM on June 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


(Also, just to note: That Psychology Today article isn't really about con artists. It's about paying too much and/or not getting what you pay for. Two somewhat different things. An upsell isn't a con. Neither is hiring someone who underperforms, exactly.)
posted by chasing at 11:51 PM on June 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


It must be really hard to write pop psychology pieces and not feel like a con artist yourself. On one hand, there are real and interesting results you want to present. On the other hand, you have to talk to your audience in terms of a mish-mash of mechanical and electronic metaphors. At that point your presentation turns into an exercise in ontology: do you mean anything you say literally? how literally?

People, sometimes even research psychologists, often think in metaphors that only disguise the fact that no one has any real idea what exactly they're talking about. There are certain results and we can infer the existence of certain "systems" — but how do you define a "system"?

For example, we tend to see faces in random visual displays, for example. We call that pareidolia. But what exactly does it mean to say that the human brain is "hard-wired" to see faces? Does it really mean anything beyond the already-stated fact that we tend to see faces in random visual displays? Suppose we identify a "pareidolia organ" in the brain. Great, uh, now what? And suppose we don't. Does that make pareidolia less real somehow?
posted by Nomyte at 11:53 PM on June 30, 2013 [11 favorites]


OUR BRAINS WEREN'T HARDWIRED TO IGNORE SENSATIONAL CLAIMS ABOUT WHAT ARE BRAINS AREN'T HARDWIRED TO DO!
posted by jnnla at 11:59 PM on June 30, 2013 [17 favorites]


This is my parents. I remember coming home one day to find my parents having a discussion with two men I'd never meter before. They were huddled around the kitchen table, explaining some miracle program to "pay your house of in five years!". I was in the other room but kept my ear to the conversation.

Boy I could've smelled the bullshit a mile away. When I tried to alert my parents to this fact, they just brushed me off. After all, I was barely of legal drinking age, what could I possibly know about such things! So they bought the $5000 "software" and took out a 2nd mortgage with this guy's company...needless to say a year in they both admitted to me that it had been a huge mistake.

And hey, I've made some stupid choices too. My first car purchase on my own I ended up paying way more than I should have. But you only have to make a mistake once, if you pay attention, and savor the pain.

Adapt or die.
posted by Doleful Creature at 12:01 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Financially educated people, they get scammed too.

There's a big difference between everyday gullibility and how con-artists actually work.

Yeah, I didn't think the article's examples were generally germane, per

An upsell isn't a con. Neither is hiring someone who underperforms, exactly

And:

there's a severe lack of financial literacy going on, here.

I agree, but as a general rule, we allow people to live independently who probably never will be "financially literate" in the way that an average college-educated adult is. My Special Olympian niece, for example, is a great person and doing well considering she's on SSI, but can't do the math to know what's cheaper other than "this jar of peanut butter costs less" (she's also vulnerable to every nutrition claim there is in the world, such as "low fat"/"low carb", regardless of what she really needs in her diet).
posted by dhartung at 12:15 AM on July 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well, there is difference between being conned and being thick.

But it is much easier to con a stupid person.

I had a friend who whenever we went through a check-out would wait until the cashier would punch in the amount and when the register returned the amount of change, he'd say "Wait a second, I think I have two cents" or whatever seemed reasonable based on the amount displayed. When the cashier struggled to do the math mentally, my friend would quickly say "You rang up this amount, I gave you a twenty and then with the change, I get 50 dollars back from you."

It worked nine times out of ten. When I told him that I thought it was dishonest, he replied "It's not my fault if the company employs people who can't count to run their cash registers."
posted by three blind mice at 12:40 AM on July 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Our brains were not hardwired to look through the clever schemes and confidence-installing tricks of skilled actors and con men trained in making our disbelief go away.

Sure they were. Competition between humans was always a major factor in our continuing evolution. Lying goes right back to the dawn of language. It was so prevalent that we needed evolved signals that are difficult to fake to give us reasons to trust each other. Think of it as an arms race between lying and lie-detection capabilities.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:45 AM on July 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Unfortunately, I have fallen for the more mundane version of the Sweetheart Scam over and over and over over the years. You are someone I like and find attractive and you seem to be really interested in me? Sure, just ONE kidney?
posted by Samizdata at 12:46 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


It worked nine times out of ten. When I told him that I thought it was dishonest, he replied "It's not my fault if the company employs people who can't count to run their cash registers."

That's just theft. Your friend was stealing money from the store in front of you, while you apparently said nothing. He might have as well complained that the store doesn't do a good enough job patting people down to make sure they don't carry out the merchandise in their pockets.
posted by Nomyte at 12:58 AM on July 1, 2013 [44 favorites]


Nomyte: That's so not true. [...] We certainly are hardwired in how all our sensory input is processed, what we do and don't notice.

I said something to that effect in my comment, but it wasn't really about what our minds are "hardwired for." It was about being dissatisfied with articles that claim to tell us what we're preprogrammed to do, that always turns out to be stupid bullshit that a lot of people do, and the article is effectively telling us DON'T BOTHER IMPROVING, YOU'RE DOOMED TO DO THIS REGARDLESS. I HATE that.

Whatever the hell "being hardwired" for something means, you have a much better idea of what that would mean than the person who wrote this article.
posted by JHarris at 1:12 AM on July 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ivan Fyodorovich: " It's really, really unhelpful to think of yourself as someone who can't be conned."

QFT.

Note that this article isn't only about getting scammed out of your life's savings, it's also about being "persuaded" to pay "a little extra" for something you didn't actually plan to buy. These are daily cons, legitimate marketing really, but still someone "conning" you.
posted by chavenet at 1:22 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


JHarris, I didn't post that, IF did. Also, what's up with your bold, all-caps, and bold small caps?
posted by Nomyte at 1:43 AM on July 1, 2013


I had a friend who whenever we went through a check-out would wait until the cashier would punch in the amount

Whoa. Redefine "friend." That cashier probably lost their job.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 2:03 AM on July 1, 2013 [9 favorites]


Just annoyed enough with hearing all the ways we're hardwired. We're hardwired to do this, we're hardwired to do that. Beep boop, we're all robots. It's a wretched cliche.
posted by JHarris at 2:46 AM on July 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


That cashier probably lost their job.

Or had to make up the difference out of their own pocket. Nasty.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:47 AM on July 1, 2013 [10 favorites]


It worked nine times out of ten. When I told him that I thought it was dishonest, he replied "It's not my fault if the company employs people who can't count to run their cash registers."

Wow, it's especially chilling when a sociopath just comes right out and admits it, isn't it?
posted by Horace Rumpole at 4:40 AM on July 1, 2013 [20 favorites]


It's all about tribes. In a group of 200 or so there can't be a grifter because you know everyone by name and when they try their con you just come up and take your thing back, kill them, whatever.

This is just a subset of the "we aren't evolved for mass civilization" issue.


Nah, I'm sure there were con artists back then, either outsiders, or those that were able to live on the fringes, our build a loyal following of those that refused to believe they were scammed. I'm sure some ended up as leaders.

I've got my own pet theory... That niceness, decency, trust, whatever you call it exists on a spectrum, with the majority clustered in the middle. For society to work, we have to have a certain "goodness" and honesty between each other, and it works, most of the time. But then there are the outliers, on one side, the con artists that take advantage of the central cluster, exploiting the inherent trust, thus keeping g people from going to far the other way. But then you have the "nice guys finish last" part. The people that are too trusting, kind, helpful on the other side of the spectrum. Those that are both easy marks for the con artist spectrum, but appear too vulnerable and so the center cluster inadvertently takes advantage. . . While most people might say no if overwhelmed or just not getting anything in return. So they, the nice guy, never get the benefits
posted by [insert clever name here] at 4:57 AM on July 1, 2013


It's all about tribes. In a group of 200 or so there can't be a grifter because you know everyone by name and when they try their con you just come up and take your thing back, kill them, whatever.

I dunno. In a small group you certainly can't survive as a professional thief. But even in baboon troops you get thieves and cheater and have to be able to pull stuff off behind someone's back.
posted by Diablevert at 4:58 AM on July 1, 2013


He might have as well complained that the store doesn't do a good enough job patting people down to make sure they don't carry out the merchandise in their pockets.

Interesting theory, but shoplifting isn't a con.

But then again, it isn't every con some sort of "theft" by just another name? I'm not arguing that it's right, just that it happens in a lot of different ways, but it always involves quick talking, some slight of hand and someone who can be duped.

it's especially chilling when a sociopath just comes right out and admits it, isn't it?

He's been dead for over a decade and I still miss him! Normal, well-adjusted people are boring to hang out with.

This is the thing about conmen - the best ones you would never expect it from but for them it's a game, always trying to see what they can get away with. Most people get conned because they don't think anyone would con them. Naïve people are everywhere and this is what the conman relies on.
posted by three blind mice at 4:58 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


What is this rubbish? That main article is just nonsensical gobledygook. This "hard-wired brain" metaphor is just complete bullshit.

Is psychologytoday.com a kind of Reader Digest of pyschology?
posted by mary8nne at 5:04 AM on July 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


But then again, it isn't every con some sort of "theft" by just another name? I'm not arguing that it's right, just that it happens in a lot of different ways, but it always involves quick talking, some slight of hand and someone who can be duped.

In most of the classic cons, the victim is usually under the impression that he is about to make money in a rather shady way. This provides protection to the con man --- it's hard to go to the cops and get them to help you when you story is that you were trying to bet on fixed horse races and the guy who was helping you do that took your money. It's the same with the Nigerian scam today --- in that scam the money you're giving the con man is admittedly going to bribing corrupt officials. When the con man is sure he's wrung you dry, he just says that the cops are onto him and he has to run so they don't arrest him.

As for your friend, I can see why it'd be amusing to hang out with him. Kinda makes me not wanna hang out with you, though, knowing you stand right by while someone steals in front of you and barely tsk...
posted by Diablevert at 5:08 AM on July 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


He's been dead for over a decade and I still miss him! Normal, well-adjusted people are boring to hang out with.

That's just ...wow.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:17 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Man, a close friend is going down the ACN telecom-pyramid-scheme hole. He's got a couple real, solid (if not particularly profitable) businesses so he thinks he's immune to the bullshit. I was asked to go over and get a computer on their home network (steps: 1:read key off side of modem 2:type key into computer) for the first "meeting" and the guy who suckered my friend in was such a greaseball (Seriously? Gary Carter mullet in the twenty teens?) I almost refused to even get his computer on their network.

Scary to watch.
posted by notsnot at 5:27 AM on July 1, 2013


I know someone who can't be conned. She is lonely and miserable but she's got a world class ventromedial prefrontal cortex.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:52 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


See Also: John Varley's The Golden Globe, where the main character is a con-artist.
posted by mikelieman at 5:53 AM on July 1, 2013


Kinda makes me not wanna hang out with you, though, knowing you stand right by while someone steals in front of you and barely tsk...

Well I am relating a story that is more 30 years old, but I probably haven't changed so much. My friends... the Tony Soprano types.... they probably haven't changed so much either. That's the neighborhood I grew up in. A lot of my adult friends today are the deadbeat juvenile criminals I went to the dirtbag public schools with. I don't live around there anymore - got out when I could - but it's not like I forget where I came from or would turn my back on them or rat them out - then or now.

The thing about a con is that it is a theft that is hard or even impossible to prosecute right? Selling an old-lady an insurance policy she doesn't need isn't illegal, per se, but it's stealing all the same and no better or worse than what my friend was doing.

But my late friend is an evil 'sociopath' and those other people selling cons are just salesmen doing their jobs. Fair enough. I'd rather hang out in the bar with that sociopath than any stockbroker or insurance salesman.
posted by three blind mice at 5:55 AM on July 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


I got hit by a "moneychanger" a long time ago. My drawer, which was always perfect, was going to be $50 short. I covered the shortage out of my own pocket, as someone said upthread. My personal margins were tight enough in those days (early 1990s) that I didn't eat lunch for a couple of days, and I was terrified that my boss would find out and fire me anyway for not being more careful.

Years later, at another job, another moneychanger came in. As soon as he laid the other bill on the counter and began talking about another way he wanted change, I grabbed all the money, closed the drawer, and said, "hold on, let me count." He ran out of the store. The manager was standing right next to me and had no idea what he'd seen until I counted the drawer for him and showed him we were $10 up but would have been $50 down. Unless you cashier for years you seldom see moneychangers. It's impossible to prepare for a scam like that.
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:36 AM on July 1, 2013 [19 favorites]


"But my late friend is an evil 'sociopath' and those other people selling cons are just salesmen doing their jobs."

Well, as Diablevert was saying, most scams are easy to achieve & hard to prosecute because the victim is at least partially complicit in greed. The moneychanger scam is different because the cashier has nothing to gain except the pleasure of being helpful. As to the "scam" you describe of selling old ladies unneeded insurance policies, I think most reasonable people would agree that financial products should be better regulated as to need and ability to pay. And finally, an insurance policy is a product that if you relinquish it early, you are generally entitled to a pro-rated refund.

Try another excuse.
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:49 AM on July 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


I had a gas attendant job through high school and anti-moneychanger techniques were part of standard training for anyone who operated a register or dealt with cash in any way. Customers tried to pull all sorts of coupon and credit card scams but to my disappointment not one even attempted the moneychanger routine.
posted by ceribus peribus at 6:55 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ivan Fyodorovich:You know how scientists/engineers are, in general, easier to fool than the average person? (Mostly with regard to paranormal con-artists and such, according to James Randi and others.)

Cites please? What I found was this, which says that, according to the esteemed Mr. Randi, News Reporters and Academics are "seem to be more susceptible to magical thinking and/or belief in the paranormal."

His vote for least susceptible? Children. something something Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny ...
posted by achrise at 7:03 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Been managing to dodge the scam/con attempts by being extremely cynical and misanthropic. Which has had absolutely no draw... Get away from my gas tank you thieving uniformed little shit, oh wait, no go ahead. Sorry.
posted by Slackermagee at 7:09 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Unless you cashier for years you seldom see moneychangers. It's impossible to prepare for a scam like that.

I worked at a video store a while back (obviously) and we got a lot of moneychangers there. They were often guys renting porn movies, and they went out of their way to wait for the young women to check them out. Maybe they thought we would be too embarrassed to call them on it while we were staring at Seymour Butts' Anal Escapades or something.

They were mistaken. None of us relished having to shut down a drawer to count it out, but we'd do it in a heartbeat. Then they were the ones squirming.
posted by headspace at 7:24 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Good to know my suffering (around 1991) was not in vain ;-)

Seriously I don't know how old you guys are or what state you worked in, but *my* cashier training (for probably 10 different retail jobs in the 80s & 90s) consisted of the manager watching you make change enough times they felt sure you weren't going to rip off the customers, not the other way around.
posted by toodleydoodley at 7:32 AM on July 1, 2013


there's pretty much unambiguous evidence for modularity at a bunch of levels of cognition.

What? Overwhelming evidence points towards massive neural interconnectivity and plasticity, especially in humans, which are incompatible with any kind of modularity metaphor.

Here's a real example of a hard-wired, modular behavior. How many human behaviors are inflexible to the same degree? I can think of a few--babies mimicking facial expressions, for example--but they're clearly exceptions.
posted by IjonTichy at 7:50 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Overwhelming evidence points towards massive neural interconnectivity and plasticity...

That doesn't contradict the idea of functional modularity, does it? Even if the modularity is itself plastic, it can still be there. We "chunk" the world. If we didn't, the information processing requirements would be too big to handle.
posted by mondo dentro at 8:05 AM on July 1, 2013


Oh, sorry, one other thing: I don't think "modularity" implies "not interconnected".
posted by mondo dentro at 8:16 AM on July 1, 2013


But at that point you're defining modularity so broadly, does it really have any explanatory power? This is what Fodor took it to mean:

1. Domain specific
2. Innately specified
3. Not assembled
4. Neurologically hardwired
5. Autonomous

...by that definition, it's pretty clear to me that modern neuroscience has shown that the idea does not apply broadly to human cognition the way people once thought it would. Point 4 is especially problematic, given findings like this. And Point 2 is problematic as well, given how even the simplest characteristics of visual cortex can be altered by impoverished stimulation during developent. Is that "innate specificity"?

The word modularity could, of course, be used in a different way, but then it might be better to pick a word with less historical baggage.
posted by IjonTichy at 8:26 AM on July 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


JHarris: Ya know, there's not really a whole lot our brains are hardwired for. Maybe the basic senses and a default interpretation of the world.
We're hardwired to see lines, curves, circles, and faces (where a "face" is generically a blob containing two smaller dark spots side-by-side), to fill in patterns over our fovial blind spots, to white-balance our vision based on overall lighting clues (and to fine-tune that based on near-white bright areas), to notice movement (especially at our periphery), to extrapolate the relatively small full-color portion of our vision to the rest of our view (using involuntary eye movements to "sample" the room), to stabilize full-field jitter, to extrapolate the path of moving objects, to analyze the direction of another's gaze by the white surrounding their pupils (a trick share by few other animals except dogs), and several other lower-order visual interpretations.

All of which can be gamed to con us, just as our auditory processing can.

Perhaps a more accurate statement is, "We're hardwired to accept certain inputs uncritically, and that enables us to be conned."
posted by IAmBroom at 9:43 AM on July 1, 2013


Fodor's definition was anything but unobjectionable. In the broad sense, "modularity" is used to describe a function of cognition that is not susceptible (in some vaguely defined sense) to conscious modification. I can choose not to think about XYZ, I can recall certain memories on command, I can form a detailed mental map of a place (or choose not to), and so on. This stands in contrast to my inability to stop perceiving certain optical illusions, detect visual motion, parse audible language, and so on. It's often a useful term, although one can easily appreciate why philosophers like Fodor may object to it.
posted by Nomyte at 9:44 AM on July 1, 2013


We're hardwired to see lines, curves, circles... All of which can be gamed to con us, just as our auditory processing can.

I'll grant that visual abilities like line and curve detection are, of all perceptual abilities, the most plausibly described as hard-wired, but I'm having a hard timing coming up with similar examples from the auditory system. Oh, well, sound localization. Auditory abilities in vocal learners such as humans and birds tend to be heavily dependent upon exposure during childhood, though, which obviously doesn't rule out genetic influence but I think should be enough to keep us from thinking of them as hard-wired.

In any case, what we're discussing is a far cry from the processes that the article implies are built in:

"Our gray matter can distinguish honesty from dishonesty and alarming situations from unruffled ones but it cannot instinctively detect dishonesty and fraud cleverly disguised."

I'm going to take a firm stance and say that it is utter nonsense to say that humans are hard-wired to be unable to distinguish dishonesty and fraud, because of serotonin (the "well-being chemical"!) or something.
posted by IjonTichy at 10:31 AM on July 1, 2013


In the broad sense, "modularity" is used to describe a function of cognition that is not susceptible (in some vaguely defined sense) to conscious modification.

Do you have an example of the term being used this way in the literature? My understanding was that this condition is necessary but not sufficient for modularity but I could very well be wrong.
posted by IjonTichy at 10:34 AM on July 1, 2013


This is from animal psychology, but there have been similar studies of human children of various ages. I don't have access to an article database at the moment to find things that cite it, but there are a good number.

As to the piece in the FPP, it's an article in Psychology Today, where Psychology Today is to actual psychology as… I'll let someone else finish the analogy.
posted by Nomyte at 10:40 AM on July 1, 2013


Actually, the following has a very nice review of findings in both human and non-human animals:

Cheng, K., & Newcombe, N. S. (2005). Is there a geometric module for spatial orientation? squaring theory and evidence. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (Pre-2011), 12(1), 1-23.
posted by Nomyte at 10:46 AM on July 1, 2013


Thanks, universe, for reminding me it's time to re-read Going Postal.
posted by nicebookrack at 11:40 AM on July 1, 2013


IjonTichy: I'm having a hard timing coming up with similar examples from the auditory system
Loud noises are inherently startling.

Water sounds draw your attention.

Infant's cries - and especially their high-distress cries (pain & fear) - initiate an involuntary attention reaction. It isn't even species-specific; there are videos of a panther that took prey, and then was attracted by cries made by the infant of the prey. The panther responded by attempting to nurture and comfort the baby.

There are undoubtedly others, but I can't think of any right now.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:59 AM on July 1, 2013


Well I am relating a story that is more 30 years old, but I probably haven't changed so much. My friends... the Tony Soprano types.... they probably haven't changed so much either. That's the neighborhood I grew up in. A lot of my adult friends today are the deadbeat juvenile criminals I went to the dirtbag public schools with. I don't live around there anymore - got out when I could - but it's not like I forget where I came from or would turn my back on them or rat them out - then or now.

I see. And then you had to quit The E Street Band and the FBI moved you to Scandinavia and set you up with a small business. Maybe you wanna take your location off your profile? Like now?

Anyway, I enjoy your perspective because it improves mine.

30 years ago, somebody who did what your friend did, did it to me in the gas station I worked at. Earlier that day, I found a wallet with 270 dollars in it and asked the police to get the guys phone number for me. He was so pleased.

Then I counted out and lost my job because of the shortage, and there weren't any jobs so I joined the Army after starving for two months. That day changed my whole life and gave me a big push down a path I regret.

You never know what you are actually doing to someone when you screw them over, which is why you shouldn't do it. Or let anyone else do it around you.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 12:33 PM on July 1, 2013 [15 favorites]


Well, loud noises and infant cries can both be thrown under the category "Loud and high-pitched things are salient" (train whistles are really just as attention-grabbing as infant cries, at least to me), which is likely universal but is pretty unimpressive compared to things like complex cells in the visual system. As for "water sounds draw your attention", well, that doesn't seem to be true for me at all so I don't see how it could be genetically determined.

Oh, I thought of another example! Frequency-combination-sensitive cells in bats are likely hard-wired. Last I checked, though, nothing similar had been found in humans.
posted by IjonTichy at 12:59 PM on July 1, 2013


This bears no resemblance to actual science.
posted by spitbull at 3:12 PM on July 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


where Psychology Today is to actual psychology as…

I think we can mostly agree that Psychology Today doesn't actually do that analyzing human behavior thing very well. It almost seems like... a con?

This is just a subset of the "we aren't evolved for mass civilization" issue.


Civilization is built on trust. Trade, banking, credit, letters of exchange (Capitalism): all this requires a level of basic trust in order to function. It's an imperfect system. Civilization always has parasites, con-men, & free-riders nibbling at the edges. As long as it holds together...

The Grifters by Jim Thompson (later a movie with John Cusack) starts with a detailed description of the moneychanger scam. The protagonist almost gets the life beaten out of him when he tries it on the wrong mark. Worth reading if like this sort of thing (hard-boiled Americana)...
posted by ovvl at 4:26 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


OTOH, there can be an amazing benefit to not be a dick to a cashier. A few years ago, I used to attend a convenience store/gas station quite frequently (smokes, jalapeno cheddar dogs, and frosty frozen quasi-Slurpee beverages) and was always pleasant and respectful to the people that worked there.

One day I had just gotten paid and had a bank envelope full of cash. I stopped in with the ex-wife for smokes and frozen bevvies. I paid and we headed home. When I got home, I found the envelope missing. In panic, we called around, and found out one of the cashiers had seen me drop it, and, when the person that picked it up came to the counter with the envelope in hand, apparently intended to use it, snagged it out of their hand and stuffed it in the safe. Now, I did have to wait until the next day until the manager got in the safe, but when we went over, every bit of cash was there. I tried (unsuccessfully) to try to offer a reward to the clerk and manager, which they graciously declined. After an amazing long sessions of thanks and ass-kissing by yours truly, I went home and found out the district and national offices (it was part of one of the big chains) and proceeded to energetically inform both groups of the clerk's and manager's name and that said employees were saints among men and that they did truly walk on gasoline.
posted by Samizdata at 5:00 PM on July 1, 2013


INTENDING to use it, even.
posted by Samizdata at 5:05 PM on July 1, 2013


Just annoyed enough with hearing all the ways we're hardwired. We're hardwired to do this, we're hardwired to do that. Beep boop, we're all robots. It's a wretched cliche.

You're only annoyed because that's how you're hardwired.
posted by flabdablet at 8:53 AM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Horace Rumpole: "Wow, it's especially chilling when a sociopath just comes right out and admits it, isn't it?"

Yeah, I mean, it takes a lack of empathy to cheat someone knowingly. Sociopathy isn't recognized anymore by the DSM, but there are a few disorders where lack of empathy is common, in particular the cluster B personality disorders.

This group is more susceptible to con artists for the same reasons they can be the con artist. It's true that financial literacy can prevent some issues, but the person who is vulnerable to these types of schemes is typically comfortable financially but who loses objectivity when presented with unrealistic fantasies. People who have problems with empathy and who harbor unrealistic fantasies (typical for NPD) have a much more difficult time figuring out whether someone is trying to con them, although they don't have a problem conning someone else or being in on such a scheme. The old saw that you can't fool a liar is not true at all. That friend who rips of cashiers by blatantly misrepresenting the money he handed over is someone who not only sees no problem in conning others when the risk is low, he's also much more likely to be the victim of other con artists.
posted by krinklyfig at 2:19 PM on July 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Which in turn, reinforces their view of human relations as one big con game, in their minds justifying their continued conning of others.
posted by tel3path at 2:47 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


tel3path: "Which in turn, reinforces their view of human relations as one big con game, in their minds justifying their continued conning of others."

Yes, exactly, it's all justified by the notion that everyone screws everyone, and that being honest is for suckers. I've known people in this spectrum without that type of attitude, but the lack of empathy still appears in other ways.
posted by krinklyfig at 3:36 PM on July 2, 2013


Man, a close friend is going down the ACN telecom-pyramid-scheme hole ... Scary to watch.

My persistent refusal to accept that LifeWave patches were anything more than expensive placebos cost me a good friendship.

Pyramid schemes suck.
posted by flabdablet at 9:14 PM on July 2, 2013


They were mistaken. None of us relished having to shut down a drawer to count it out, but we'd do it in a heartbeat. Then they were the ones squirming.

Wait, I'm confused - why would you shut down a drawer to count it?
posted by corb at 12:38 AM on July 3, 2013


In response to my comment that "modularity" does not imply "not interconnected", IjonTichy says:

...at that point you're defining modularity so broadly, does it really have any explanatory power?

The answer is, yes, to a network theoriest or complex system modeler it most certainly does.

For example, imagine a network model with a huge number N of nodes. Imagine all nodes are connected to all other nodes, but we can assign strengths to the connections. Then it is possible to identify clusters of nodes that very strongly interact with each other. Call these modules. There would be a much smaller number M of these modules (M « N), which would then still weakly interact with each other.

So, mathematically speaking, such an architecture has great explanatory power. Now, obviously, whether or not such a thing is actually happening in living creatures is another question--but given the radically hierarchical nature of nervous systems (billions of tiny interacting "agents" aggregate and coordinate to do very discrete and coherent macroscopic tasks), it is a good working hypothesis, IMHO.

PS By the way, IjonTichy, thanks very much for the neuroscience schooling. As you can tell, I am not deeply educated in the field.

PPS Somewhat similar network concepts are being used by the NSA (and most likely all major world governments) to data mine in the attempt to identify "dangerous affinity groups" (like, you know, vegan environmentalists and animal rights activists).
posted by mondo dentro at 8:23 AM on July 3, 2013


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