Scam Psychology: Mind and Mood Matters

Scams work because we are not always as rational as we would like to think — or be. Human minds have innate vulnerabilities to which the mad and bad have spent ample time studying. The tactics they employ are not at all new, but many still fall for them. Knowing how and why they still work might someday save you.

Scams also come in multiple incarnations. Variations exist, whether in person or through online platforms. They may range in complexity, desired gains, or target populations. However, most operate under some underlying key principles.

Expanding on the list enumerated by Conran (2019), the following are common characteristics:


The aim of the scammer or the conman is to sell you a story. The narrative they give frames the whole direction of the conversation. This opening allows them to learn information and to prime you for further manipulation. This can be through hard physical transactions or by simply influencing your mood. Taking advantage of source characteristics like attractiveness and credibility also helps the scammer in pushing the story. Charismatic individuals have an easier time appearing more trustworthy. The same applies when the labels of expertise are flaunted in their testimonies (Gilovich et al., 2015). After all, psychology says that 9 out of 10 astronauts agree that people in lab coats and uniforms are more believable.

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You cannot always detect a scam because attention is a scarce resource. The Signal Detection Theory (SDT) holds that individuals are only capable of detecting limited amounts of important stimuli at any given time. The presence of distracting and irrelevant stimuli hampers this detection ability. Theoretical models on selective attention propose that certain filters play a part in whether information you receive actually gets processed, saved, or not. Complementing this are models on divided attention, suggesting that mental resources, also being limited, can only be divided between activities. When attention is given to a more demanding task, the performance on the concurrent task tends to suffer (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2012).

Time Pressure

Pressure can be tiring. The Elaboration-Likelihood Model (ELM) and the Heuristic-Systematic Model (HSM) posits that persuasive messages are not always processed via the central route where logical, careful, prudent, diligent, and systematic analysis reside. Adding time pressure in an individual’s ability to decide instead activates the peripheral route, relying on shortcuts, heuristics, and cues without much thought (Gilovich et al., 2015).

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Make them an offer they can’t refuse! Everyone wants a good deal. This part seems to be more economic rather than psychological but still is pretty straightforward. Nonetheless, this motivation is another shortcoming. Seager (2018) suggests that the fear of missing out (FOMO) can be one explanation.

But that’s not all, folks!!!

Combined with time pressure, the scarcity of the opportunity, whether implied or outright declared, can be enough to draw, entice, and persuade people. The feelings of losing or missing a “good” opportunity can be all too difficult to pass off — no bloody horse head needed.

Social Influence and Proof
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Most people are into it. They claim it to be legit. They already got their payouts. Easy money for those early.

Why not, right?

Despite free will, individuality, and the appearance of self-control, people are all too susceptible to social influence. This can come in the form of conformity, compliance, or obedience. An individual can change beliefs and behaviours or ignore one’s capacity to decide alone when there is pressure, whether implicit or explicit, from peers or others who are present. Compliance then happens when the pressure leans towards the explicit end, while obedience is a product of a large gap in power relations, real or imagined. Pair those things with the effects of group size and unanimity and you can be caught off guard doing something you wouldn’t have done on your own (Gilovich et al., 2015).


Here, we loosely use the term mood to refer to instances when emotions, mood, and affect are used as tools of deception. We further know that people in good moods are easier to convince. That’s why you have to clean the house and wash the dishes before asking permission to go out. Or, as is the case in mood maintenance, the reason why you might agree to requests by a scammer, as he has been kind to you from the beginning. Also, consistent with the processing models, we know that there is a lower tendency for people to employ the central processing route when they are in a good mood, thus not thoroughly analyzing the potential outcomes of their decisions.

Negative emotions, however, can also be dangerous. For one, the Negative State Relief Model (NSR) holds that people in negative moods are driven to alleviate those feelings. In the case of fear factor tactics in online scams, the negative mood induced by the line, “someone is trying to withdraw from your account” can be alleviatedby the prompt to “log in here to secure your account”. Like a fish out of water, we usually aim to repair our mood from a negative state to a more positive one (Norris & Brookes, 2021).

What now?

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list. Plenty of other tricks and tactics are out there. Some are more malicious and irresistibly more seductive. One way to look at it might be to first know the tools of their trade. The next step then becomes to know where most of our vulnerabilities are laid.


Conran, A. (2019, July 26). The Superpower of the Conman. TEDx Talks. [Video]. YouTube.

Gilovich, T., Keltner, D., Chen, S., Nisbett, R.E. (2016). Social Psychology (4th Ed.). W. W. Norton & Company.

Norris, G., Brookes, A., (2021, February 1). Personality, emotion and individual differences in response to online fraud. Personality and Individual Differences (Vol. 169).

Seager, P. (2018, September 19). Five psychological reasons why people fall for scam – and how to avoid them. The Conversation. Retrieved January 29 from:

Sternberg, R.J., Sternberg, K. (2012). Cognitive Psychology. Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

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