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Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris on their book 'Nobody's Fool'

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Don't feel too bad if you fall for someone's con game. Just listen to Daniel Simons, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois.

DANIEL SIMONS: It's really easy to assume that everybody who falls for a scam is just gullible or naive or clueless. That's easy because in hindsight, once the scam has been revealed, you can spot what was wrong with it in the first place. But in the moment, we tend not to, and that's the real challenge.

PFEIFFER: Simons wrote a book with cognitive scientist Christopher Chabris called "Nobody's Fool: Why We Get Taken In And What We Can Do About It." They look at all sorts of scams from investment swindles to fake news on social media and what's similar about them. I asked them, what is at the root of all these hoaxes? Dan Simons answered first.

SIMONS: When we interact with other people, we have a truth bias. We, by default, tend to assume that what other people are telling us is true, and it takes effort and time to question that. So if we, by default, assume somebody is telling us the truth and they're not, and they put us under a lot of time pressure, they can very easily get us to accept something that's not true.

PFEIFFER: And I think we should note here that the scams of today go far beyond the ones that seem obvious, like the Nigerian princes asking for money. You know, here at NPR, we recently did a security training, and we had to take quizzes. And some of them were hard. You really had to scrutinize to look - where is that email fake? So Chris, can you talk a bit about why so many of us fall for these today?

CHRISTOPHER CHABRIS: The reason why is that scammers have sort of learned over time how to exploit weaknesses in our cognitive habits and in our tastes for information, the kinds of things that attract us, and the kinds of thinking patterns that we deploy in everyday life. So in the case of email scams, for example, one hook that they use is familiarity. They make their fake emails look very much like the ones we're used to getting. And, of course, they also exploit the fact that we're trying to be efficient and quick in our everyday life and make decisions quickly. We don't want to scrutinize every email in detail. And they're also using the principle of selection. They're sending those out to so many people that they only need to hook a few of them.

PFEIFFER: You were just talking, Chris, about familiarity - the idea that familiarity can be weaponized. When you think something is familiar, it makes us drop our guard. But how do we suppress that instinct?

CHABRIS: It's not easy to suppress that instinct because it's sort of fundamental to how we get along in the world. It makes sense to trust people we've known for a while and trust things that are similar to things we've encountered before. One of the main ways to do that, to sort of be less tricked by familiarity, is to try to recognize when things seem familiar but you're not really sure why. Sometimes things create a sense of familiarity, but that familiarity doesn't really mean anything. So you need to ask yourself, where is that familiarity coming from? Is it really a sign of trust or is it maybe something that means something else?

PFEIFFER: Yeah, there's this overall message in your book that is - accept less and check more. And when your reaction to something is, wow, maybe what your reaction should really be is, is this really true?

CHABRIS: Those work really well for fake news because oftentimes fake news is sort of crafted in such a way that it appeals to our expectations. It sort of satisfies what we hope is going on in the world, what we believe is going on in the world. And it might come from a trusted source if it comes through social media, which is a lot of the way that fake news spreads. It's automatically coming from people who are your friends or your contacts or at least someone you're already familiar with.

PFEIFFER: There's another chapter in your book called "Appreciate The Value Of Noise," which is that noise is something that deviates from the norm. It breaks up the consistency. And normally, if something is inconsistent, like a criminal suspect changing his story, we're suspicious. But some things should be inconsistent, like investment returns. Chris, could you talk about what you mean by noise can be valuable?

CHABRIS: So any time human beings are doing something, they're not robots. They're not AI. They don't produce the same output every time. They don't do things perfectly on every try. And when you get to a complex social system such as a financial market, which is really the interaction of millions of people all over the world, nothing proceeds in a completely linear fashion. So stock prices don't go up the same amount every day, every week, every month, every year. And modern-day Ponzi schemers like Bernie Madoff understood this and found that if they offered their customers a very modest but totally consistent annual return, 8- to 10% every year, year after year, they could get billions of dollars coming in. There are even inconsistencies in people's memories from time to time that don't necessarily mean they're lying. Dramatic inconsistencies, of course, could be a signal, but we all sort of have a lot more variability in noise in our behavior than we might intuitively realize. And we have to look for that noise so as not to be tricked by consistency.

PFEIFFER: One of the reactions I had after reading your book was that this puts a lot of responsibility on all of us to do our own research and fact-checking. And I thought, it just seems exhausting. It's so much work. How realistic do you think it is that people are really going to take this level of responsibility not to fall for scams?

CHABRIS: We should do our own research, but we shouldn't get carried away, first of all. You can easily get carried away doing your own, quote, "research" on Google, as we all know, and find all kinds of dodgy sources and so on. We have to have an appreciation for the value of the information we're looking for. And we should really try to limit this to situations where the stakes are high. So if you're trying to decide whether to get a vaccine, who to give your life savings to when you're investing, maybe who to begin a romantic relationship with that you met online, all those kinds of things where, you know, it's going to matter for weeks, months, years to come, then we need to do more checking. We don't need to check, you know, every price tag, every nutritional claim, every little story in the news and so on. We need to try to really find the balance where we're focusing our effort, where the returns are going to be the highest.

PFEIFFER: Another reaction I had to your book is that it's really a bummer that skepticism should or has to be our first reaction. But do you think that's just a reality of life today, at least if you hope not to be scammed?

SIMONS: Yeah, I mean, I think one important thing to think about when we think about scams like this is that all of us can be a target of scams. Fortunately, big scams, grand cons are really pretty rare. We might get deceived in a minor way from day to day, and many of the times that that happens, it just doesn't matter that much. So it really is a matter of prioritizing our skepticism to focus on the things that would have bad consequences. One way to do that is to anticipate - how would we react if things went completely off the rails? Let's say you're making some big decision. You're buying a car. You're investing some money. What would be the worst possible outcome here? And if somebody were trying to scam me, how would they do that? Thinking like a scammer sometimes can help you spot those risks. But the big thing is you don't want to go through life as a permaskeptic (ph), right? You don't want to constantly be questioning everything because it would make all of your social interactions awful. We want to be able to interact with people with a level of trust. We just need to know when to be skeptical, and that's the really hard part.

PFEIFFER: Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris are the authors of "Nobody's Fool: Why We Get Taken In And What We Can Do About It." Thank you to both of you.

SIMONS: Thank you for having us on.

CHABRIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.