Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982
Dr. Anthony Pratkanis, UC Santa Cruz psychology professor and social psychology researcher, held hundreds of students, employees, and community members in raptAnthony PratkanisAnthony Pratkanis attention last Friday at Ohlone College in Fremont, CA. Entitled “Selling FlimFlam,” Pratkanis’ talk began with a loud admonition to “leave your conscience at the door.” It then delivered a powerful 1½ hour lesson that masqueraded as a guide to selling flimflam, but which was actually designed to teach us the signs that we’re being conned, duped, sold a bill of goods, and presented with empty promises.

Pratkanis’ talk began with background information that showed how widespread and costly flimflam can be. In the U.S., more money is spent on medical quackery than on hospitalization. Con criminals rake in over $100 billion each year, promising everything from free food, to sex, to luxuries beyond your wildest dreams.

In an evidence-laden but humorous presentation, Pratkanis laid out the five basic steps to selling flimflam to a credulous public:

1. Create a Phantom Dream: A “phantom,” in this case, is an unavailable goal that looks possible. Predict the end of the world, advocate for quick and painless cures to terrible diseases, promise weight loss with no effort, profess the powers of prophesy and/or great wisdom. To demonstrate how powerful these phantoms are, Pratkanis played a video clip from the television show “Candid Camera” in which two men mimed carrying a large sheet of glass across a public sidewalk. Although most could see that there was no glass, nearly everyone walking by took great pains to avoid “walking through” the imaginary sheet.

2. Manufacture Source Credibility and Sincerity: Gain your mark’s confidence by turning yourself into a guru, a leader, a mystic, a god, or some other powerful source that is beyond reproach. As Pratkanis pointed out, this is easy to do since you simply need to “make stuff up.” Tell and retell myths about yourself, add nonsense to your résumé, or think up a phony research center and make yourself the director. This also allows “altercasting,” a tactic in which targets are placed into a social role that makes it easier to influence them. After all, if I become a leader, you suddenly become one of my followers. See how easy that was!

3. Create a Rationalization Trap: By starting out with small behavioral requests, con criminals can build up to creating dissonance in their targets, eventually creating so much cognitive dissonance in them (“I’m a smart person, but I just did something that could be seen as foolish.”) that they come to believe that their behaviors were rational. As an example, Pratkanis showed a video clip of two supporters of faith healer Peter Popoff watching him being debunked on television. Rather than changing their minds, they rationalized that he was still a good person, and may have been using trickery only in that single instance.

4. Use Self-Generated Persuasion: The most effective way to convince your targets is often to encourage them to convince themselves. Putting targets in a situation that allows them to think up rationalizations or convincing reasons for their behaviors has proven much more effective since it doesn’t stimulate contradictory thoughts the way external messages often do.

5. Build a Granfalloon: Defined by Kurt Vonnegut as “a proud and meaningless association of human beings,” a granfalloon provides members with simple rules about what they are to believe. “I am a [fill in social identity] and we [fill in with identity-related behaviors and beliefs].” Frighteningly, these are so easy to create that they simply require separating people into groups and applying labels/names to each. Nostradamians, 9/11 Truthers, Baby Boomers, and the Raider Nation are all examples, and each provides rituals and symbols, jargon and beliefs, shared goals, specialized knowledge, and – perhaps most importantly – enemies.

In addition to these five important components of becoming a con criminal, Pratkanis also offered what he called a “special BONUS step”:

Dealing with the Heat: Do-gooders, who often cannot be bribed, often stand in the way of a good con. They annoyingly point out such things as the fact that a treatment doesn’t cure, prevent, or diagnose an illness, or that prophesy has failed, or that our plant is actually much older than 6,000 years. So, what do we do? Easy! Simply engage in character assassination by telling lies or making innuendos about those who challenge you (“If you learned that James Randi had an illegitimate child for whom he has never paid child support, would it change your mind about him?”), or by accusing the do-gooder of the very misdeeds you are engaging in (aka, projection).

Although the audience laughed throughout the presentation, Pratkanis ended on a serious note, reminding each of us to pick up our conscience at the door and use it. He asked us to ask ourselves how we might use the information he and others have provided to steel ourselves against flimflam, and suggested that share the knowledge with others so that they can do the same.

Good advice, indeed.

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