The Culture of Risk and 419 scams

Just as I’m reviewing a manuscript on the sociology of risk, I read a great piece in the New Yorker about one 419 scam that really makes you think. Here’s the particularly apt part:

Robert B. Reich, the former Labor Secretary, who has studied the psychology of market behavior, says, “American culture is uniquely prone to the ‘too good to miss’ fallacy. ‘Opportunity’ is our favorite word. What may seem reckless and feckless and hapless to people in many parts of the world seems a justifiable risk to Americans.” But appetite for risk is only part of it. A mark must be willing to pursue a fortune of questionable origin. The mind-set was best explained by the linguist David W. Maurer in his classic 1940 book, “The Big Con”: “As the lust for large and easy profits is fanned into a hot flame, the mark puts all his scruples behind him. He closes out his bank account, liquidates his property, borrows from his friends, embezzles from his employer or his clients. In the mad frenzy of cheating someone else, he is unaware of the fact that he is the real victim, carefully selected and fatted for the kill. Thus arises the trite but none the less sage maxim: ‘You can’t cheat an honest man.’ ”


Read the whole thing, because it’s very good. I can’t understand why people would fall for something that seems so blatant, but I guess the answer is simple greed.

Maybe these scams seem sensible because people have the expectation of gain: if other people are hitting Megabucks after five spins, why shouldn’t you?

I’m tempted to say that this ties into the increased role of legal public gambling in society, but I suspect that people have always wanted “something for nothing.”

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