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Fool Proof summary

Tess Wilkinson-Ryan

How Fear of Playing the Sucker Shapes Our Selves and the Social Order — And What We Can Do About It

4.3 (20 ratings)
16 mins
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    Fool Proof
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    Being played for a fool is a universal human experience

    Imagine you log into your credit card app and see an unusual $20 charge from a website you’ve never visited. After calling customer service, you learn that a hacker has stolen your credit card info but you’re not liable for the charge and it’ll be refunded.

    A little annoying, but you didn’t really lose any money, so no harm done.

    Now imagine this same scenario, but with one major detail changed. Earlier that day you were approached by a man holding a clipboard outside the grocery store who asked you to donate $20 to a children’s charity. He seemed trustworthy enough, and you wanted to help the kids, so you swiped your card.

    Again, you call customer service and they tell you that the charge will be removed. You didn’t actually lose money in either scenario, so why does one feel so much worse than the other?

    It’s because being conned, or made to look foolish, is a deeply disruptive and painful human experience that everyone understands. The feeling is so bad, in fact, that people will do almost anything to avoid it.

    In 2007, a team of experimental psychologists coined the term sugrophobia – a mix of the Latin roots for “sucking” and “fear” – to represent the phenomenon. In their research, they hypothesized that the fear of being a sucker is an experience unique to humans and that it’s possible to track its psychological triggers and emotional consequences.

    Falling for a con engages two very uncomfortable conditions – regret and alienation. The regret kicks in because we’ve had an active role in our own misfortune. In other words, we have to agree to be involved in the situation to come out looking like a fool. As Wilkinson-Ryan notes, falling for a scam is like taping a “kick me” sign to your own back.

    And then there’s alienation. On a deeper level, the construct of being made a sucker isn’t really about material outcomes, but social standing and respect. The sucker’s dilemma is in essence a power play. No matter what kind of scam is taking place, the mark will always be socially demoted by the con. Even if no material transaction happens, there’ll still be a winner and a loser.

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    What is Fool Proof about?

    Fool Proof (2023) explores how the universal human fear of being a sucker contributes to the social order and drives our actions and behaviors. By explaining how the “sucker’s game” permeates so many aspects of our lives, it shows us how we can recognize our fears and keep them from influencing our values and beliefs.

    Who should read Fool Proof?

    • Anyone interested in the psychology behind the fear of being a sucker
    • People who want to learn more about how scams affect our lives
    • Fans of psychology and sociology books

    About the Author

    Tess Wilkinson-Ryan is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, teaching courses in consumer law, contracts, and leadership. She has a law degree and a doctorate in psychology. Her research centers around the moral psychology of legal decision-making, especially in contracts and negotiations.

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