The just world assumption and our inbuilt vulnerability to scams

But the Patten con [an evangelical congregation cultivated and exploited for self-enrichment of the preachers] wasn’t just any scam. It was the scam of all scams—the one that gets to the heart of why confidence games not only work but thrive the world over, no matter how many expert debunkers and vocal victims there may be. It was a scam of belief, the most profound yet simple belief we have: about the way the world works, why life is the way it is. We want to believe. Believe that things make sense. That an action leads to a result. That things don’t just happen willy-nilly no matter what we do, but rather for a reason. That what we do makes a difference, however small. That we ourselves matter. That there is a grand story, a higher method to the seeming madness. And in the heart of that desire, we easily become blind. The eternal lure of the con is the same reason religions arise spontaneously in most any human society. People always want something to believe in.

The crux of the belief doesn’t matter, [cult infiltrator David] Sullivan thought. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Vishnu, Jesus, or a new way to get rich quick. It’s immaterial to me,” he had said. The techniques and basic psychology remained the same. “They’re being profoundly—subtly but profoundly—manipulated at their great expense, at the expense of their lives in some cases.”

And the reason it happens—and often happens to the most intelligent of people (note, Sullivan would say, the typical cult recruit: young, smart, sophisticated, savvy)—is that human nature is wired toward creating meaning out of meaninglessness, embracing belief over doubt. “There are certain essential things we all have in common,” Sullivan said. “There’s a deep desire for faith, there’s a deep desire to feel there’s someone up there who really cares about what’s going on and intervenes in our life. There’s a desire to have a coherent worldview: there’s a rhyme and reason for everything we do, and all the terrible things that happen to people—people die, children get leukemia—there’s some reason for it. And here’s this guru who says, ‘I know exactly the reason.'” It’s the reason behind all cons, from the smallest to these, the deepest.

Konnikova, Maria. The Confidence Game. Why We Fall for It… Every Time. Penguin Books, 2016. p. 307, 310-1


2 thoughts on “The just world assumption and our inbuilt vulnerability to scams”

  1. “It’s little wonder that so many cons flourish in the world of religious experience—and, indeed, that religiosity is one of the few factors that consistently predicts susceptibility to fraud. It’s a thin line between belief in one miracle and belief in another. The Bebe and C. Thomas Pattens of the world [the perpetrators of the evangelical fraud above] have their work cut out for them: religion is the natural breeding ground of the confidence game. The threshold for belief has long been surpassed. Now you need only the right preacher to give it just the right revelatory meaning.” (p. 318)

  2. In a study in 2021 called “The Politics of Depression”, a group of scholars zeroed in on the possible link between political ideology and unhappiness among teenagers. They found an alarming rise in depression among young people starting in 2012, and, like the cdc, a particular increase among girls. But ideological difference mattered more than gender difference. Liberal boys reported higher rates of depression than conservative boys or girls, and liberal girls reported the highest rates of all.

    Disentangling correlation from cause to explain the happiness gap between conservatives and liberals has long vexed social psychologists and political commentators. So, no doubt, has the task of disentangling one’s own politics from one’s hypotheses. The authors of the study connected the rise of depression with the spread of social media. They also argued that conservative ideology may help protect mental health, for reasons that did not flatter conservatives: “This group presumably benefits from the American cultural myth of an equal playing field in which exceptional social positions are thought to be earned through hard work and talent rather than inherited through codified privilege.” Liberal adolescents, they wrote, may feel alienated in contrast to conservative peers “whose hegemonic views were flourishing”.

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