Free Lunches and the Short Con
Our friend Michael Webster at the Misleading Advertising Law Blog once reported on a securities scam that bilked almost $600,000 from elderly victims who were lured by a "free investment seminar, complete with lunch."
What is it about a free lunch, our correspondent asks, that would convince individuals to turn over their life savings to [a con man]? The answer, once again, can be found in the social psychological archives, particularly those described by Robert Cialdini.
Cialdini, says Michael, describes the influence tool here as "the rule for reciprocation."
The rule says that we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us. If a woman does us a favour, we should do her one in return; if a man sends us a birthday present, we should remember his birthday with a gift of our own.
Although the reciprocation rule does not appear to require us to turn over our hard earned money to a criminal just because he has bought us lunch, some scientific experiments have shown that the rule can be used to obtain significant economic benefits. The old Amway trick of delivering a "free sample" of merchandise for a 24 trial period ensnared many a consumer who would not have purchased from Amway otherwise.
Why can the rule extract seemingly excessive favours? Cialdini identifies two reasons: (a) most of us find it highly disagreeable to be in a state of obligation, and will quickly try to remove ourselves from its grasp, and (b) to violate the rule is to be a moocher or a welsher. In order to avoid being labeled as such, we might agree to an unequal exchange of favours.
As long as I can recall, Dad was engaged in the task of hipping me to the tricks of salesmanship. My earliest memory of Dad's con-man lessons is from elementary school when he began taking me to land sales seminars in the far reaches of the still undeveloped San Fernando Valley. Cf. Chinatown.
I remember sitting under a dusty tent mid-summer, my bare legs sticking uncomfortably to a folding chair, listening to Dad's steady narration while the salesman "invested" members of the audience in paying any price he chose for a name-brand watch.
I don't remember the scam but do remember being proud of having the only dad in the place who couldn't be conned. Other kids' dads took them to the beach or to the park. We followed tent shows, carneys, three card monte players and other con men. This early education left me with an odd combination of wariness and fondness for every guy in a sharp suit making his living with a quick tongue.
I was walking walking down Kalakaua Avenue a few months ago with Mr. Thrifty and an old friend, the Bay Area criminal defense attorney, Joe Mockus. Honolulu's Kalakaua Avenue is a cross between Rodeo Drive and the boardwalk at Venice Beach -- Gucci and Prada stores hard against the street carnival -- guys juggling swords, mimes holding statue poses, and, vendors passing out "shoot real guns" leaflets for the rifle range down the street.
"And you know what most of the people were watching?" Joe was asking as he described the previous night's Kalakaua scene, "a guy at a folding table playing three card monte!"
The point? There's something compelling about being conned. Something inside us that wants to crowd in around the charming guy on the street corner moving a pea from one shell to another, offering us something for nothing, selling us our own dreams. When you're on vacation, losing a few bucks to the three card monte guy is just one of life's little pleasures. I can see the grifter standing before me now, smiling as he shifts the tattered playing cards back and forth like a shuttle in a loom, my dad whispering his steady salesman's warnings in my ear.
It doesn't really get any better than that on a hot Honolulu night.