Why Do Smart People Fall for Scams: How Confirmation Bias Makes You a Target

We write a lot of articles and guides aimed at helping you learn how to identify scams and make more informed buying decisions.

But despite all the content we’ve created (not to mention the vast amount information available on other consumer advocacy websites), we’re genuinely surprised at the number of consumers who continue falling for common scams. What’s going on here?

To answer this question, we took a step back and asked: Why do smart people fall for scams? Why are consumers constantly lured in by offers that are clearly too good to be true?

Recently, we came across a psychological principle known as confirmation bias. And if there’s anything that moves us closer to understanding why scams continue to be so effective, it’s this.

But what is confirmation bias? How does it work? And most importantly, how can you sidestep your confirmation bias and make more informed purchases? That’s exactly what we’ll cover here. 

What Is Confirmation Bias?

To be fair, there are dozens of psychological principles and states of mind that can make us susceptible to scams. In fact, confirmation bias is just a small part of the much broader topic of cognitive bias.

Some of these, appeal to basic emotions such as love or fear, as well as feelings of loneliness and personality traits like impulsivity.

But compared to these, confirmation bias seems to be an especially sticky web that’s all too easy to become tangled in. Just what is it, anyway? And why does it work so well at making us fall for scams?

According to Wikipedia, confirmation bias is defined as:

“The tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. People also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position.”

Here’s a simpler way to think of it: Even though you might believe that you view everything just as it is—factually and impartially—this isn’t the case at all.

Instead, we tend to look for information that goes along with our existing beliefs and opinions about the world. 

We don’t take in as much new information as we think we do, or evaluate the facts accordingly. We just choose the information that supports what we already believe, whether it’s while we’re searching for answers (such as surfing the web, speaking with a friend, etc.), interpreting the information we find, or remembering what we learn. (Don’t worry, we’ll come back around to this in the following section.)

What’s even more interesting is that we don’t only pick and choose the information that supports our position. Nope. Even if we come across facts that completely prove us wrong, we’ll mentally dig in our heels, stick our fingers in our ears, and shout, “Nah, nah! I can’t hear you!” 

In all seriousness though, instead of changing our beliefs based on good evidence, confirmation bias can cause us to become even more fixed in our beliefs—even though we know they’re not true! This is another psychological phenomenon known as the Backfire Effect.

But Why Do We Have Cognitive Bias in the First Place?

Perhaps not necessarily for confirmation bias specifically. But for cognitive bias as a whole, it’s thought that as our brains evolved, it might’ve helped us process information more quickly. And based on the world in which our hunter-gatherer forefathers lived, faster decision-making could have meant the difference between life and death.

Here’s how Psychology Today puts it:

“What is interesting is that many of these cognitive biases must have had, at some point in our evolution, adaptive value. These distortions helped us to process information more quickly (e.g., stalking prey in the jungle), meet our most basic needs (e.g., help us find mates), and connect with others (e.g., be a part of a "tribe").”

But in modern life, these cognitive biases actually backfire and cause more harm than good. Again, referencing the same Psychology Today article:

“The biases that helped us survive in primitive times when life was much simpler (e.g., life goal: live through the day) and speed of a decision rightfully trumped its absolute accuracy doesn't appear to be quite as adaptive in today's much more complex world. Due to the complicated nature of life these days, correctness of information, thoroughness of processing, precision of interpretation, and soundness of judgment are, in most situations today, far more important than the simplest and fastest route to a judgment.”

Alright, so you’ve probably got a good handle on the topic at this point. But let’s step out of the textbook and see how confirmation bias works in the real world. Specifically, how does confirmation bias affect the purchases we make?

Why Do Smart People Fall for Scams: How Confirmation Bias Affects Decisions

Example #1:

Let’s say I believe that there are creams available which can instantly repair all the signs of aging. I’m absolutely sure of it, and always keep this in mind when searching for a new product to try.

This means that I’ll:

  1. Tend to only look in places where my beliefs will be supported, such as certain types of online ads. This is the “searching” we discussed above.

  2. Then, when I land on these websites, I’ll be much more inclined to sit through their long, drawn out presentations and believe their outrageous claims. This goes back to interpreting new information.

  3. Finally, regardless of how many times I’ve paid way too much for a cream that delivered far too little results, I’ll have a tendency to remember only the handful that actually provided any benefits. Then, I’ll use this as “evidence” to support my belief that they really do work. This is the remembering phase.

Basically, using confirmation bias, you’ve mentally stacked all the cards against you, and you’re likely to keep falling for the same scams over and over again.

Example #2:

Now, let’s imagine that I believe a nutritional supplement can help me lose a lot of weight, give me bulging muscles, and chisel my midsection, all without changing my diet or exercise habits. 

Here again, this underlying belief will “inform” my real-world actions, cause me to respond to certain kinds of advertisements, and lead me to believe their claims.

Remember how we talked about the backfire effect above?

This explains why, no matter how much information we find that undeniably proves there’s no fountain of youth, magic weight loss pill, get-rich-quick scheme, or [enter the scam of your choice], we’re so easily able to dodge all the facts and remain comfortable in our beliefs.

Looping back to the main question we asked at the beginning of this article: Based on what we’ve learned here, we now have a much clearer picture of why—no matter how may articles we publish, or how many scams we expose—they can be quickly dismissed if they don’t support the views you already hold.

Is there any hope though? Can we learn to work within the constraints of our confirmation bias and still make wise purchasing decisions? Let’s find out.

How to Overcome Your Confirmation Bias and Avoid Scams

Returning again to the Psychology Today article above (it really is that good, so be sure to read it!), it notes:

“Unfortunately, there is no magic pill that will inoculate us from these cognitive biases. But we can reduce their power over us by understanding these distortions, looking for them in our own thinking, and making an effort to counter their influence over us as we draw conclusions, make choices, and come to decisions. In other words, just knowing and considering these universal biases (in truth, what most people call common sense is actually common bias) will make us less likely to fall victim to them.”

Ultimately, this leaves you with two main strategies against confirmation bias:

1. Admit There Is a Problem

As with most paths to freedom, the first step to finding a solution is admitting there’s a problem. And that, at least in this instance, it makes us more susceptible to falling for scams.

From there, the second step is realizing that change can only come from within. But how in the world can you change when you’re wired—at a basic, biological level—to reject information that contradicts your beliefs? Here are a couple suggestions:

Over the next couple days, pay extra close attention to any ads you respond to. Ask yourself why you respond to them. What triggered your response? Why do you have a tendency to be drawn in by them? What belief are you basing your response on?

Also, keep an eye on the conclusions you draw after reading online articles, listening to the evening news, or clicking on advertisements. Do you find yourself agreeing only with the information that already supports your beliefs? Do you quickly dismiss any conflicting information?

Admittedly, this can be an emotional roller coaster. It’s difficult to shake loose deeply ingrained beliefs that we’ve held for years (or even our whole lives).

But the goal of this exercise is to help you understand yourself better. And even though it can help you save a lot of money in potential scams, it’s difficult to put a price on understanding how to think, instead of relying on bad habits that tell us what to think.

2. Realize That Marketers Exploit Confirmation Bias to Sell More

According to You Are Not So Smart:

“… stories that tell you what you want to hear, stories which confirm your beliefs and give you permission to continue feeling as you already do [are called narrative scripts].”

They get inside our head, attach themselves to our confirmation biases, and make us feel all warm and cozy. After all, we couldn’t be wrong, could we?

And from a marketing standpoint, these narrative scripts are a gold mine. Why? Because through cognitive bias, narrative scripts are able to “set [their] prospects’ beliefs for them, [and] then supply them with the evidence to support those beliefs.”

In other words, as we outlined in our previous examples, these companies sell us by:

  1. Purposely tapping into our pre-existing cognitive biases (e.g. that weight loss supplements work), and
  2. Supplying only “evidence” that supports these biases.

Even after we’ve made a purchase, we might continue making rationalizations that support our decision (even if we’ve encountered information that it wasn’t the brightest idea) through yet another phenomenon known as buyer’s Stockholm syndrome.

This is why so many scammy companies are able to make unbelievable claims, without a single shred of evidence, and to continue duping consumers out of their hard-earned money. People don’t want facts—they just want someone to confirm their beliefs so they can continue on as normal.

But not you! You’re different. And now you have the tools you need to forge ahead.

Overcoming Confirmation Bias Begins and Ends With You

As you learned here, confirmation bias is a behavior that, when exposed to the light of day (not to mention an open mind), can easily be overcome. In other words, you don’t have to let confirmation bias short circuit your buying decisions and leave you susceptible to scams. 

But you do have to take the first step; no one can do it for you. If you find that you’re constantly falling for the newest scam-of-the-day due to confirmation bias, it’s your responsibility to take a step back, examine your behaviors, and implement some of these recommendations.

Sure, if you don’t take these steps, you’ll be able to remain comfortable in your “shell” of one-sided conclusions and information. But at what cost? Wouldn’t you rather see the world exactly as it is, instead of viewing everything through the distorted lens of your biases?

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Derek Lakin

With more than a decade of experience as a copywriter, Derek takes a detail-oriented, step-by-step approach to help you shop smarter. Whether it’s nutritional supplements or new scams, he believes an informed consumer is a happy customer.