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When reading this, did you paint a mental picture of yourself looking younger? Did you imagine the look on your friends’ faces when you showed up one evening looking absolutely radiant? What emotions were involved? Pride? Envy? A need to belong?
Well, the fact of the matter is that all good advertisements appeal to our emotions on a core, basic level. As we read through them, we imagine how much better they might make our lives, and how they might help us overcome obstacles and become exactly who we were meant to be. We innately connect with these emotions, because in a very real sense, we are them.
And this is precisely why scams work; they appeal to our emotions through stories, which can affect anyone, regardless of background or social status. In fact, scammers will do whatever it takes to get you into an emotional state and prime you to fall for their ruse; something that is known as being “under the ether.”
These stories, whether they’re found in an infomercial, a long video, a lengthy landing page, or anything else, are carefully constructed with a deep understanding of human psychology that appeals to our most primal emotions and needs, such as fear, happiness, greed, compassion, guilt, selfishness, generosity, love, loneliness, and so forth.
The good news is that, despite how difficult it might seem, in this article, we’ll provide you with all the background information you need to identify emotions before they overtake you while laying out 4 actionable tips you can immediately put to use to avoid scams.
First though, let’s start from the beginning and talk about basic emotional states, and look at how specific types of products—and scams—use them against you to grab your hard-earned money.
Selling Using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Here at HighYa, the two most prevalent statements we encounter when readers post a review about scammy products is that 1) they recognize that they should have read online reviews first, and 2) they should have heeded their own warning that something sounded too good to be true.
But why is it that so many people consciously choose to overlook these red flags and make a purchase anyway?
The truth is that for every scam, there is a specific emotional need being targeted. And it doesn’t matter what these scammers are peddling (or whether they’re making money through highly inflated shipping and handling charges, free trials, autoship enrollments, or sneaky upcharges); what matters is that they use a carefully constructed story to appeal to your emotions and overshadow your reason, just long enough for you to make an ill-informed purchase. In other words, they’re really good at manipulation.
From this perspective, the emotions scammers target are taken directly from Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, which is a theory in psychology dating from 1943 that aims to explain human motivation by outlining, in order of importance, the five basic needs that must be met in order for a person to be “whole.” And if one or more of these needs aren’t being met, then we’ll likely experience emotions and exhibit traits that make us more susceptible to becoming a scam victim.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid. Image source: psychology.about.com.
Important note: While we’ll talk about each of these needs in more detail below, it should be mentioned that many scams—especially the most effective ones—generally target more than one need on the Hierarchy; perhaps even all. On top of this, some needs span more than one level within the Hierarchy, so it might be best to think of it less as a rigid pyramid and more like a fluid circle.
With this in mind, let’s explore each of Maslow’s basic needs, and how some types of products and scams specifically target these emotions to convince you to buy.
“BeActive Brace is a revolutionary new pain relief pressure system that helps ease discomfort in your lower back, buttocks, and legs … helping you live pain free and enjoy being active again.”
The fundamental—and most basic—level of Maslow’s Hierarchy relates to physiological needs, which are the physical requirements for human survival, including food and water, shelter, sexual instinct/competition for a mate, in addition to comfort. These are also referred to as “deficiency needs,” because if they’re not being met, “the human body cannot function properly and will ultimately fail.”
Continuing with the example above, perhaps one of the biggest precursors to finding comfort is experiencing relief from pain. And if you’ve lived with pain for any length of time—whether it’s a brief migraine headache or chronic back pain—you understand that it can affect every part of your life, from sleeping to eating, and everything in between.
As such, you’re automatically primed to believe just about any product claim, as long as it holds the potential for providing some kind of relief, which is precisely why manufacturers of copper-infused compression wear products and gimmicky braces like BeActive use this intense emotional appeal to sell you their products. Despite their bold claims though, as evidenced by thousands of HighYa reader reviews, they rarely live up to expectations and often teach customers very expensive lessons about marketing hype.
In addition to pain, companies may appeal to your other basic physiological emotions, such as your desire to help your family eat healthier (who doesn’t want their kids to eat more veggies?) or even to improve their chances of landing a mate, as with male enhancement supplements like RexaVar.
Here’s an admittedly simplistic example: When checking out at the gas station, you’ve probably seen single-dose packages of pain relievers hanging behind the counter. If you were experiencing a massive headache, you’d probably also be experiencing a lot of negative emotions and would just want them to end.
As such, you’d likely be primed to buy that one pill of Aleve for $1, versus driving a couple of blocks down the road to your neighborhood pharmacy and buying a bottle of 100 for $8. Sure, this may be 1,000% cheaper, but at that instant, you’re thinking with your emotions and nothing else.
Overall, Scott Yancey “will tell you that one of the most important aspects of real estate investing is “there is always a deal, but knowing what you are doing is key to make money” regardless of what shape the market is in. Because of their extensive experience, Scott and Amie have become dedicated to “mentoring” and teaching other aspiring entrepreneurs the ins and outs of real estate investing. The Yancey Events teams span the nation offering educational training from experienced teachers designed to help people get a ‘leg up’ in the real estate investment world.”
The second level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs relates to safety, such as personal and financial security, health and wellbeing, and the ability to provide safety nets for unforeseen accidents and illnesses (e.g. life insurance policies).
As you might imagine, appealing to your inherent safety needs is the primary domain for loan and investment scams, Ponzi schemes, real estate seminars, and MLM opportunities, since they appeal directly to your desire for economic stability and prosperity. If you’re currently unemployed, you might be especially prone to falling for a work at home scam, while fear and intimidation are powerful tools used in many debt and IRS scams.
On the other end of the spectrum, nutritional supplements promise good health and longevity, which often use carrot and stick approaches. In other words, they claim to provide a wide array of wonderful benefits (i.e. the carrot), but at the same time state that if you don’t use their products, then terrible things are almost certainly waiting for you just around the corner (i.e. the stick).
The Need for Love & Belonging
“Slimera Garcinia Cambogia helps you burn fat as energy, reduces calorie intake, supports a healthy metabolism, and gives you a happier mood. Use as directed an make this your time to say YES to:
Enjoying life to the fullest
Transforming your body quick and easy
Burning fat around the clock”
Next on Maslow’s Hierarchy is the need for love and acceptance by our family and peers. In fact, the need for belonging can become so strong that it overcomes our physiological and security needs. In other words, under the right circumstances, we may knowingly put our physical and financial health at risk in order to fulfill our need for love and belonging, which can make us a prime target for scams.
From this perspective, weight loss, hair care, anti-aging, and skincare products are especially effective at appealing to your emotions and making you believe that if you could just get your weight, hair, or skin problems under control, everything would be right with the world; that you need to look a certain way in order to be loved and to belong.
Male enhancement supplements and online dating sites also appeal to this base desire.
“It is estimated that as many as 80% of people around the world have some form of neurological challenge; whether it's something small like the inability to stay focused for long periods of time, something more serious like always feeling stressed out, anxious, depressed, or not able to sleep, or something much more severe like dementia or Alzheimer’s. Whatever it is, Brain Fuel PLUS may be able to help!
Unfortunately, most people do very little to maximize their brain's performance, which leads to issues like lack of focus, anxiety, depression, poor sleep, brain fog, memory loss, addictions, physical pain, and so much more.”
Next, Maslow identified esteem as the fourth level in his hierarchy of human needs, which relates to power, prestige, and position. In other words, needs that feed our ego and help form our self-esteem (respect from others), which morphs into self-respect (respect that springs from within).
On the other hand, if these needs aren’t met, it can lead to an inferiority complex, or a sense of weakness and helplessness, which are 2 prime traits of many scam victims.
In order to prevent you from feeling this, some types of products appeal directly to your esteem and promise to give you some type of edge over the competition, especially testosterone boosters and brain supplements.
The Need for Self-Actualization
The fifth and final stop on Maslow’s Hierarchy is the need for self-actualization, which is defined as “realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.” In other words, by mastering the previous four needs, you can reach the top and become the best possible, self-actualized version of “you.”
Because self-actualization means different things to different people (e.g. becoming a world-class chess player, raising children a certain way, completing a marathon, etc.), it's commonly used for promoting self-help products and gurus.
How to Reign in Your Emotions & Avoid Scams
With all of this in mind, because they appeal to our most basic human needs, avoiding scams might, at first glance, seem like scaling a mountain. After all, recognizing that we’re generally lead by emotions, learning to question our emotions, and discerning if our emotions are pointing us in the right direction takes a great deal of maturity, and it’s completely up to us whether or not we succeed.
However, the reality is that if you follow some of the tried and true steps below, you’ll be much closer to hanging on to more of your hard-earned money.
1. Put Distance Between You and the Pitch
Perhaps most importantly, if you feel yourself getting worked into a tizzy, take a deep breath and separate yourself from the pitch. In other words, allow yourself adequate time to cool off.
Scammers fully recognize that if you decide to postpone your purchase, you’ll be much less likely to return. Because of this, like a fish on a hook, they’ll often try to reel you back in by providing you with a “special” offer, letting you know that this is a limited time opportunity, telling you that supplies are limited, warning you of imminent danger, or some other such nonsense.
2. Check the Facts
Next, recognize that by definition, scams are not built on facts. Instead, they’re built on hype and a carefully constructed veneer of authority and are notorious for using clinical trials and celebrity endorsements to boost their credibility.
This is where developing some keen research skills comes in especially handy, whether it’s learning how to identify flaky clinical trials, investigating if a celebrity endorsement (such as Dr. Oz for nutritional supplements) is legitimate, or finding out if someone really is the guru they claim to be (LinkedIn is a great resource for this!).
Scammers might attempt to dissuade you from performing your due diligence by making you feel like a fool, or making you feel guilty or ashamed for the questions you’re asking. After all, as we mentioned above, scammers recognize that as soon as you separate yourself from the pitch and begin investigating their claims, their opportunity goes straight out the window.
Instead, don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed, and understand that any legitimate company will welcome your questions and criticism, and will appeal to your reason by providing factual answers instead of preying on your emotions. Again, this is especially prevalent for real estate seminars, as well as within the multi-level marketing industry.
It’s also important to note here that scammers often come across as having all the answers and will sound very confident. Despite this, it’s important to continue asking questions, performing your own independent research, and uncovering hard proof for any claims you encounter.
3. Reach Out to Others
Another facet of doing your own research involves reaching out to others and asking them for their opinions. And while this may have been limited to those directly within your social circle (such as family and friends) 20 years ago, the internet has expanded our horizons and now allows us to learn about the experiences and opinions of millions of people all around the globe.
However, keep in mind that, while many consumer review websites such as HighYa go to great lengths to weed out fake reviews, the fact is that many more do not. As such, it’s your responsibility to learn how to identify fake reviews and reviews from affiliates and differentiate them from legitimate ones. Otherwise, you might fall back into nothing more than marketing hype from the manufacturer if you’re not careful.
Remember: scammers understand that bad customer experiences spread like wildfire online, so they’ll attempt to convince you that talking with others is a waste of your time.
As always, though …
4. Never Be Afraid to Walk Away
Ultimately, after asking plenty of questions, checking the facts, and speaking with others, if things don’t add up, walk away.
The biggest hurdle to accomplishing this step is the fear of missing out, but it’s up to you to overcome it and run away quickly.