We humans

Don’t get fooled or conned again — here are the 5 tactics to look out for

Oct 24, 2019 /

People and businesses routinely use five techniques to get us to do what they want, says presenter and broadcaster Alexis Conran. Here’s  how to recognize them.

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

Most of us get fooled or conned on a regular basis. No, we’re probably not falling for Ponzi schemes or those “send us your password” phishing emails. But we set aside our better judgement all the time in less dramatic instances — we go for the “buy two, get one free” offer at the drugstore and walk away with more band-aids than we can use in 20 years; we order the chef’s daily special because it sounds, well, special but it’s really the restaurant’s way to off-load fish on the verge of going bad; or we get distracted from an alarming increase in crime in our community by a press conference from the mayor where she touts a promising rise in high-school test scores.

What’s fascinating about examples like these is that while they’re perpetrated by other people or entities, the real work of persuasion largely takes place in our heads, according to UK-based presenter and broadcaster Alexis Conran. “Magic and sales and scams and political beliefs all happen in the mind of the spectator,” Conran points out in a TEDxBerlin talk.

Conran’s career has taken him from actor to magician to the BBC show The Real Hustle where he and a team used confidence tricks to fool passersby and then explained how they worked. They deployed a particular set of superpowers — a set of tools used by many people and organizations in our everyday lives. “Their superpower is using the right words, asking the right questions, and putting people in the right situation to do exactly as they’re told,” he explains.

Because the process of being fooled takes place inside our minds, it’s up to us to realize when we’re being taken. How? By being alert — not overly jumpy, suspicious or cynical, just aware — to the methods deployed by businesses, politicians, and others that nudge us into doing or thinking what they’d like us to to do or think. “I’m not saying they’re all crooked, I’m not saying they’re all criminals, but they’re all trying to do the same thing — they’re trying to sell you on a story, to get you to buy into their narrative,” explains Conran.

Here are the five principles used to get us to buy into their stories.


Misdirection is an age-old tactic used by thieves of all kinds. It’s why pickpockets snatch wallets when they know we’re occupied by an outdoors concert or fireworks display or by reading our phones or books while we commute.

Misdirection can occur on a more subtle level, too. It’s why companies and governments often release bad news on Fridays or before major holidays — they’re obliged to announce a weak earnings report or the so-so unemployment rate but they’re hoping that the weekend or holiday distracts us from fixating on it.

In the run-up to the Brexit vote in 2016 — as journalist Carole Cadwalladr so memorably found and explained in a TED Talk — specially targeted Facebook ads led people to believe that Turkey would be joining the EU, which would cause Turkish migrants to flood into the UK. This was not true, but pro-Brexit forces used distractions like these to influence people to vote “yes.”

Time pressure and Opportunity

Both of these are classic sales techniques, and they’re frequently combined for maximum impact. It’s why supermarkets have ongoing special offers. Because a “buy one, get one free” promotion (opportunity) on canned tuna lasts just one week (time pressure), we feel like we must stock up right now.

Similarly, time-specific sales like Black Friday and Cyber Monday also lead us to spend more than we typically would things — these made-up “days” create an artificial but extremely real feeling of urgency in us. “Putting people under pressure makes them make mistakes … it’s much easier to manipulate people when they’re acting under pressure than if you give them time to examine the facts,” says Conran.

Opportunity also assumes quieter forms. Think of all the “free” social-media accounts, online services and newsletters that you’re signed up for. In truth, no one is out there offering us something for nothing. Whether it’s our money, our data or our time, we’re always giving back something in return.

Social compliance and Social proof

Social compliance refers to how “we respond to people in authority and to badges and uniforms,” according to Conran. While this is essential to the functioning of our society — it’s why the sight of a police car can make drivers immediately slow down — but it also leaves us vulnerable to people like Bernie Madoff who rely on the appearance of competence and expertise to disguise what they’re really doing or the abusers who depend on their profession — take the clergy, for example — to evade notice.

Social proof refers to how “we constantly look to others around us for clues as to how to behave,” says Conran. “That’s a very, very powerful thing because as a hustler, I know that all I have to do is manipulate your environment to get you to behave the way I want you to.”

You can see social proof in action at the airport. Even though it’s nowhere near a flight’s boarding time, most of us scan the people around us to know when to start queueing up. After a few passengers stand near the gate, more of us will get up to join them and the number quickly grows. Social proof also fuels much of the behavior on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms — similar to a snowball growing in size as it rolls downhill, a large number of “like”s will attract more “like”s as people click their approval upon glimpsing how many others in their network are doing so.

Now that you know these five tactics, you can use them to spot scams and to recognize when you’re being manipulated. This attitude doesn’t just apply to our interactions with other people. “Be careful when you read headlines and news,” says Conran. “Be careful when you feel emotionally moved by the headline, and be even more careful when you agree with the headline or when the headline makes you happy, because that’s when you need to watch out.”

Watch his TEDxBerlin talk here: