10 psychological principles I learned from getting conned out of money


shell gameHappy new year, everyone. I just came back from visiting in-laws in Louisiana, in a little town called Greensburg, which is so small that the local newspaper’s front page headline read “Man arrested after bar fight.” I probably could have made the headline too, something like “Seattle man tries to recycle, gets laughed at by locals, faints from lack of vegan nourishment.”

There was not much to do in Greensburg, so we took a day trip to New Orleans, which was two hours away. We were walking down Bourbon Street, which is a magical lane filled with food and drinks and strip clubs, when a lady from a balcony called to us. I looked up. She was holding some beads. “You gotta do something to get these,” she said, winking. So I did what anyone who wanted cheap plastic beads would do. I lifted up my shirt and flashed her.

All right, I didn’t do that, since no one wants to see eight vegan ribs, except a 60 or 70 people on Craigslist. We blew her some kisses, and she tossed down the beads, which I wore proudly while I drank my 20-ounce Hurricane adult beverage, sauntering down the sidewalk.

On the way back, we stopped for gas. It was New Year Day, and there were barely any people around. I saw one of those carnival game stations with giant stuffed toys hanging all around. It was the only one there. It looked empty, sad, the stuffed bears and alligators staring into the cold air with vacant, empty expressions, the kind that we see on EDs when they get grant rejection notices. It was here, at this game station, that I got conned out of money. It still haunts me till now. At night and on long drives I think back at what happened, wondering what I could have done differently.

Upon reflecting back, I realized that this gas station game booth was a very sophisticated machine, designed to swindle people out of their hard-earned cash. They deployed psychological principles proven to work on people, even smart, sexy people who direct nonprofits. Since there is no way I’m getting my money back, I might as well use this opportunity to learn something, so I am going to dissect the psychological tricks they used and how they could be applied to our nonprofit work. I know, I know, we’re not con artists and it’s crass to compare our work to this little con game, but I lost money and I must make some sense of it.

Principle 1: Hook them in with something free. “Here, honey, maybe you can win a toy for the baby,” said a lady who hovered around the parking lot. She handed me a card that said “1 free play, no obligation.” Free, I thought, I love free! That was how it started. Application to nonprofit work: Figure out something free that could pull in potential board members or donors or volunteers. Tickets to events, for example. I am tempted to go around with cards saying, “Help 1 low-income kid for free, no obligation.”

Principle 2: Humanize yourself. I walked to the station, where a twenty-something blond kid popped up from napping. “Hey, I’m Bobby,” he said, setting up the game, “what’s your name?…Vu? That’s a cool name. What do you do, Vu?…Work for a nonprofit? That’s noble, man, helping people.” Application to nonprofit work: In our rush to get people to donate money and stuff, we sometimes pass over getting to know them. Especially during the beginning of relationship building, slow down, ask about their kids, tell them how and why you got into the field, tell them about that rash that’s been bothering you, etc. People are much more likely to invest in your organization if they see you as a human being. A human being with a weird rash.

Principle 3: Make sure the objective is obvious and attainable. “The game is simple,” said Bobby, presenting a small board with a hundred holes in it, each hole marked with a number from 1 to 5, “you scatter these 10 balls, see which holes they land in, then add up the numbers.” The sums correspond with squares on a chart, most squares having numbers, some positive, some negative. “The goal is to reach 100 points, and you can win one of these prizes, or $100, up to you.” I rolled, he added up the numbers, and I got 15 points. Application to nonprofit work: Make sure stakeholders know clearly from the beginning what your organization’s mission and goals are, and make sure the goals are measurable and sane.

Principle 4: Start with low stakes, then ramp up. “That was free,” he said, “the next roll will cost you a dollar.” I paid a dollar and rolled again. I got 50 points for a total of 65 points!! Application to nonprofit work: Hook in potential volunteers, donors, and board members with something simple and low-stake, such as helping out with a small one-time project or buying a “Men of [your organization] Calendar” or something. (What, you don’t do an annual calendar? You should. It works for firefighters).

Principle 5: Provide frequent rewards, small and large. “Let’s see,” said Bobby, counting up the balls I just rolled, “that’s 25, and that corresponds to 15 points as well as a 2-for-1 on the point chart.” I looked puzzled. “That means you have a total of 80 points, AND I give you back double what you bet,” he said, “so here’s 2 dollars!” 2 dollars, I thought, I’m rich, rich! Application to nonprofit work: Provide stakeholders with rewards for their efforts, such as newsletters or mailings detailing successes your organization has achieved thanks to their help.

Principle 6: Provide a sense of safety. Since I had made a net profit of 1 dollar, I wanted to continue playing. I rolled, and the numbers added up to 28. “You got 28!” said Bobby, “That is the insurance number! That means from now on, your points can’t be taken away if you ever land on a negative square on the point chart.” Application to nonprofit work: Make sure you have director and officer insurance to cover your board members, and an umbrella insurance policy to cover volunteers and everyone else.

Principle 7: Get them close to the goal. I had gotten up to 80 points. So close! Soooo close! Only 20 points away! It would have been foolish to quit! “OK,” said Bobby, “but the following rolls are now 5 dollars each.” (See Principle 4 about ramping up the stakes). Only $5 more for a chance to win $100! I didn’t realize it, but I was addicted. Application to nonprofit work: We use this principle all the time, such as during annual dinners where we say “We are only $5,000 from meeting our goal of raising $100,000.” People like to achieve goals, so make sure you keep everyone updated of your organizations’ measurable goals, especially at the end, when things are down to the wire, e.g., “We have 93 bone marrow donors registered out of our goal of 100! We just need 7 more!”

Principle 8: Play nonchalant. With the last roll, I got 5 point, for a total of 85. So close. I knew I was in dangerous territory. Stop right now, my brain was telling me, this is obviously a con…but wait, what if it isn’t? What if I am just lucky? I could earn a hundred bucks today! That’s a lot of vegan dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa mass…“I think I’m done,” I said, reason winning out. Bobby wasn’t fazed. “Suit yourself,” he said, “but I don’t know why you would quit with a score like that, plus insurance.” I sighed, then handed him another $5. Application to nonprofit work: Sometimes we get way too eager and thus overwhelm people. For instance, one time we were doing a Saturday morning program tour with 4 potential donors, and we had 3 board members there along with 4 staff. I think being outnumbered like that freaked out the potential donors. It’s a great program, we should have just let it speak for itself.

Principle 9: Distract and confuse. On that cold January day, holding my little 9-month old baby at the empty gas station, I reached into my pocket for another $5…I had gotten a negative 15 points, but thanks to the insurance card, I didn’t lose any. I was so close. Only 15 more points. Only 15 more points. I played until the horror set in, and I finally looked Bobby in the eye and said, “I’m done for sure this time.” But by then, it was too late.

Now, days later, thinking back on it, I realized that I never added up the balls’ values myself. I scattered them, but it was always Bobby who added them up. I never double checked his math. He counted fast, and I was too trusting. I am sure he manipulated me using the numbers, making me think I was lucky. Application to nonprofit work: There is none. We must never distract and confuse people. We must always be transparent with our supporters and community.

It was a bitter, painful lesson, this experience. It feels awful to think that you are a sucker. It haunts me till now. And now I realize there is a terrible Principle 10: Exploit people’s compassion. I only came to the booth because it was New Year’s Day, and I felt bad for that family, probably not making much money at all. We shouldn’t apply this principle to nonprofit work either.

So I got conned. It feels awful, but I have learned some great lessons, and life goes on. You might be wondering how much money I lost in total. It was $10. Yeah, 10 dollars, which may not seem like a lot of money, but remember, I work for a nonprofit.

  • jt

    Vu, put your pants on. I can’t show this blog to my kid.

    • I can’t afford pants. I work for a nonprofit. Ahahahaha. Nonprofit joke.