Many of you may know that Paris is a hub for street scams. From the typical “bracelet scam” to the shell game scam is found at every tourist spot in Paris. Let me back up a little and explain what this particular scam entails. There is a ball under one of the three cups in front of you. The challenge is to point out the cup under which the ball is after the dealer has shuffled them around.
Although it seems oddly “easy” to identify the right cup, this game is a trap for tourists who are unaware of the scam. To make the tourist even more susceptible, the dealer has a group of people around him pretending to be participants, when in reality they are all in on the scam. These people bet money and win double of what they bet, they clap and encourage vulnerable tourist to bet money, and most importantly, they tell you that you are “obviously” going to win if you pick that specific cup. But guess what? No one wins- because its all just a fraud that many people fall for, their first time visiting Paris.
It was my second day in Paris, when I went to the Eiffel tower with a couple of my friends. Soon after we got off the metro, we saw a crowd gathered around. We peaked through and saw this game being played. At first sight, my impression was “ofcource it’s a scam,” but when I watched it for a couple of minutes and saw people actually winning money, I was intrigued to believe that winning is an actual possibility. Although I didn’t bet any money, my friend was willing to just go for it and I also supported that idea. It was obvious that she was right, the ball should have been under that cup because we saw it with our own eyes! The dealer picked up the cup, and to our surprise, the ball was not there. We freaked out and felt vulnerable. She wanted the money back so she bet money again, and this time we were surer that the ball is under the cup she picked; however, just like the previous time, she lost the money. We couldn’t fathom how he did that, how he made the ball disappear but there was more to that game than what met the eye. After my friend researched the trick behind this game, we went back to the Eiffel tower to comprehend what really happened. This time, knowing the trick, it wasn’t very difficult for me to understand what was happening. The dealer picked up the ball in a subtle manner while he shuffled the cups around, so no matter which cup you picked you were going to lose your money.
I was really mad and tried to spoil his game by telling people its scam. Interestingly, one of the “pretend players” comes up to me and tells me that I should keep my mouth shut and leave if I didn’t want to play.
This whole incident got me thinking, why do people fall for this scam? Why do we take such risks despite the possibility of adverse consequences? My curious neuroscience side wanted to see how the brain is involved in such behavior. A study called, “Individual differences in susceptibility to investment fraud” by Knutson and Samanez-Larkin (2014) investigated susceptibility to investment fraud via the differences in physiological, neural, and behavioral data between victims and non-victims of investment frauds. They hypothesized that (1) victims will show increased preference for risky gambles (increased activity in Nucleus Accumbens or decreased insula activity); (2) victims will show reduced behavioral control especially when incentives are high (decreased ventrolateral prefrontal cortical activity). They assessed the first hypothesis using the gambling task. In this task, victims and non-victims, in each trial, viewed a gamble cue, waited as the wheel spun, observed and reported the outcome (selecting “gain” or “loss” presented randomly on either side of the screen), and saw trial and cumulative earnings. Basically, they were assessing if victims prefer low probability but high magnitude risks compared to non-victims.
They found that victims showed no preference to the type of gamble but non-victims preferred positive skewed (low probability of a high gain) over negative skewed (low probability of a large loss) gamble. To test their second hypothesis, the participants took the Monetary Incentive Delay Inhibition task. In this task, they were presented with incentives and tested on their ability to control impulses.
The behavioral results show victims failed to inhibit their responses when the gain was larger compared to non-victims. The neural results show decreased activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex of victims than in non-victims when considering negative skewed gambles (exp. 1) or when anticipating larger gains (exp. 2).
This data shows that fraud victims lose impulse control when they see the potential of a large gain. If the possibility of gaining is low, but the magnitude is high (like double the money in the shell game scenario), some people are willing to take the risk because they are prone to riskier gambles and lack impulse control when the gain is large. Even though this study does a good job explaining differences in vulnerability amongst people, it fails to explain if this individual difference can be explained by predisposition or significant differences in brain structure. They mention the role of nucleus Accumbens and anterior insula in their hypothesis but fail to mention these brain areas in any results or conclusions they drew. Although more research need to be done to explain the actual causation of differences in risky behavior in humans, this study demonstrates a strong correlation between decreased activity in the ventrolateral prefrontal cort ex and victim to investment fraud, which relates to my observation that some people fail to inhibit their impulses when the reward is large.
Watch out for those scams, fellas.
Until next time, Au revoir!
Knutson B, Samanez-Larkin G (2014) Individual Differences in Susceptibility to Investment Fraud. Research on Fraud.
Image 1 and video 1 taken by me.
Image 2 and 5: Creative commons
Image 3: Wu CC, Bossaerts P, Knutson B (2011) The affective impact of financial skewness on neural activity and choice. PloS one 6(2):e16838.
Image 4: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Gang_Chen34/publication/221781705/figure/fig2/AS:267537376084038@1440797289961/Figure-1-Modified-monetary-incentive-delay-MID-task-Each-trial-began-with.png