In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Alexandra Mondalek chats with Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, a professor at Penn Law School, about her new book Fool Proof: How Fear of Playing the Sucker Shapes Our Selves and the Social Order―and What We Can Do About It (HarperCollins Publishers, February 2023). When people are too concerned about getting “suckered” or “playing the fool,” Wilkinson-Ryan says, decision-making suffers. After years of research, she’s deconstructing the way that wariness affects politics and money and sharing exercises for overcoming the perceived need to be foolproof. An edited version of the conversation follows.
What does it mean to fear ‘playing the sucker’ and how does it affect our decisions?
One of the themes of this book is not just about people being overvigilant about potential scams. It’s also about people being overvigilant for the wrong kind of scam. One of the recurrent claims in Fool Proof is that people are wary of being taken advantage of by their peers or by people whom they consider to be “below them” on some hierarchy—and less concerned about more familiar forms of exploitation, which would come from positions of power.
So one thing about workplace tensions that arise from the fear of being a sucker is that they are often a little misdirected. You’re annoyed at someone at your job who’s going home earlier, and it means you have to do more of the work—but actually, the real problem is with the structure of the work overall.
Our “fear of playing the sucker” wends its way through decision-making in charitable, altruistic, or generous choices, or “other regarding decisions” in the language of behavioral economics.
If you think about what kinds of charity drives are particularly easy to create support for, you probably think of donating food pantry items or donating a gift for Christmas. By contrast, I think in a lot of cases it’s actually better just to give people cash. It’s more efficient. Food stamps can only be used on a subset of things in a grocery store. They’re kind of clunky to use, and for a family, food stamps may not be as useful as pure cash would be.
There is a persistent narrative around charitable giving that has to do with the fear that someone is going to “get something that they don’t deserve,” and that the cash itself is going to be “too easy of a privilege to abuse.” Even without taking a strong view on welfare policy, it takes a lot of effort to police people’s decision-making at that level.
For example, to go to a store by myself, purchase a child’s toy, and then give it to a charity, I had to get in my car and drive, I had to spend time, and I had to pick out a gift that’s probably not going to be quite right because I don’t know the child for whom I’m buying this gift. Direct-cash subsidies can flow to exactly where they’re needed to effectuate the particular preferences of the audience, but I think people find that it’s harder to raise money for that.
Direct-cash subsidies can flow to exactly where they’re needed to effectuate the particular preferences of the audience, but I think people find that it’s harder to raise money for that.
People feel that donating a child’s toy means it’s definitely going to go to a child, for example, or that donating canned goods means donations can only be used for eating and can’t be spent on luxuries or things that the charity may not support.
Why did you write this book, and what surprised you in the process?
I started to see “sucker narratives” in places that I hadn’t expected when I first got interested in this topic. I had been interested in this “sucker” topic since graduate school, which, for me, was 15 years ago. I’ve been thinking about it my whole career, and I thought that maybe eventually I’d write an academic book aimed at a purely academic audience.
Then the pandemic came, and I had a lot of self-directed time. I was thinking about these ideas a bit more, and I started to do a little bit more reading and thinking about the value of this narrative or motif in a lot of our thinking.
I started to see this topic pop up in places that I hadn’t thought through before, including political rhetoric. A lot of political rhetoric invokes the idea of people “being suckered” or “not being suckered,” like, “Are Americans suckers in our trade policy?” or “Are Americans suckers with respect to immigration?”
It’s a ubiquitous construct. It pops up in a lot of the ways we speak informally and in the sheer number of sucker-related aphorisms like, “one born every day” or “fool me once,” that kind of thing. I was also seeing it in narratives around intergroup conflict, stereotyping, and bias.
How can our ‘fear of playing the sucker’ affect decision-making in situations that require cooperation?
One of the things that characterizes research in behavioral economics or judgment and decision-making is a series of studies that pits people’s financial incentives against their other preferences—whether their other preferences are moral, personal, social, emotional, or something else.
Some lab studies use a “game” format to try to replicate the human experience by setting up situations where the only way you can get ahead is to cooperate. The idea here is that the people who are super vigilant about getting exploited or taken advantage of are putting their money under their mattress. You can do that, but it means that you definitely won’t get the benefit of market upswings.
This game reflects a setup that people may be familiar with as the “tragedy of the commons.” The idea of the tragedy of the commons is that a bunch of people are living around a field where they graze their sheep, and the field is available to everybody. The incentives are the tricky part.
The people who are super vigilant about getting exploited or taken advantage of are putting their money under their mattress. You can do that, but it means that you definitely won’t get the benefit of market upswings.
The incentives are such that there’s only enough of the resource—the field—that each person can only do a medium amount of grazing. Any given person could do their allotted grazing plus a little extra, thus getting the benefit of the common resource without having to do upkeep for it, but if everybody does the extra grazing, then the field gets overgrazed and nobody can use the field anymore because there’s no more grass to eat.
This is mimicked in a lab game setup in a way that is relatively intuitive. Imagine there are four players, and every player is given $10. The gist is this: every player is allowed to donate any amount between $0 and $10 to the communal pot. After everyone makes their decision about how much to put in the pot, the amount of the pot is multiplied by 1.5. Then it is divided by four and given back out.
If every person in this game has $10, and they all put their $10 into the pot, the pot becomes $40, multiplied by 1.5 is $60. Then everybody gets a quarter of that, which is $15. Overall, that’s the best everybody can do: they can create $20 of extra value just by cooperating.
For any given person, the best outcome would be if everybody else gave $10 and they kept their own $10. If the pot has $30 in it from everybody else’s $10, the $30 gets multiplied by one and a half and becomes $45, which gets divided by four. Everyone gets their split, whether you donated or not. That would mean that if I’m the person who’s behaving selfishly here, I would keep my $10 and get the $11.25 from the pot.
How do we get over our fear of playing the sucker?
I have found it liberating to talk in explicit terms about situations in which I’ve thought to myself, “Oh, I see; I’m the sucker here,” with candor and acceptance. What led me to write this book is the idea that playing the fool or feeling suckered is a radioactive construct.
It feels so bad to be the chump or the fool that people don’t want to get anywhere near it. They want to avoid thinking about it; they want to avoid any situation that even raises the tiny little possibility of it. My proposal is that you can just cut it down to size by reckoning with it head-on.
Ask yourself, “What is the thing I’m afraid of? I’m afraid I’m going to feel like a fool in this situation.” And ask, “How big of a deal would that be? What would it mean to say, ‘I’ve played the fool in one situation’?” The more you ask yourself, the more okay with it you are, and the easier it is to see the values you’re trying to vindicate and be serious about those.
You can be more explicit about two things: What’s the real threat or risk here? And what are my actual goals? It’s like cost-benefit analysis. The more you can cut down, the more you can deactivate the ‘radioactive sucker construct.’
Then, you can be more explicit about two things: What’s the real threat or risk here? And what are my actual goals? It’s like cost-benefit analysis. The more you can cut down, the more you can deactivate the “radioactive sucker construct.”