I’ve always been a fan of “big idea” books. In my preferred style, they take a single idea and spin out its implications across a variety of contexts. Jennifer Silva’s We’re Still Here, Stephanie Kelton’s The Deficit Myth and Susan Cain’s Bittersweet all do that in their respective ways. Tess Wilkinson-Ryan’s Fool Proof is a worthy addition to the list.
Wilkinson-Ryan takes as her focus the lengths to which people will go to avoid being played for suckers. The aversion to being suckered—which she terms “sugrophobia”—apparently crosses cultures and has some common features. The most salient feature is that it’s closely tied to perceived social rank. Someone who fools another takes the other person down a notch in the perceived hierarchy.
That sounds simple enough, but its ripple effects are substantial.
For one, people are much more willing to accept being fooled by people “above” them than by people “below” them. When, say, teachers trick students, that’s considered crafty; when students trick teachers, it’s a violation of academic integrity. (The anger and moralistic language are signs that something deeper than the alleged act is in play.) The same person who insists on speaking to the manager when slighted at the mall will shrug and accept blame for not reading the fine print when cheated by a large corporation. Read race and class into the perceived hierarchies, and some patterns of disproportionate punishment become legible.
Drawing on Erving Goffman, Wilkinson-Ryan notes that the best cons often involve a post-con stage called “cooling out the mark.” It’s the point at which someone allied with the con artist finds ways to get the victim of the con to reconcile themselves to their fate rather than raising a stink and pushing back. It works because nobody likes to feel taken advantage of. Marks are often complicit in their cooling out because it allows them to continue to feel competent. (“It’s a blessing in disguise.”) Rationalizing the outcome is less painful, in many cases, than the perceived loss of social status from admitting that you’ve been hoodwinked. That’s why victims will sometimes dig in their heels to defend their own bad outcomes.
Meritocracy is an excellent mechanism for cooling out marks. If the system is fundamentally fair and you lost, then you’re a loser with no right to complain. If you had what it takes, you would have won. Complaints are self-discrediting; if you deserved to win, you would have. From a system perspective, that’s an effective way to deflect critique. Academia wields this with a vengeance.
People will absorb costs to themselves in order to avenge perceived attacks on their status. Wilkinson-Ryan points to famous studies in which two people are presented with a scenario: one is given $10 and told to give some fraction of it to the other, but the giver gets to decide the fraction. If the receiver accepts the offer, then they both get to keep whatever is left; if the receiver rejects the offer, both have to give the money back. Consistently, when the giver offers half, the receiver accepts, and each walks away with $5. But if the giver only offers $1 or $2, the receiver often rejects the offer to punish what they perceive as an insult. The receiver would rather walk away empty-handed than accept the implied insult that comes with a dollar or two. Apparently, when those low-ball offers happen, the language from the receiver can get pretty heated. The receiver is willing to sacrifice a gain to salvage their dignity.
I have to admit some recognition. In grad school and shortly after, I drove some old, unreliable cars. They were what I could afford at the time. That meant that I spent far too much time and money in repair shops, wondering whether what I was being told was the truth. After all, the same people telling me I needed a given repair stood to profit from it. When I was finally able to afford my first new car, I jumped at the chance, even though it probably cost me more than a late-model used one would have. I was attracted to the warranty. To me, at that point, the prospect of not being the mark at repair shops anymore was worth a premium. I was willing to pay to avoid that feeling.
Populist politics are sugrophobia at scale. Is someone, somewhere, getting an unearned benefit? How dare they? Never mind that trivial cheating on the receiving end has far less impact than massive inequities on the giving end. Those on top are allowed; those on the bottom threaten to pull everyone down through their trickery. (If you’re hearing echoes of Nietzsche in this, you’re right.) Elites who pick the right victims and channel popular rage strategically can do very well for themselves. How is it that some of the same people who oppose student loan relief have no problem threatening to default on the entire federal budget? Because the students are below them in the hierarchy. Students haven’t earned the privilege of dodging debts; only elites get to do that.
The fear of being taken is asymmetrical, which can help to explain some social asymmetries. It can also explain the otherwise-puzzling reluctance of many who would stand to benefit from more egalitarian policies to support them. If the fear of being taken advantage of is strong enough, people are willing to make major sacrifices to avoid it. They’d rather leave empty-handed than watch someone else benefit more than they do, even if they’d be materially better off accepting the benefit.
Wilkinson-Ryan doesn’t offer a systemic solution, and that’s to her credit. I’m not sure that one exists. But on a personal level, it’s certainly possible to reframe circumstances in ways that allow you to, say, walk away with a dollar or two. And when it isn’t, her book at least offers a lens by which to make sense of why things are the way they are. That’s what big-idea books are for.