I get more spam than anyone I know. — Bill Gates
Have you been receiving more spam phone calls lately? Do you hate them? Do you still occasionally get tricked into answering them?
Today, we’re going to talk about the psychology of spam–and no, not the psychology of people who eat that weird canned meat (which turns out to be a lot of Hawaiians).
With the expansion of the Internet came the expansion of scammers. Surely you’ve received at least one email from a Nigerian Prince or another for a cargo ship of Viagra. By now, many of us are familiar with these scams, and we have email services that do a pretty good job of filtering them from our inbox.
First, these spam emails typically try to elicit high arousal emotions by targeting highly arousing topics: free money, better sex, the concern for others. One of the reasons they do this is because arousal can interfere with our critical thinking.
For example, researchers raised participants blood pressure (a component of high arousal) and then showed them advertisements for a pen, “The Dot Fine Writer.” The researchers then manipulated two features of the advertisement: it either had weak vs. strong arguments and it either had a celebrity vs. a non-celebrity endorser.
First, the researchers found that participants with high arousal (compared to those with moderate arousal) were more persuaded by weak arguments (e.g., “This pen is guaranteed to write most of the time”). Second, these high arousal participants were also more persuaded by seeing a celebrity endorser—even though the celebrity had no relevance to the quality of the pen!
When we experience high arousal (e.g., the excitement at the thought of free money, the flush of sexual activation), it prevents our minds from thinking deeply about the topic, making us more likely to be convinced by things we shouldn’t.
Nowadays, we’re pretty hip to these tricks, though. So although those emotions may still flare a little when you see “Microsoft has selected you to win a $1,000 gift card,” we know better. But if we’re already suspicious, why do these spammers often use such terrible grammar and clearly made-up messages?
That’s because they don’t want even the most mildly suspicious person to follow up on their emails. By making the messages as clearly incompetent as possible, it ensures that those who actually follow up on them are likely to be gullible and fall prey to the scam.
In 2003, the US passed a Do Not Call Registry, where those who signed up would be legally protected from cold call telemarketers. But, with the advent of cell phones and the growth of the Internet, companies no longer needed real people to make these phone calls.
But just like email spam, once people realized that “private,” “unknown,” or random numbers calling your phone was spam, they stopped answering. So, these companies decided to employ a little psychology.
If you have been receiving more spam calls lately, you’ve likely noticed something familiar: they often have the same area code and first three digits as your own phone number. This is what’s known as “neighbor spoofing.”
Operating off the psychological principle of similarity, these spammers hope that by seeing your own number reflected in this unknown one, this random caller will feel more similar to you, creating just enough positive regard to answer the phone.
For example, researchers introduced participants to other “participants” (i.e., a researcher posing as a participant) and then revealed that the two coincidentally shared the same birthday. And when the real participant learned this, it automatically made them like this stranger more. The same idea is going on with these spam calls.
Of course, as we become more aware of their tricks, we become better at resisting them. But as we get better at resisting them, they devise new tricks. So check back in half a year and I may very well have new insight on what these spammers are employing. Until then, check out the tips below for blocking those calls tonight.
Psychophilosophy to Ponder: Although it’s difficult to stop spammers these days because many of the calls are (a) generated by machines, and (b) come from overseas, there are a few tricks below taken from malwarebytes to help reduce the number of spam calls your phone gets:
- Sign up on the Do Not Call Registry. Unfortunately, this only stops legal businesses from calling you unrequested, but it’s at least a start (most of the robocalls you get are from illegal companies).
- As a general rule of thumb, do not post your phone number online or in publicly available social media sites. Organizations have made algorithms that will “scrape” this data straight from your page.
- Download apps on your smartphone that are able to figure out the patterns of robocallers and reduce the chance the call will come through. Right now, most people recommend Nomorobo as one of the best, but YouMail is also highly recommended (and this one’s free)
- Check in with your phone company. They have robocall-blocking technology that they can use to assist you (e.g., they can block callers that can’t receive incoming calls, like robocalls)
- If you do happen to answer the call (unintentionally or otherwise), don’t speak to them. Sometimes these spammers want to try to record your voice so they can use it for more nefarious purposes
Burger, J. M., Messian, N., Patel, S., del Prado, A., & Anderson, C. (2004). What a coincidence! The effects of incidental similarity on compliance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(1), 35-43.
Sanbonmatsu, D. M., & Kardes, F. R. (1988). The effects of physiological arousal on information processing and persuasion. Journal of Consumer Research, 15(3), 379-385.