The conman who pulled off history’s most audacious scam
Con artists have long recognised that persuasion must appeal to two very particular aspects of human motivation – the drive that will get people to do something, and the inertia that prevents them from wanting to do it. In 2003, two social psychologists, Eric Knowles at the University of Arkansas and Jay Linn at Widener University, formalised this idea by naming two types of persuasive tactics.
The first, alpha, was far more frequent: increasing the appeal of something. The second, omega, decreased the resistance surrounding something. In the one, you do what you can to make your proposition, whatever it may be, more attractive. You rev up the backstory – why this is such a wonderful opportunity, why you are the perfect person to do it, how much everyone will gain, and the like. In the other, you make a request or offer seem so easy as to be a no-brainer – why wouldn’t I do this? What do I have to lose?
They called the juxtaposition the approach-avoidance model of persuasion: you can convince me of something by making me want to approach it and decreasing any reasons I might have to avoid it. According to Columbia University psychologist Tory Higgins, people are usually more likely to be swayed by one or other of the two motivational lines: some people are promotion-focused (they think of possible positive gains), and some, prevention-focused (they focus on losses and avoiding mistakes). An approach that unites the alpha with the omega appeals to both mindsets, however, giving it universal appeal – and it is easy to see how MacGregor’s proposition offered this potent combination.
He published interviews in national papers, for instance, touting the perks that would come from investing or settling in Poyais. He highlighted the bravery and fortitude that such a gesture would demonstrate: you wouldn’t just be smart; you would be a real man. The Scottish Highlanders were known for their hardiness and adventurous spirit, he wrote; Poyais would be the ultimate testing ground, a challenge and gift, all in one. He pointed those who needed more convincing to a book on the virtues of the small island nation, by the elusive Thomas Strangeways (actually MacGregor himself). His prospectuses enticed the public with their masterful promises, their lure of opportunity, their appeal to scarcity, their admonitions not to let this perfect moment pass by.
..... Psychologist Robert Cialdini, one of the leading experts on persuasion, argues that six principles govern most persuasive relationships:Comment: Wiki article . All images from the Wiki article except the graph below. Source.
- reciprocity (I rub your back, you rub mine)
- consistency (I believe the same thing today as I did yesterday)
- social validation (doing this will make me belong)
- friendship or liking (exactly what it sounds like)
- scarcity (quick! there isn’t much to go around)
- authority (you seem like you know what you’re talking about). Consider how many of those MacGregor used instinctively.
- Reciprocity: you invest with me, and I give you the opportunity of a lifetime – a life so wonderful that no one else can give you something comparable.
- Social validation: you will be the most Scottish of Scotsmen, the most respected of people, a pioneer and role model.
- Scarcity: act now, for this is not an opening that will remain. If Scotland doesn’t sweep Poyais up, someone else will – and there goes the nation’s one chance at colonial greatness.
- Authority: Dr. Strangeways surely knows that of which he speaks. If you don’t trust me, then at least trust him – though why wouldn’t you trust me? After all, I’ve published in the best media of the time.