The Role Curiosity Plays In Being Scammed

(Last Updated On: July 19, 2022)

The Role Curiosity Plays In Being Scammed

The Psychology of Scams

A SCARS Insight

Curiosity Is Well Recognized As A Human Blessing.

Is It Also A Human Curse?

Curiosity—the desire for information—underlies many human activities, from reading celebrity gossip to developing nuclear science.

Tales about such things as Pandora’s box suggest that it is also a curse, but scientific evidence has been lacking to really understand its role in poor decision-making and harmful outcomes.

In four controlled experiments, in a recent academic study demonstrated that curiosity could lead humans to expose themselves to aversive stimuli (even electric shocks) for no apparent benefits. The research suggests that humans possess an inherent desire, independent of consequentialist considerations, to resolve uncertainty; when facing something uncertain and feeling curious, human beings will act to resolve the uncertainty even if there are considerable negative consequences. This research reveals the potential perverse side of curiosity and is particularly relevant to understanding this aspect of how scam victims are lured into relationship scams and financial fraud during this epoch of over-saturation of information and online stimulus with high curiosity.

Curiosity Leads Us to Seek Out Unpleasant, Even Painful, Outcomes

Curiosity is a powerful motivator, leading us to make important discoveries and explore the unknown. But new research shows that our curiosity is sometimes so powerful that it leads us to choose potentially painful, unpleasant, or even dangerous outcomes that have no apparent benefits, even when we have the ability to avoid these outcomes altogether.

Why do people seek out information about an ex’s new relationships, read negative Internet comments, and do other things that will obviously be painful? Because humans have an inherent need to resolve uncertainty. The need to know can be so strong that people will seek to slake their curiosity even when it is clear the answer will hurt. This not only can lead people into scams, but this can have a very harmful impact after the crime is over.

“Just as curiosity drove Pandora to open the box despite being warned of its pernicious contents, curiosity can lure humans—like you and me—to seek information with predictably ominous consequences,” explains study author Bowen Ruan of the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Understanding Curiosity

Previous research had shown that curiosity drives people to seek out miserable experiences, including watching horrible accident scenes and exploring dangerous terrain. Ruan and co-author Christopher Hsee at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business hypothesized that this curiosity stems from humans’ deep-seated desire to resolve uncertainty regardless of the harm it may bring.


To test this hypothesis, the researchers designed a series of experiments that exposed participants to a variety of particularly unpleasant outcomes.

In one study, 54 college student participants came to the lab and were shown electric-shock pens that were supposedly left over from a previous experiment; they were told that they could click the pens to kill time while they waited for the “real” study task to begin.

For some of the participants, the pens were color coded according to whether they would deliver a shock—five pens that would shock had a red sticker and five pens that wouldn’t shock had a green sticker—meaning that the students knew with certainty what would happen when they clicked a given pen.

Other participants, however, saw 10 pens that all bore yellow stickers and were told that some of the pens had batteries while others didn’t. In this case, the outcome of clicking each pen was uncertain.

The results were clear: Students in the uncertain condition clicked noticeably more pens. On average, those who didn’t know what the outcome would be clicked about five pens, while those who knew the outcome clicked about one green pen and two red pens.

A second study, in which students were shown 10 pens of each color, confirmed these results. Once again, students clicked more of the uncertain outcome pens than the pens that were clearly identified.

To find out whether the findings would hold under other conditions and whether resolving curiosity would indeed make participants feel worse, the researchers designed a third study involving exposure to pleasant and unpleasant sounds. Participants saw a computer display of 48 buttons, each of which played a sound when clicked. Buttons labeled “nails” would play a sound of nails on a chalkboard, buttons labeled “water” played a sound of running water, and buttons labeled “?” had an equal chance of playing either sound.

On average, students who saw mostly uncertain buttons clicked about 39 buttons, while those who saw mostly identified buttons clicked only about 28.

Interestingly, the results also showed that participants who clicked more buttons reported feeling worse afterward, and those who faced mostly uncertain outcomes reported being less happy than those who faced mostly certain outcomes.

Additional findings suggest that asking people to predict the consequences of their choices might dampen the power of their curiosity. Participants in an online study were presented with obscured pictures of unpleasant-looking insects—such as centipedes, cockroaches, and silverfish—and they could click on images to reveal the insect.

As in the previous studies, participants faced with uncertain outcomes clicked on more pictures (and felt worse overall); but when they had to predict how they would feel about their choice first, they clicked on relatively fewer pens (and felt happier overall).

Together, the findings from this series of simple experiments make a big point: While curiosity is often seen as a human blessing, it can also be a human curse. Many times, we seek out information to satisfy our curiosity without considering what will happen when we do.

“Curious people do not always perform consequentialist cost-benefit analyses and may be tempted to seek the missing information even when the outcome is expectedly harmful,” Ruan and Hsee write in their paper.

“We hope this research draws attention to the risk of information seeking in our epoch, the epoch of information,” Ruan concludes.

How Does This Apply To Scams?

As the above research suggests, curiosity plays a role in removing inhibitions.

We have experience with almost 8 million scam victims and in that population, we have observed a significant number of victims who not only gave strangers more trust than was warranted but even knew about scams before and still entered into stranger conversations.

There seems to be a strong correlation between these effects seen in the research – in other words – curiosity to see if the suspected scammer is a scammer, and as a result, it leads the victim into the conversation where they quickly lose control to grooming and manipulation. Even being aware of the possibility of it being a scam, people still engaged with a potential criminal.

This is challenging to understand because of the underlying psychological components, such as biases, obsessive behavior, and others. But the clear result of this is that victims often give in to their curiosity without any concern for their safety or potential negative outcomes. This will vary somewhat in each victim’s own psychology, but it explains another of the initial conditions that push victims over the threshold into scams even when they know there is a high probability that it is fraud.

Accordingly, the drive to discover is deeply ingrained in humans, on par with the basic drives for food or sex, says Christopher Hsee of the University of Chicago, a co-author of the research. Curiosity is often considered a good instinct—it can lead to new scientific advances and new discoveries. It drives our exploration of the Earth and is driving us to Mars. But sometimes such inquiry can backfire.

“The insight that curiosity can drive you to do self-destructive things is a profound one,” says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who has pioneered the scientific study of curiosity.

Morbid curiosity is possible to resist, however. In a final experiment, participants who were encouraged to predict how they would feel after viewing an unpleasant picture were less likely to choose to see such an image. These results suggest that imagining the outcome of following through on one’s curiosity ahead of time can help determine whether it is worth the endeavor. “Thinking about long-term consequences is key to mitigating the possible negative effects of curiosity,” Hsee says. In other words, don’t read online comments.

However, we see the opposite when it comes to the search for a victim’s own scammer’s face! We believe that curiosity once again plays a significant role in driving victims to obsessively view scammer photos after the crime ends. This may also be the “fear of missing out” in addition to curiosity – they need to look at just one more photo or they fear they will miss it.


The human drive to resolve uncertainty is so strong that people will look for answers even when it’s obvious those answers will be painful!

It is clear that curiosity plays a very large role in being lured into a relationship scam. It is the desire to KNOW that drives it to a large extent.

Here is another example:

Many situations involving searches, such as commuters trying out new routes or organizations testing new procedures, can subject the explorer to the potential for subjective losses – situations that are worse than what currently is or was. How does the potential for experiencing losses during the course of a search affect individuals’ appetite for exploration?

In three studies about finding better commuting routes, the researchers manipulated route search outcomes by presenting participants either with a positive-only environment or a positive-negative environment. The positive-negative environment offers identical relative incentives for exploration, but payoffs are shifted downward (more negative) and participants receive something to offset the difference.  In both conditions, participants engage in a novel search task in which they decide how to explore an environment, receiving payoffs based on their location in each case. Payoffs between neighboring options are correlated, and movement is restricted in each turn to immediately adjacent locations.

The researchers predicted that participants would be motivated to avoid negatives, which increases exploration when they are incurring negatives, but decreases exploration when they face the PROSPECT of negatives.

They concluded that exploration is driven by hope of anticipated gains, constrained by fear of anticipated losses, and motivated by avoidance of experienced losses.

In other words, what that means is that people are motivated to explore and take risks and be curious when driven by the hope of a positive outcome. Only after something negative happens (such as a scam) are people (victims) motivated to avoid chances because they have already experienced losses (in trust, money, pain, etc.)

What all this is telling us is that people are driven by their curiosity and even after they begin to experience the negative outcomes from scams, they will often continue. Only after a scam is over will the previous experience tend to provide a limit. However, the same drivers still are working full-speed on what the victims do after the scam.

Do not misunderstand. These tendencies are unconscious and complex. This does not mean that the victim had a choice after the fraud manipulation began, they did not. This means that victims are not to blame.

However, upfront before the grooming and manipulation began, a person’s curiosity partially led them into the scam, and at that point, they did have a choice. Most people though would need to develop new behaviors to control this – something very few have.

This speaks to many correlated psychological factors and the need to better understand them, both academically and for each victim. Victims especially need to understand that they have these drivers and how to control them so that they can prevent future negative outcomes.

The one clear result from all of this is that curiosity can lead to serious negative results. That it is related to impulsive behaviors that victims need to learn to avoid.

As the saying goes:
“curiosity killed that cat.”

You simply do not need to know if that person is real and is the partner of your dreams! Get it?

“Curiosity is not a sin. But we should exercise caution with our curiosity yes, indeed.”
Albus Dumbledore


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