Do Criminals Read Psychology Papers?

By Neuroskeptic | June 29, 2017 4:50 pm

Psychologists and social scientists tend to see their research as a force for good. But can we assume this? Couldn’t knowledge of human behaviour be exploited for malicious ends?


As an example of what we might call the “goodness of psychology” assumption, consider this recent paper about Psychological Characteristics of Romance Scam Victims, from the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. The research is about online romance scams in which victims are convinced to send money to someone who they believe they are in a relationship with.

From the paper’s abstract:

This study examined the psychological characteristics of romance scam victims by comparing romance scam victims with those who had never been scammed. Romance scam victims tend to be middle-aged, well-educated women. Moreover, they tend to be more impulsive (scoring high on urgency and sensation seeking), less kind, more trustworthy, and have an addictive disposition. It is argued here that these findings might be useful for those developing prevention programs and awareness campaigns.

The author states that knowing the demographic and personality characteristics of romance scam victims could help to prevent this kind of crime. But in that case, couldn’t such information also help scammers, by allowing them to better target likely victims?

The idea of a hardened scammer browsing psychology papers perhaps seems an unlikely one.

However, if it seems implausible that papers like this would be used for evil, doesn’t this suggest that they are not very useful? Surely, accurate knowledge about human psychology should be useful to scammers? If this kind of study couldn’t be useful to scammers, how useful can it be in combating them?

Science is very often a two-edged sword. This is why governments impose restrictions on certain kinds of “dual-use” research, for instance relating to the genetic modification of viruses. “Dual-use” biology could help cure diseases, but it could also be used to create new biological weapons.

Where are the concerns over “dual-use” psychology? In fact, has there even been one case of academic psychology being used for evil? I can’t think of any.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ethics, science, select, Top Posts
  • Shane O’Mara
  • Shane O’Mara

    One might also consider the central role played by psychologists in the design of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ as an appropriate example.

  • smut clyde

    The idea of a hardened scammer browsing psychology papers perhaps seems an unlikely one.

    I browse psychology papers, and um YOU CAN’T FORCE ME TO SELF-INCRIMINATE.

  • Gabriel Castellanos

    John Watson contributed to the early cigarette marketing research in 1920s. “Watson, John B. “What Cigarettes Are You Smoking, And Why?” JWT News Bulletin, Jul. 1922:1-17”

    • Neuroskeptic

      I didn’t know that, thanks!

  • Rolf Degen
    • Neuroskeptic

      Very interesting!

      But it sounds like Bianchi wasn’t trying to use psychology, but rather to exploit psychologists’ beliefs in psychology.

      In the same way, someone trying to infiltrate a cult might study their sacred texts in order to become familiar with them, but wouldn’t believe them.

      • Kirstzen Jane

        That in itself is using the psychology 😁

    • Erik Bosma

      Yep, it’s pretty well a known fact that (especially) psychopaths will study psychology texts.

  • OWilson

    Schools for scoundrels do exist, but as part of the fabric of society, not as institutions, unless you include the nation’s prison system, although all the books mentioned in the article are available to the most hardened prisoner. The lore is passed on down through families and gangs.

    Where I grew up, many years ago, our neighborhoods would periodically be invaded by itinerant bands of travelers, or “Gypsies” as we called them. They would come to your door with cheap household goods and trinkets to sell.

    Our elders taught us that we should never turn them away without buying something, or listening to their telling of your fortune, or it would certainly bring down “bad luck” on the household. I’m sure some of this “bad luck” was human caused, when things left out in the yard would go missing, almost on cue! :)

    We were all therefore conditioned, to participate in what today would be called petty scams.

    Today it’s politicians who have learned to exploit the basic negative human traits, like envy, fear, greed, and hate!

    Likewise TV Evangelists have mastered the exploitation of the positive,hopeful and generous human traits. (as have AGW advocates) :)

    • Erik Bosma

      …and politicians and so many more especially in this age of mass (and instant) media.

  • Ishi Crew

    That may depend on how one defines psychology and evil, and criinality.

    The FBI/CIA tested LSD on people in 60’s; the ‘unabomber’ underwent some sort of psychological experiment (or torture) as a college student I think at Harvard (i think to see how and why people can be brainwashed); modern behavioral economics is used by corporations to see how they can get peopope to buy their products; Steve Bannon’s company Cambridge Analytics supposedly helped Trump win using psychology, an d so on.

    These are not street criminals and technically not even criminals perhaps—possiboly unethical.

  • Uncle Al

    “Psychologists and social scientists tend to see their research as a force for good.” “Good” = career advancement. Invalid postulate, invalid rigorous derivations. Euclid cannot map shortest distance Earth navigation. An Earth surface triangle’s interior angles always add to more than 180° – up to 540°.

    The Vatican embraced Aristotle for empirical validation. Psychology is the same appropriation of facile perversity to the same end – including impressed arbitrary authority and guiltless abuse of people.

    • Erik Bosma

      A big problem is the dualism that is so rampant in decision making today. Either/ or, black/white, us/them, for us/against us, sane/insane… There’s a huge grey area that is left out which could teach us so much more about ourselves and our environment that we ignore when we subscribe to this dualistic way of thinking. I refuse to be an ‘ist’ of any stripe.

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  • TractatusLogicoFallacious

    ‘Hardened scammers’ may already have a good idea of who the best victims are, since they have lots of experience targeting different people and seeing what works. So it’s possible for this kind of research to be useless to criminals but useful to anti-scammers who don’t have that experience to draw on.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Good point, but then the research might still be of use to novice scammers.

  • CL

    There is a long dark history of compulsory sterilization of the mentally ill, prisoners, promiscuous women, Jews, Romani, LBGT individuals (the list goes on…). This often justified on the basis of psychological and psychiatric “expertise”.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Yes, psychology and its related sciences have some dark histories. In this post I’m wondering whether even well-intentioned and seemingly beneficial psychology could be misused.

  • Jon Mellon

    Depending on whether you believe the hype around Cambridge analytica (I’m highly sceptical) and your political beliefs, their voter targeting in favour of Trump and Brexit could be such an example as they explicitly refer to things such as the big five.

    Psychologists involvement in CIA torture would also seem to qualify although I’m not totally clear how much psychology research they were drawing on

  • Not_that_anyone_cares, but…

    Most profound comment so far: ”Today it’s politicians who have learned to exploit the basic negative human traits, like envy, fear, greed, and hate!”

    • Erik Bosma

      Like I said above,”Psychopaths are known to study psychology.”

  • Erik Bosma

    Didn’t anyone watch The Sopranos? What did you learn?

  • Andreas Reif
  • polistra24

    In earlier eras TV and radio programs actually tried to warn people against scams. The type of victim “discovered” by this study was portrayed specifically in such programs. It’s not news, and it didn’t require science.

    A 1955 episode of “Man behind the badge”

  • nik

    Years ago, I worked in the gaming machine industry, which originated in Chicago during the depression, by certain infamous organisations. Gaming machines are are very sophisticated devices designed to part fools from their money. At that time, there were more computers being used in gaming machines that in the whole of the rest of the UK industry.
    They were designed using the mathematics of probability, and chance, and any others that were thought to give them the edge against the ‘punter’.
    Anyone interested in making money, by fleecing other people, will use every method that they can find. So anything published that will give them information to enable them to do that, will be used, whether their intentions are legal, or illegal.
    So, however well meaning psychologists and social scientists are, their results will eventually be used by those with nefarious intentions.

    • OWilson

      Telephones, email, radio and TV. all are being used by scammers.

      You must be “discriminating” in your choices, even if it is not Politically Correct.

      • nik

        Crooks dont discriminate, they work on the assumption, that if you throw enough sh!t, some of it is bound to stick.

  • futura64

    Thanks for an inspiring article. Came to think of the relatively recent management consultancy industri and the sometimes (i have been in it as an observing “victim” within internet/cable/customer service sector) sudden “game changer” in a company – a package of strategic approach towards growth / efficiency which dramatically changed the company culture towards “jungle law”, dishonesty, “3 abe approach” – (aka ´; i do not hear or see such) at team leaders who liked the increased volume that a “slightly” dishonest approach resulted in. Could it be as the hole setup is based on that you get your reward or criticism from the result of the layer just below?



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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