How to Avoid Being a 'Sucker'

Experts provide tips to help you avoid being 'taken.'

From the WebMD Archives

We've all been there.

The co-worker we've been helping along, it turns out, has been dropping snide remarks about our work in front of other co-workers and the boss.

The friend we've confided in, we learn, has been passing our confidences along as bits of juicy gossip to others.

Then there's the trusting spouse who makes career sacrifices – then finds out his "other half" has been cheating and has lined up his replacement.

Even if it's as simple as being taken by a smarmy salesman, these situations can often bring a sense of bitter shame mixed in with the anger.

Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

What's wrong with us? Or the victims we know? Is there truly a sucker born every minute, as circus promoter P.T. Barnum is widely credited with saying?

Not necessarily, says Lou Manza, PhD, chairperson of psychology at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. "I don't think people are innately clueless, but emotions factor into it and our brains get distracted."

"Knowledge is power, and ignorance is not bliss," says Yvonne Thomas, PhD, a Los Angeles-based psychologist.

"People may not want to face the truth … but in the end, it will hurt them a lot worse," she says. "You don't want to be in fairytale lalaland, because the consequences will be that much more traumatic."

Don't Be a Sucker

While there are downsides to being too cynical, many of us do need to boost our inner skeptic to avoid being blindsided. Here's how:

Approach it like a scientist. "In science, if a certain theory is dominant, we don't doubt it because we have data backing it up. But if we come across other information that is convincing, it can make us look in other directions," says Manza.

"If there is no evidence to suggest something is awry, leave it alone; but when there is evidence, you need to act more rationally and try to put your emotions aside," he says. "Try to be as objective as possible. The more subjective you get, the more errors you can make."


Search for concrete evidence. Manza says that in the health care industry, for instance, there are plenty of claims consumers should be wary of. "A basic rule of thumb is to look for evidence for any claim," Manza says. Without hard evidence, one should "start to have doubts," he says.

Or, "if you are married and everything is fine and then all of a sudden your partner is always working late, look at all the evidence," he advises. "A rational approach would be to look for other signs," he says.

If you think something is going on with your finances, "ask questions about money, and if you get a harsh answer, something may be up," Manza says. "If gambling is the issue, is your partner spending more time on the computer or going away to Vegas?"

Take your blinders off. "We are believers," says Susan Newman, PhD, a social psychologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and author of The Book of No. "The majority of people want to accept what people are saying and don't want confrontation, so they will believe what they are told."

But, she advises, "Instead of closing your eyes to the signs, pay attention and ask questions if your husband is out later than usual, or if you live with a partner who used to be a sound sleeper and is now flipping through magazines or pacing in the middle of the night."

'Change of Behavior'

Don't be afraid to upset the apple cart. "If there is a change of behavior -- not just one night, but a new pattern -- bring it up," Newman says.

"It could be just a bad stretch at work, but it also could be something far more serious, particularly if it lingers," Newman says.

"Women, especially, are trained to be caring and nurturing and don't want people to think we are not helpful. So we agree and placate even when we are aware of a pattern because we don't want to upset the apple cart," she says.

As a result, "we wind up feeling devastated, taken advantage of, in debt, and our relationship with the person is -- if not permanently injured and severed -- marred, and it will take a lot of work to rebuild trust."


Go with your gut. "People need to start listening to their inner voice and using it as an inner compass," says Thomas. "If you have some kind of instinct, or gut reaction, attend to it because it's not appearing for no reason," she says.

"You must be brave enough to face it. Say, 'I want to look at the books and see where we are financially.'"

"Deal with it. Look at it in its face and say, 'What is happening here?' because problems do not just go away; they get worse."

Have a monthly financial night. To avoid waking up one morning to find out you are broke, "look at the books and finances together and talk openly and honestly about gains and losses on a regular basis," Thomas suggests.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD


Published July 31, 2006.

Sources: Yvonne Thomas, PhD, a Los Angeles-based psychologist. Lou Manza, PhD, chairperson of psychology, Lebanon Valley College, Annville, Penn. Yvonne Thomas, PhD, a Los Angeles-based psychologist. Susan Newman, PhD, a social psychologist at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.
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