Deception never looks like deception
An idea from nature, pyramid schemes, and cults
I’m on a flight to San Francisco for an event Y Combinator is hosting this weekend. If you’re in town, shoot me a note and let’s try to meet up.
Miraculously, I wrote and edited today’s entire email on this flight. I’ve been thinking about the ideas here for months and they all finally came pouring out.
Let me know what you think!
If you’d like to ruin your day, I suggest Googling an image of an anglerfish. Spoiler: It’s a toothy creature that loves murdering other fish.
Evolution has blessed anglerfish with a built-in fishing rod for luring prey. From Encyclopedia Britannica:
“The foremost spine of [the anglerfish’s] dorsal fin extends from its head and functions as a fishing pole.
A fleshy appendage at the end of the pole is the bait. When vibrated it looks like a wriggling worm.”
As soon as an unsuspecting fish goes for the bait, the anglerfish opens its enormous, fang-filled jaws and straight up deletes its victim.
Right up until its sudden demise, the prey believes they’ve found an easy, delicious meal. In reality, the anglerfish has.
Ever since watching Betting on Zero, a documentary about the multi-level marketing company Herbalife, I’ve been fascinated with pyramid schemes.
How do so many people get wrapped up in them? What leads otherwise capable people to stay involved with them for years?
A friend of mine is a financial educator and she shared one of her theories with me:
“One of the key things that keeps people involved in multi-level marketing schemes is that they fundamentally want to believe that what they’ve been promised is true. It’s too painful to consider that the truth might be the opposite.”
Oof, yes. (who can’t relate to that, at least a little?)
The promise that most pyramid schemes make is viscerally appealing: you can achieve financial independence and be your own boss.
If you’re primed to want that, you might be more likely to hear their pitch. And as long as you take their promise at face value, you’ll convince yourself that success is right around the corner – even as you’re losing money.
I consider myself the unofficial spokesperson for the HBO show The Vow. If you’re a student of human psychology, I think you’ll dig it.
The Vow follows the story of NXIVM, a cult led by the gifted dirtbag and criminal Keith Raniere.
NXIVM marketed themselves as a self-improvement program. As students progressed into more “advanced” courses, though, they were subtly manipulated into questioning their own instincts and judgements.
Oh, what I just said offended you? What is it about you that made you offended?
By the time you approached the inner circle of the leader, your faith in your own judgment had been thoroughly eroded. This was key to convincing some women to join “Jness,” a self-proclaimed women’s empowerment group within NXIVM.
In Jness, misogynist ideas were packaged up in empowerment language – and dissenters were “challenged” (gaslit) into examining why they felt such negative reactions to certain ideas. The net result was that many members adopted beliefs they would have otherwise rejected.
The actual goal of Jness was to recruit women into a more sinister, coercive sexual relationship with the leader.
What I found most fascinating was that at no point did any of the NXIVM leadership ever say anything akin to “we’re building a cult, you’re being coerced and manipulated, and you’re learning sexist ideas.” They said the exact opposite.
Tying it together
The lie that works on you won’t look like a lie.
Bernie Madoff wouldn’t have gotten far if he was a disheveled, fast-talking guy who ended his sentences with “badabing badaboom” or “bing bong.” Instead, he radiated every signal of success and credibility.
To its victim, deception never looks like deception. That’s kind of the point!
So, how do we avoid getting duped?
First, I think it’s healthy to have a little paranoia. Don’t take everything at face value. Verify, then trust.
Secondly, it’s probably worth getting real with ourselves about what we want to be true. What’s the lens we’re carrying around with us? What types of bullshit does that lens make us susceptible to?
The anglerfish’s prey wants an easy meal. The pyramid scheme seller wants financial security. The cult member wants enlightenment.
If they’re not careful, they all get the opposite.
Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, Betting on Zero, and The Vow.
This was the 114th Stew's Letter. 3,500 more to go.
Footnote: don’t get it twisted; there are many forces that might get someone trapped in a pyramid scheme – many of which are outside the victim’s control. Also, NXIVM used blackmail and other techniques to coerce their victims. My intent here isn’t to blame victims, it’s to encourage us to spot the disasters we can avoid with a little extra examination.