The Psychology of Spamming, part 2 - The Limbic system, cognition and affect

The Limbic System

The limbic system is the center of emotion in the brain and it governs much of our non-conscious behavior.

We know from psychological studies that people will sometimes engage in behavior counter to their own best interests in order to satisfy short term desires. This is the work of our limbic system. We make decisions today and the chemicals in our brain are trying to influence our decisions to either attain pleasure or avoid pain. The avoidance of pain response is especially powerful and more often than not trumps the desire to attain pleasure.

There are a number of basic survival mechanisms that are especially prone to limbic persuasion:

  • · Money (financial gain)
  • · Sex (keep the species going)
  • · Food (make the hunger go away)
  • · Revenge (yep)

Our brains took millions of years to evolve and they did so out of necessity in order to stay alive. Yet the scope of technological shift has far surpassed the rate at which our brains have kept up. That’s why spamming works – the emotional responses it (spamming) elicits speaks to our limbic system which is hardwired into our brain, and our brains are not trained to recognize the potential damage that spamming can do. We may know using our neocortexes that spam is bad, but it is our limbic brains that is seeking to either pacify an emotional response, or attain something, and that’s what advertising does; spam is no different.

Cognition and Affect

When we make decisions, such as to buy something, or click on a link in a suspicious message, there is a concept known as “affect”. This is the quality and quantity of goodness or badness that we feel in response to a stimulus, whether it is conscious or not. For example, if we are in a dark alley and we see a stranger approaching, we would feel negative affect. If we were in a well-lit hall and an attractive member of the opposite sex was walking towards us, we would feel positive affect.

Affect has a significant impact on how humans judge risk. Whereas risk and benefit tend to be positively correlated in the world (such as investing), they are negatively correlated in people’s minds. If people can be made to feel negative affect (such as anger or fear), their impressions of situations can be influenced in a negative way. For example, a group of test subjects were told all about the negative downside risks of nuclear power – it was expensive to build, could contaminate water supplies, and so forth. When asked to give their impressions about it, people judged nuclear power negatively. Yet when people were made to experience positive affect and then judge nuclear power, and they all judged it positively.

People also do better with actual numbers than they do with percentages, and sometimes it is counterintuitive. For example, consider the two statements:

  • 12 out of 100 people who do not wear seatbelts die in car accidents day
  • 12% of people who do not wear seatbelts die in car accidents each day

Even though both statements are numerically equivalent, the first statement is more likely to make an impact on people and affect their behavior. Similar results have been found when judges rated a disease that kills 1286 people out of every 10,000 as more dangerous than one that kills 24.14% of the population, even though mathematically speaking the second is twice as dangerous as the first.

People do better still when affect is produced using imagery, story and narratives. Warnings are more effective when rather than being expressed in terms of percentages, they were presented in the form of affect-laden scenarios and stories. Compared to being presented with bar graphs or tables, respondents who were shown stories more accurately estimated or recalled information than those who were not.

Consider the following advance-fee fraud scam:

Dear Respected One,


I am writing to you for the chance to make some money. I am currently locked out of my account of 12 million dollars. If you would be willing to put some money to unlock the funds, we would be willing to offer you 5% of the sum as compensation for effort input after the successful transfer of this fund to your designate account overseas.

Anticipating to hear from you soon.

Thanks and God Bless.

Contrast that with the following:

Dear Respected One,


I am Wumi Abdul; the only Daughter of late Mr and Mrs George Abdul. My father was a very wealthy cocoa merchant in Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast before he was poisoned to death by his business associates on one of their outing to discus on a business deal. Before the death of my father on 30th June 2002 in a private hospital here in Abidjan. He secretly called me on his bedside and told me that he has a sum of 2 million left in a suspense account in a local Bank here in Abidjan.

He also explained to me that it was because of this wealth and some huge amount of money his business associates supposed to balance his from the deal they had that he was poisoned by his business associates, that I should seek for a God fearing foreign partner in a country of my choice where I will transfer this money and use it for investment purpose. Sir, we are honourably seeking your assistance in the following ways.

Moreover Sir, we are willing to offer you $7000 of the sum as compensation for effort input after the successful transfer of this fund to your designate account overseas.

Anticipating to hear from you soon.

Thanks and God Bless.

The second scam has less money associated with it for the victim ($7000 vs 5% x 12 million = $100,000), but the second story, due to having more actual numbers (highlighted above), framed within a story and appealing to the emotion of sadness (death of a father) has a greater chance at swindling victims.

Part 1 - How our brains work
Part 2 - The Limbic system, cognition and affect
Part 3 - External factors that influence our decisions
Part 4 - Why we fall for scams
Parr 5 - Solutions
Part 6 - The Flynn Effect