Antivaxxers: cooling the mark out

Why targets of deliberate deception often hesitate to admit they've been deceived:

A Missouri hospital had to create a "private setting" for patients afraid of being seen getting vaccinated against COVID-19. "Several people come in to get vaccinated who have tried to sort of disguise their appearance and even went so far as to say, 'Please, please, please don't let anybody know that I got this vaccine.'" Although they want to protect themselves from the coronavirus and its variants, these patients are desperate to ensure that their vaccine-skeptical friends and family never find out what they have done. [...]

Many of the people refusing safe, effective vaccination amid a deadly pandemic are enmeshed in a very distinctive type of relationship that sociologists have been studying for more than 70 years: the con job. Con artists gain social or financial advantage by convincing their marks to believe highly dubious claims -- and to block out all information to the contrary. [...]

To outsiders, the social dynamics of the con appear peculiar and irrational. Those caught up in it can seem self-destructive and, frankly, clueless. But to sociologists, including me, who study fraud, such behaviors obey a predictable logic.

The seminal text in the field -- Erving Goffman's 1952 essay "On Cooling the Mark Out" -- observes that all targets of con artists eventually come to understand that they have been defrauded, yet they almost never complain or report the crime to authorities. Why? Because, Goffman argues, admitting that one has been conned is so deeply shameful that marks experience it as a kind of social death. The victim, he writes,

has defined himself as a shrewd man and must face the fact that he is only another easy mark. He has defined himself as possessing a certain set of qualities and then proven to himself that he is miserably lacking in them. This is a process of self-destruction of the self.

Goffman notes that other life events, such as being fired or dumped, can evoke similar feelings of humiliation. But people targeted by con jobs can save their pride by denying the con as long as possible -- or claiming they were in on it the whole time. This saves face and cheats social death, but allows the con to continue unchecked, entrapping others. In doing so, marks prioritize their self-image over the common good. [...]

Goffman points out that con artists employ specialists to "cool" marks down when the deception is finally revealed. A cooler, he writes, "has the job of handling persons caught out on a limb -- persons whose expectations and self-conceptions have been built up and then shattered." Coolers prevent blowback from angry marks -- encouraging them to blame themselves, not the con artist. They help marks rebuild their social identity, retain their self-respect, and preserve their affiliations with their reference groups.

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