Do Criminals Read Psychology Papers?

Posted on Categories Discover Magazine

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.

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