Tess Wilkinson-Ryan almost didn’t publish a book at all. But when the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School professor and moral psychologist saw an email in her inbox from a literary agent with the subject line, “Introduction and book project,” Wilkinson-Ryan initially deleted it, thinking it was some kind of marketing ploy.
Her book, “Fool Proof: How Fear of Playing the Sucker Shapes Ourselves and the Social Order―and What We Can Do About It” explores the psychology behind humanity’s aversion to being fooled and how this plays out in ourselves, our communities, and the world at large. Human beings make snap decisions to avoid being duped, or played a fool—and most people know an email scam when they see it. She second-guessed herself and her initial reaction to the email. Maybe an agent had read her research and genuinely wanted to connect, she thought. Or, more importantly, she asked herself, “What do I care if I email back and it’s a scam? What do I really have to lose?” She found the email in her trash folder and responded.
“Fool Proof” is set to publish on Feb. 7. In it, Wilkinson-Ryan introduces the universal psychology embedded in an aversion to being played the fool. As a professor of contract law with a graduate degree in psychology, Wilkinson-Ryan studies how people think about their transactions with one another. Fear of being duped, misled, or suckered is universal, but it’s rarely discussed as a psychological construct, or something that drives our behaviors or decisions. In her book, Wilkinson-Ryan introduces the fear and unease of being duped, gives examples of our behavior individually and in cooperative settings, then pans out to cooperation on a societal level, exploring how this affects humanitarian aid and redistributive policies.
In a Q&A, she discusses the universal aversion to being duped, her background in moral psychology and contract law, and how individuals and communities toe the line between cooperation and self-preservation.