Knowing I’m Being Tricked is Barely Enough

by ElizabethAceso Under Glass1 min read26th Feb 201910 comments


Heuristics & BiasesDeceptionDark Arts
Personal Blog

I think it was in Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal that a con man mused that the easiest people to rip off were other con men, or at least those who aspired to be so, because all you had to do was make it look like they were taking advantage of you. Honest men wouldn’t fall for it because they weren’t willing to rip you off.* It’s interesting watching myself fall for that.

A year ago Audible (owned by Amazon) offered me a year’s membership (=12 credits for free books, plus discounts on other books and some miscellaneous perks) for $100. That’s almost half off the per credit price (which itself can be can be half the price of buying a book with money, although those prices are clearly set to encourage subscribing rather than to be paid). I was about to start reading a bunch of dense history tomes, so this seemed like a pretty good deal. Then between my plan changing and the library gods being generous, I ended up not using a single credit. Suddenly 11 months had passed and Audible e-mailed me telling me they would renew my membership in a month.

“NBD, I’ll just cancel my account and keep the credits for when I need them” I thought quietly to myself. Only it turns out unused credits disappear if you cancel your membership. To keep them, I’d have to renew my subscription.  But Audible only lets you keep 18 credits at a time. If I renewed for another year, 6 credits will immediately expire, meaning I’m paying for 12 credits but only getting 6. So I went on a spree buying books off my Goodreads queue and gave a few as gifts. Actually I gave one too many gifts, because I realized later there was another good candidate I didn’t have the credits for.

Audible to the rescue. No sooner had I spent my last credit than they offered me three for $30 each- more per credit than I’d paid for my first membership, but less than the annual membership. I went as far as picking out two more books before realizing this was stupid, I had gone an entire year without buying a single audio book, I did not need three more credits.

Then my roommate told me $10/credit isn’t even that good a price, they were sure to offer me a better one when I actually cancelled. And I wanted it. A product I empirically had to be forced to use, and I felt compelled to buy more because it was cheap.

I put this down to two things- “Audible subscriber” was a nice identity to have and I enjoyed the feeling of pulling one over on Audible. I was the dishonest man letting the con man fool him. And I knew this was happening and it was still an act of will that I actually cancelled my subscription.

This story has a happy ending- well, except for the part where I paid $100 for a bunch of books I only marginally wanted. I probably still captured some surplus. But this can not possibly be the only trick Amazon is playing on me, and I don’t know what to do about it.


*I tried to find an exact quote for this and instead found “There is a saying ‘You can’t fool an honest man’ which is much quoted by people who make a profitable living by fooling honest men.” But I’m pretty sure the part I quoted was there too.


10 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:34 PM
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I agree Zvi and I are talking about the same general principles, but I found this piece's basis in fear did more harm than good for me in particular. It made me want to push away the knowledge. What I was trying to do here was engage with the specifics of what was happening so I could develop defenses beyond flipping the table over and refusing to play.

I think it might be more useful for a group of people to buy, than just one person.

It's really hard to operationally distinguish between "tricked" and "found a framing that encourages voluntary transactions". You yourself say you get value from identifying as an audible subscriber, and that you probably captured some surplus (implying you got more value than the $100 you spent).

It's simply always going to be the case that there are multiple ways of bundling, charging for, advertising, discounting, and delivering goods and services, with different mechanisms designed to attract different kinds of buyers, and not always a perfect match for your actual reflective preferences. Framing these mechanisms as "tricks" implies that you should avoid or be upset at it. Framing it as "offers" simply means you should choose in ways that best fit your desires.

Oh, also you paid $100 for NOTHING. The real "trick" here is convincing you to pay anything at all for limited permission to use a mathematical construct (sequence of bits).

[ disclosure: I work for the vendor in question, but am not in any way speaking for them, and I have no knowledge of their thinking or behavior on this topic. ]

Overall, this comment seems to be insinuating that because it's hard to tell when you're being tricked, it's bad to call this a trick. But people trying to trick others have a strong incentive to make the trick look like something else that is not a trick. So, unless we just want to give up on noticing when we're being tricked, we're going to have to look at the hard cases.

Oh, also you paid $100 for NOTHING. The real "trick" here is convincing you to pay anything at all for limited permission to use a mathematical construct (sequence of bits).

What's the relevance of this point? How is this more of a trick than selling land, or the combination numbers to open a safe containing some valuable object? Information is the foundation of all property arrangements - and pretty much all other coordination too.

I think it was a half-joke, trying to illustrate how you can frame arbitrary things as "tricks" without it really getting you anywhere.

I can be intentionally obtuse about lots of things without it really getting me anywhere.

I'm confused. Do you think it's bad/a waste of time to examine tricks as a concept, or that I was pretty seriously tricked (while actively looking for tricks), which seems to me like it calls for spending more time on the concept?

Not a waste of time, and probably not tricked any more than you thought. I was trying to make the point that it may not matter that it's a trick - if you're examining the value and believe you're capturing some surplus in the transaction, it sounds like a win. I apparently did so badly. The last part was 2/3 joke and 1/3 reminder that value is purely subjective in the first place.