Winslow Homer painting of some conquistadors on the beach, about to go do the dirty.

1. Credibility Hacking

Feb 8, 2022

When planning a long-term scheme like the annexation of a continent, you are faced with the great problem of getting the locals to accept your rule.

Similarly, if you are a random sociopath looking to run a $300 con, or a $300 million con, you must first convince your mark of your sincerity.

It's one thing to engage in banditry. It's easy to point a gun at someone, take what they have, and run away.

But if you truly want to take advantage of someone, you must tweak their psychology so that they are happy, or at least willing, to work on your behalf for days, weeks, or years.

That's where Credibility Hacking comes in.

Displays of social desirability are often deployed to lower your psychological defenses, and get you to accept bad authority and bad thinking. Credibilty hacks come in many forms.

List of Credibility Hacks (Incomplete)

  • Ostentatious Displays of Wealth
  • Protestations of Purity
  • Production Value
  • Refrencing of Past Acts
  • Titles and honorifics
  • Credentials and Certifications
  • Elaborate Style of Dress
  • Declarations of Love
  • Certainty and Confidence
  • Body Parts
  • Mysteries
  • Packaging
  • Inside Jokes
  • Coat-Tailing or Name-Dropping

Discerning Intent

I am not saying that the things above are always bad. When the underlying 'product' is honest or good, these factors can help accentuate their value.

But too often, we strive to hack credulity because we want to turn attention away from the negative externalities of our actions, or to earn ourselves a higher spot in the hierarchy, thus making it harder to challenge us.

It would be foolish to say that the things on the list above are always dangerous. But they are common entry-points that individual, and institutional scams use to enter your psychology to hack your actions, beliefs, and buying patterns.

When people display the stuff on the list above publically, they are often trying to trap you (either consciously or unconsciously).

1920s Art Deco dandies sitting in the box at the theater.
Credit: A.E. Marty

Projecting Outward, and Inward

A king builds a palace for a host of reasons, but one of those reasons is the projection of power to his subjects, to other nations. and to himself.

We commoners do the same thing when we buy a nicer car or work towards a flatter stomach. We engage in these things for a host of reasons, but one of them is mostly definitely that we believe (rightly) that with these things, the world will treat us better.

Seen through this lens, teeth-whitening, and skin lightening are both efforts at credibility hacking. People should not have to try and change their skin tone to gain social acceptance. Like changing your name when you move to a new country, some credibility-hacking is an effort to avoid exploitation, not cause it.

Seeing Through the Ploy

Credibility Hacking is the wearing of masks.

  • It can be protective, to keep someone safe
  • It can be internally oriented, to help an individual drive their own life
  • And it can be used to hijack other's minds

And don't assume that only outsiders and 'con men' engage in credibility hacks. High status doesn't preclude criminal behavior, in fact, it seems to encourage it.

Priest on a horse, talking to a farmer. Illustration of medieval life.
Credit: Published by F. Warne and Co., artist unknown

The British Monarchy, The Catholic Church, and the US Military, despite their modern scandals, are still amongst the most 'credible' organizations in the world, even though they were built on thieving and murder. Why?

I've spent years thinking about what's happening under the surface of human behavior, and the things on the list above still by-pass my critical faculty all the time.

I am intimidated by wealth and status.

I am a sucker for great package design and particularly for high-production value in film.

And it's easy to turn my head with a mystery.

Knowing that I am susceptible, I try to keep my critical faculty in place. I know that real wealth is stealth. The better hidden it is, the safer it is.

So when I see the things on the list... when someone shows a lot of wealth, or a lot of skin, or a lot of 'morality', I ask myself, why it is being displayed so publically?

What do they want me to do?

What do they want me to believe?

What are they trying to believe about themselves?

What are they hiding?

When you see people and organizations engaged in credibility hacking, these are the questions you must ask. Otherwise, you risk opening the front door, and letting manipulators waltz right in.

Often the answers to these questions are innocent.

And often, they are not.

Common Methods of Manipulation

Most manipulation follows a basic formula. Governments, companies, churches, family, and conmen all use the same general strategy.

1. Credibility Hacking to gain your trust,

2. Plausible Deniability to hide and obscure their crimes,

3. Gaslighting to throw you off the scent and keep the scam going as long as possible.

Not all manipulation is conscious manipulation. Some people are just passthroughs for the manipulation of forces further afield. Some manipulators deserve pity. Some deserve anger. Some deserve mockery.

Read the original 3-part article on Credibility Hacking:

Credibility Hacking (v1)
Protect yourself from manipulation.