The dark truth of how multi-level pyramid schemes exploit our brains, hook our attention and trap us like rats in a cage.
Let’s start with 2 stories, one about a smart little lab rat and another about a smart, determined woman.
In the cozy corner of a warmly-lit psychology lab lived a pretty white rat named Myrtle. Known for her playful nature, Myrtle had a fondness for cuddles and tickles, nestling daily in the hands of her human researcher. Her days were filled with simple joys – grooming her glossy fur, playfully chasing her fellow rats, and solving the puzzles that her caretakers lovingly prepared.
Myrtle loved the puzzles. Each new one was an adventure. Solving them was her favorite part!
One day, a new puzzle appeared in her cage. It was a simple contraption: a button and a tiny dish. Myrtle quickly learned that pressing the button 5 times rewarded her with a delightful treat. She relished the game, solving it a few times for the sheer joy of mastery and the sweet reward that followed. But true to her nature, once sated, Myrtle would scamper off to her other activities – grooming, playing, living the good life of a loved lab rat.
The next day, the routine 5 presses yielded nothing. Confused, Myrtle tried again, adding an extra press. Then another. At the eighth press, the treat tumbled out. “Aha,” she thought, “the game has changed.” With the adaptability that had always been her strength, Myrtle prepared to master this new challenge.
But the button became unpredictable. A treat might drop on the second press, or the tenth, or not at all. The unpredictability was maddening, but it only fueled Myrtle’s curiosity and determination. She forgot the world outside the button – her friends, her grooming, the warm hands that once cuddled her.
Days blurred into each other as Myrtle pressed on. Her once glossy fur lost its sheen, her eyes glazed over with fixation. The randomness of the button had ensnared her. The rest of her life was fading like a forgotten dream.
Victoria’s Mirage: The Lure of Elusive Success
In a small military town, Victoria was settling herself and her two-and-a-half year old baby into their assigned family housing on base. Her world, recently shattered by a miscarriage and her mother’s death, felt further fragmented by her husband’s deployment. He was her steady rock, but now he could only offer words of comfort over crackling phone lines and laggy video chats.
An invitation from Amanda, a fellow military spouse, seemed like a respite from Victoria’s loneliness. Eager for human connection, Victoria wrapped up her toddler and walked the few steps to Amanda’s home. They were greeted warmly by the spouses and their small children. Victoria was surprised that as Amanda introduced her to the group, Amanda shared Victoria’s recent sorrows. But her shock was quickly washed in comfort, as the women nodded and shared their own stories of pain and loss.
Promises of healing and community surrounded Victoria like a curtain sweeps a stage. The products, the women claimed, were miraculous, and the opportunity to sell them was a path to financial freedom and personal fulfillment. Victoria could not help but be drawn in by the warmth and air of success of the women around her.
The next month was a whirlwind of excitement. Victoria felt a sense of belonging and sense of purpose she had longed for. These products truly helped people, she believed. Amanda’s praises as Victoria made her first sales felt like rays of sunshine piercing through a dark cloud of grief. And it felt so, so good to help people who were, like her, struggling to feel better. This new path lit a fire of hope in her heart. It felt like a new beginning, a way to rebuild her life and forge a new identity as a successful entrepreneur.
But as the second and third months came, the plan faltered. Her new home, once a haven, turned into a storage facility for products. Each encouragement from Amanda and from the extended team were tinged with subtle guilt. Victoria had a purpose, they reminded her. This wasn’t about selling, it was about transforming people’s lives. Amanda was pressuring her to invest more, to do more, to believe more. She maxed out the two meager credit cards she shared with her husband. Victoria felt sure she would hit the streak. It was guaranteed. So many stories from others in company told her so. Success was right around the corner. It was only a matter of time.
Stuck in a rat race?
What does Myrtle have in common with Victoria?
They both sound like lovely creatures. They are loved by their families. They are both full of potential and probably quite attractive. You probably don’t know this, but lab rats are pretty cute. They’re smart, they’re social, they like to be tickled. They do amazing things like crawl on top of a maze structure when they weren’t supposed to know they were *in* a maze. They can band together to rescue a pack member. They even think up their own individual dances! Rats truly are adorable, resourceful, clever little buggers.And who isn’t more resourceful than military spouses? They are truly a different breed of resilient humans. They are deserving of all the respect and support they don’t usually get.
Psychology researchers have an easier time studying rats than humans. Rats’ cleverness and their similarities to us is what makes them popular amongst psychology researchers. Rat brains and human brains are constructed and function in much the same way. Psych researchers can design experiments that address human questions. They design puzzles in a way to “hack” the inherent nature of rats brains – the same nature in our own human brains – in the hope of unlocking the mysteries of how dopamine works. They use the rats own nature against them, all in the name of science.
As we saw in Myrtle’s story, a treat button puzzle is popular type of challenge given to rats. Myrtle’s behavior was typical: when the button has a predictable pattern, Myrtle will solve the puzzle then go about her day. When it has an unpredictable pattern, Myrtle will lose all sense and become obsessed with the button. She won’t stop until she collapses with exhaustion. We can all relate to this, of course. How much time have you spent watching your phone for anticipated text messages?
How to save Myrtle
Sadly, as pack-oriented and social as they are, fellow rats would not be able to recognize that Myrtle was dying at the Reno Rat Casino. They won’t know to pull her away from the button. The psych grad students must show mercy.
Here are the only ways to save Myrtle from being trapped by these intermittent rewards:
- Break the button. Don’t let the button deliver any more treats.
- Physically remove the button or the Myrtle.
- Put the button back on a predictable hit interval and keep it set there.
The end of Myrtle’s story is a happy one. The button puzzle is removed. She rests for a while, and soon gets back to daily life. She grooms her fur, she plays with friends, she cuddles with her human. Her love of puzzles is no longer hacked by researchers. After a few months, she and her best friend are adopted by her human. She is taken to a loving, cozy home to live a peaceful, predictable life.
How to hack a human
Victoria’s story can end well, too, but before we work to break her out, we need to first understand what is happening in her and Myrtle’s brains.
Victoria’s journey into being recruited for the ML scam will probably ring true for many former victims. An extremely vulnerable moment gets turned into an opportunity for the scam to exploit our human nature. But why does this work? What, exactly, is happening to our brains at those moments?
Enter dopamine. Everyone’s favorite neurotransmitter.
In the days before cell phones, we old heads had to pass notes in class. If a note was too private to risk being read by others along the delivery route, we’d craft paper airplanes and toss them quick-like when the teacher’s back was turned.
Imagine a brain like a classroom. Dopamine is the paper airplane sent between cells. Dopamine carries a specific message from one cell to the other and also triggers some sensations that make us feel good. That “feel good” rush is what everyone likes to talk about but it is only one feature of dopamine’s programming. Dopamine is actually an essential learning tool; It is a Very, Very Good and Necessary Thing to have in your brain because it helps us absorb information and integrate it into our knowledge.
But the dopamine process can, because of its very nature, be exploited. Dopamine is why Myrtle will be pushing up daisies before she stops pushing that button, and why Victoria will face bankruptcy before she gives up pursuing success that is “just around the corner.”
Dopamine is about learning
Dopamine is everyone’s favorite paper airplane to get, because according to brain cells, this particular paper airplane always contains good news. It consists of only one message: “Hey BFF Brain Cell, pay attention because we’re about to learn/do something new and cool!”
Our brains want most of our attention on important things like lions laying in wait or pretty girls or getting food. So whenever the brain recognizes a new pattern, it gets excited and works quickly to build pathways to automate that task. These pathways kind of look like roads. They are express lanes for brain signals.
As you can imagine, dopamine is given top priority, because our brain cell besties wanna build the most efficient express lanes possible. YAY DOPAMINE!
How the hack works
If we were to give an evil hacker a computer connected to a human brain, the hacker would immediately introduce an intermittent reward process.
Remember our little brain cell BFFs? What are they to do, though, if they get a paper airplane but they encounter no pattern? Would they just shrug their shoulders and write off that particular message as a fake? Or would they keep watching?
The hacker knows how to keep them watching. If the hacker would stop sending paper airplanes, the pair of brain cells will give up. But the hacker tosses one over occasionally in no particular order, these dedicated little BFF buggers will keep at it. They will keep searching for a pattern. They want to build some pathways, gosh darn it!
And boom. The hacker is complete. All the hacker has to do is throw them a random paper airplane once in a while.
What this looks like IRL for ML scams
We know already what being trapped looks like for poor Myrtle, her muscles shrinking as she sits and hits the button, hoping for more treats. It is much the same for Victoria and the rest of us. Imagine the person who can’t keep scrolling (thanks, Facebook!), or the gambler who can’t seem to tear themselves away from the slot machine.
(side note: You know what’s ironic? A lot of these ML scams will admonish 9-5 workers as being “trapped in a rat race.” But the ML scam treats humans more like rats than any 9-5 job would. ML scamming is a constant rat race for the next recruit, the next level, a speaking gig at the next indoctrination event.)
Dopamine hits for ML scammers come on irregular schedules. Luring a new victim, making a sale, getting good feedback from one’s upline or from a customer, attending a “training,” etc., each one of these things sends a dopamine hit. Our brains desperately search for patterns so we can put any good thing on autopilot.
When the ML scheme delivers these rewards in waves, then in drops, then in waves again, victims get stuck. Only when the delivery of rewards stops or slows down to a too-long interval, victims can break free (or, more likely, they’ll jump to another scheme).
This brain hack is so evil, we usually need a total reboot (aka special outside help) to escape the loop.
I’ve never been victimized as a recruiter for any ML scheme, but I have been taken advantage of as a “customer” (aka mark) once or twice. I don’t have direct experience with an ML scam using these tactics on me but I have most definitely been trapped in intermittent rewards systems, the main one being raised by abusive parents. That is one of the worst, most-difficult-to-break systems, for sure. So I get it. The hack is always the same, though, and we can learn to look for the signs.
Here are some obvious tactics that almost all high-control groups share:
- Love-Bombing. An overwhelming sense of belonging given immediately
- Promises of safety (i.e. promises of sustainable income and friendship)
- Intermittent rewards for continued participation – big rewards at first, then unpredictable rewards in the months/years following
- Admonishment for insufficient participation followed by big kudos for any successes
- Mass indoctrination events and social esteem delivered for attending, public admonishment for not attending
This isn’t a comprehensive list; It’s just a few examples of how pyramid-schemes-with-products work to keep that dopamine hitting in the brain.
How to attack the ML scam on a systemic level
- Remove the button. We must keep on our lawmakers to recognize the danger multi-level schemes pose to consumers. Other countries ban these practices. We can, too.
- Deconstruct the ML scam design. Identify the intermittent rewards. Categorize and label every tactic and behavior.
- Keep talking and spreading knowledge about this particularly insidious intermittent rewards trap.
Hope for victims
There is hope for Victoria. Her story ends well. One day, something in her mind just clicks. She can’t pinpoint exactly what happened. Maybe it was her heart sinking when Amanda suggested she sell the family heirloom crib, a precious hand-constructed bed kept and loved for generations, so Victoria could attend yet another convention for the company. Maybe it was the pang of shame she felt when her long-time friend from another state came to visit and was taken aback by the products filling Victoria’s house. This friend was disappointed with how much time Victoria spent working and not with her during her too-short visit. Perhaps it was all the little things adding up. She doesn’t know how it happened but now Victoria feels trapped. Something that once contained so much promise now feels like a crumbling house of cards. Insincere friendships turned into a pile of ash. She hopes she can save her family from ruin if she gets out now.
Outside perspectives like the one given by Victoria’s friend is another way to hack back. People can and do escape from intermittent rewards traps all the time. It takes some help and self-awareness and, to be frank, a bit of bravery, but people do it all the time. More and more people are speaking up and speaking out.
Some tactics to think about
Like dopamine and the brain, ML scams are very complex. They can be hard to see through. But like all scams, they are dopamine hacks. But unlike a mere Facebook feed or one-arm bandit, multi-level selling scams are more insidious; The religious, cultural, and emotional hacks are so well-designed they are almost beyond detection.
Cult experts have more to offer than I do when it comes down to the nitty gritty of liberating person like Victoria from a high-control scam. My purpose was to let you in on some info to help illustrate why breaking an intermittent reward system can be so difficult. But as I said, there’s hope. They can hack us, but we can hack back.
Some *meager* suggestions to help you hack back:
- Compare reward systems. Starting out with the income disclosure statements, then moving to the victim’s personal expenditure in money and time may help shift the focus from the manipulative reward system to a healthier one.
- Don’t deny that sometimes, rewards come. Yes. Sometimes rewards come. But victims will wither away, destroying relationships, finances, and their own spirits as they wait for those ever-decreasing rewards. Are the rewards likely? Are they worth the wait knowing how much else will be forfeit?
- Identify *ALL* the rewards. As mentioned above, it is important to deconstruct the ML scam in order to identify which rewards are being delivered on an intermittent schedule. Address each one by pointing out a counterpart that is genuine and consistent. e.g. a non-commercial group, building sincere friendships, etc.
- Deny, fight, rebel against the stigma of getting scammed. We are humans, we cannot help but get duped sometimes. One reason scams like this exist is because people feel shame, as if they should’ve been smarter to avoid the scam. But we all get hacked at some point. Smash that shame. It’s a good thing to have dopamine in your brain. Trust me you don’t want to be that person who doesn’t have enough.
Anyone can get trapped by an intermittent reward system. When dopamine does its job, we can end up getting swindled by a lousy lothario from Loserville! Try to be aware of your own vulnerabilities and talk about them. Knowing how dopamine works can help you identify when you are falling into the intermittent rewards trap.
Photo of Product Bottles by pmv chamara on Unsplash