Alán Alcoverro Dec 17, 2018 9 min read

Cyberfraud and emotional detachment

A group of golfers were asked whether they would feel capable of moving the ball with their hand to place it in a more favorable position. A high percentage of these players said that they would not.

Nevertheless, when they were asked whether they would agree to move it with their club or subtly with their foot, the percentage of “honest golfers” dropped drastically. This is a real experiment conducted by Dan Ariely, a professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics from Duke University and an expert in the study of (dis)honesty.

This author tells us that not only do we deceive ourselves to a greater or lesser extent, but that we also usually deceive others without thinking of ourselves as bad people. To be specific, Ariely says that, with no cultural variation, 80% of us have a tendency to lie and to benefit from that lie.

The aim of the golfer experiment was precisely to analyze this honesty on the basis of the likelihood that the players would cheat. As can be seen from the results, the level of dishonesty changes according to whether the player has to pick up the ball with his or her hand in order to deceive or whether, on the contrary, they do so by using a club or their feet.

What we are seeing here is something known as “emotional detachment”, which makes the more or less direct contact with the object of the fraud impact the likelihood of our being dishonest or deceitful.

When the golfers have to touch the ball with their hand to cheat, this represents a kind of rejection; yet, if the ball is moved without so much direct contact, the players acquiesce in the dishonesty.

We can see one example of this “emotional detachment” in a much more extreme scenario. If we were forced to choose between two options for ending someone’s life: one of them stabbing them with a knife and the other pressing a button that shoots a missile that travels 200 km until it crashes into the victim, in the end most people would choose the second option.

Whereas in the former we have to have contact with and see the victim, in the latter the outcome is going to be the same, but we simply press a button and the person dies 200 km away from where we are. To sum up, this “emotional detachment” stems from the well-known saying “Out of sight, out of mind”.


In this respect, it is not a question of there being good or bad or honest or dishonest people, but that certain circumstances have an impact on the likelihood of our regarding carrying out specific behavior as proper or not.

So how can this insight into dishonesty and emotional detachment help us understand cyberfraud?

Well, by establishing a parallel between dishonesty and fraud. Ultimately, we can define dishonesty as a lack of respect for established rules, especially as regards respect for another person’s property, business transparency, etc.

This is basically a reflection of fraudulent behavior, where one person obtains a benefit to the detriment of another and which usually has an economic component as well. Therefore, what helps us understand honesty (and, where appropriate, dishonesty) can also be extrapolated to our understanding of fraud.

To this end, we are going to begin by using an example where we are going to put into practice the impact of emotional detachment on cyberfraud. Let’s suppose that we are sitting on a park bench and a woman sits down beside us with her handbag.

Before long, the woman nods off, carelessly leaving her handbag open with her wallet sticking out. With minimal effort, we are able to lean over and reach the wallet without the woman even realizing. We can even open the wallet and steal the €150 it has inside. Who would be capable of committing this theft?

Now, let’s suppose that we mistakenly receive in our inbox a discount code for €150 for making online purchases in a specific store. The code is in someone else’s name but, in order to use it, all we have to do is to enter the 4 digits of the code and to state, via a tick, that we are the person the code is assigned to.

Who would be capable of making an online purchase for themselves knowing that the discount code does not belong to us?Finally, which of these two behaviors would most people choose? Which of them would we feel most “at ease” with in order to convince ourselves to act in a fraudulent way?

If we bear the effect of emotional detachment in mind, the second example would probably be the one most of us would indulge in. In both cases, the same amount is stolen, €150, but the way it is done is different in terms of detachment from the money.

. In the first case, we can see the victim, we know what she is like, and we also have to handle the wallet and physically take out the bank notes. In the second, however, the victim is invisible and the money does not exist physically but in an online transaction. Stealing money is something that culturally generates a moral dilemma for us; we can even feel the “dirty” money in our hands.


This feeling is very difficult to extrapolate to the virtual environment, where there are no physical bank notes, where we only enter digits and click on buttons.

The same thing happens with the victim. Someone who steals the wallet can remember with some remorse the face of the woman they have robbed. Nevertheless, someone who uses a promotional code is not even going to be able to imagine their victim’s hair color. This obviously makes things a lot easier for the cyberfraudster.

Physical money is increasingly on the way out in our financial transactions. Credit cards, and currently online payment, enable us to make our purchases without any physical contact with money. In the virtual world, there is no longer a person or money, but digital identities and “pay” and “agree” buttons. This has made financial transactions easier and more fast-moving, even safer from some perspectives.

Nevertheless, in terms of the behavior of a cyberfraudster, detaching them from the object that may lead to a moral dilemma is something that enables and drives fraud.

If we want to fight against cyberfraud from this perspective, we have to ensure that this moral dilemma is also generated in the presence of virtual elements, making users feel and see the damage and the accountability resulting from their cyber behavior.

In this regard, it is a challenge for companies and professionals in the Cybersecurity arena to design strategies, which they should do by “bringing more to mind aspects that are digitally out of sight”.


Alán Alcoverro

Alán is a Solutions Architect at Revelock. With over 12 years of professional experience acting as a Solutions Engineer / PreSales in companies such as IBM, SCC, Allot Communications and Riverbed, he owns a transversal and integrated view of the IT world and all the digital challenges this implies for any company size, being Cybersecurity his main focus along the way. He is the main contact person for all technical items related with our Revelock online fraud prevention solution, for both current and future customers, generating at the same time new business opportunities within the EMEA region whilst offering highly efficient solutions for all challenges we face every single day related with cybercrime.