How did Bernie Madoff do it? How did he steal twenty billion dollars from people who should have known better? It doesn't matter if you went to university or not–you can still be played as a chump.
To pull off a significant deception, you generally need two things: A deceiver and a crowd of people open to being deceived.
Once those are present, the deceiver brings out the big lie.
For lots of reasons, people are open to looking for shortcuts and a new reality, even if no shortcuts are available. They may have been mistreated, might be struggling, or they may merely be greedy, looking to outdo the other guy. In the case of Madoff, he was even able to take in charities, with boards that meant well but were in a hurry to scale.
Frustration in the face of the way things are makes us open to the big lie. Frustration and fear and anger can suspend our ability to ask difficult questions, to listen to thoughtful critics, to do our homework.
And the big lie is always present when we get played. To be a chump (not merely the victim) is to be open to the big lie. Not merely open to it, eager to buy into it.
Numbers make it easy to tell a big lie. People hate numbers, and they seem so real.
Anti-intellectualism, disregard for the scientific method and conspiracy theories also set the stage for a big lie.
And demonizing the other, the one who is already held in low esteem or feared by the chump, this is usually part of the big lie as well.
In retrospect, the warning signs around Madoff were obvious. Just about any skeptical, thoughtful investor could have seen through the big lie if he wasn't so busy being a chump.
When a population gets played, the responsibility lies with the liar, with the con man, with the person so craven that they'll trade trust and productivity and a bit of civilization for some power and authority.
But the chump also has to take responsibility. Responsibility for looking for the shortcut, giving into the fear and for eagerly believing the big lie, ignoring the clues that are all around.
Chumps aren't restricted by nationality, by education, by income. Chump is an attitude and a choice.
We're not chumps. Not if we don't choose to be.