Why do spammers spam? I try to explain it using the Moralization Gap

Don’t spammers know they are irritating the rest of us?

Lately, I have been thinking a little bit on why spammers spam. I have never conducted a large study of this, all of my research about their own explanations comes from my memory of articles I have read and videos I have seen of convicted spammers. They usually have a few explanations:

  • I did it for the money
  • I wasn’t annoying people
  • What I was (am) doing wasn’t illegal
  • You can always hit delete

I can understand the first motivation. It’s the middle two I want to examine. Many spammers think that they are providing a valuable service and that what they are doing isn’t that big a deal. Or, they minimize the irritation that they cause because the pursuit of money is more important.

Do spammers genuinely believe this? Or are they putting on an act? And if they do believe it, how can they possibly not know how annoying they are? And how much damage they are causing to the rest of the Internet? How can they possibly exist in the bubble that they do?

What can we learn from psychology?

I have a theory. I am going to try to explain it using psychology. This is only my theory, I am not trained in the psychological arts. Still, it’s my blog and I can write what I want.

One of the books I read this past summer was Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature.


In the book, Pinker looks at historical trends regarding violence amongst humans (it has declined), why it has declined, explanations about why it occurs in the first place, and finally strategies for reducing it in the future.

The sample size of spammers amongst the human population is small, but all of us humans are prone to the same sorts of errors and biases. One of these is the Moralization Gap. Here’s an excerpt from Pinker’s book:

When psychologists are confronted with a timeless mystery, they run an experiment. They asked people to describe one incident in which someone angered them, and one incident in which they angered someone. The order of the two questions was randomly flipped form one participate to the next, and they were separated by a busywork task so that the participants would answer them in quick succession. Most people get angry at least once a week and nearly everyone gets angry at least once a month so there was no shortage of material. Both perpetrators and victims recounted plenty of lies, broken promises, violated rules and obligations, betrayed secrets, unfair acts, and conflicts over money.

But that was all the perpetrators and victims agreed on. The psychologists pored over the narratives and coded features such as the time span of the events, the culpability of each side, the perpetrators' motive and the aftermath of the harm. If one were to weave a composite narrative out of their tallies, they might look something like this:

The Perpetrator’s Narrative:

The story begins with the harmful act. At the time I had good reasons for doing it. Perhaps I was responding to an immediate provocation. Or I was just reacting to the satiation in a way that any reasonable person would. I had a perfect right to do what I did and it’s unfair to blame me for it. The harm was minor, and easily repaired, and I apologized. Its time to get over it, put it behind us, let bygones be bygones.

The Victim’s narrative:

The story being long before the harmful act, which was just the latest incident in a long history of mistreatment. The perpetrator’s actions where incoherent, senseless, incomprehensible. Neither that or he was an abnormal sadist, motived only by a desired to see me suffer, though I was completely innocent. The harm he did is grievous and irreparable, with effects that will last forever.  None of us should ever forget it.


The psychologists next had a follow up wherein they had people come in and read a fictional account of a college student help another with some coursework. The first student reneges on his promise and the second receives a poor grade, has to change their major and switch to another university. The psychologists had the volunteers retell the story – some from the perspective of the first student (perpetrator), some from the second student (victim) and some from a third party (neutral) viewpoint. Both the victims and the perpetrators distorted the story to the same extent but in opposite ways, either omitting details or embellishing points to make their own characters look more reasonable and the other one to look less so. And this was for a fictional story!

The Self Serving Bias

This set of events wherein we minimize the gravity of our own infractions, and emphasize the damage of infractions committed by others is called the Moralization Gap. It is part of a broader phenomenon known as the Self-Serving Bias. This is when we interpret events in ways that are favorable to ourselves, but do not extend the same courtesy to others. From Wikipedia:

A self-serving bias is any cognitive or perceptual process that is distorted by the need to maintain and enhance self esteem. When individuals reject the validity of negative feedback, focus on their strengths and achievements but overlook their faults and failures, or take more responsibility for their group's work than they give to other members, they are protecting the ego from threat and injury. These cognitive and perceptual tendencies perpetuate illusions and error, but they also serve the self's need for esteem.

This is also called the Lake Wobegon Effect. Lake Wobegon is a fictional town where everyone thinks that they are above average drivers. When they told everyone who said they are above average that everyone else said the same thing, they stuck to their guns, insisting that they were above average. When the surveyors explained that it wasn’t possible for everyone to be above average and that people inflated their own abilities, the respondents were firmly committed to their own positions – everyone else was inflating their own abilities but they themselves were perfectly capable of assessing their own superior driving ability.


The reason why we do this is because it’s an evolutionary adaptation, a survival technique. It is persistent in humans because it was useful to us to get to where we are today. We can see why everyone else is a hypocrite because it helps cuts others down to size. Back when we were still hunters on the African savannah for hundreds of thousands of years, social status was crucial (it still is). People higher up the social ladder had better reproductive odds and the ones that were higher up survived to pass on their genes. If you could fake it your higher status, so much the better!

Of course, if someone else was faking it, showing their status (and therefore odds of attracting a mate to reproduce) was better than your own, it was in your best interests to point out they were hypocrites and not of a higher social standing than you. Better to push them down and pass on your genes then let them go on faking it and you pass on into oblivion.

By contrast, faking it was in your best interest. If you could convince others that you were the best, the top of the ladder, then your odds of reproductive success and passing on your genes would increase. And even better: rather than you faking it, if you genuinely believed you really were better than anyone else, you could thereby convince others even more convincingly. You wouldn’t have the tell-tale signs of deception like fidgeting, sweating, or needing to keep your lies straight. Thus, it’s in your own best evolutionary interest to believe in your own greatness regardless of whether or not it is true, and point out the hypocrisy of others to prevent them from getting ahead.

And that’s why the Self-Serving Bias exists. We exonerate ourselves while not granting the same leeway to others.

And this brings us back to spammers. The reason they don’t see why they are so annoying is because of this Moralization Gap. They are minimizing the damage of the infractions they are committing and the Self-Serving Bias prevents them from seeing it.

The Perpetrator’s Narrative:

What we are doing isn’t such a big deal: We have good reasons for doing it, we are making money and being a productive member of society. The damage is minor (only a few email messages) and easily repaired (hit delete). Just get over it and let bygones be bygones.

That’s why I think spammers don’t know (or don’t care) why they are so annoying – at one point they got into it and now they rationalize it with a feature of the brain that worked well in our evolutionary history but is now being used for the wrong reason.

That’s my theory.

Unfortunately, there is a twist

But there’s one problem: the problem of self-deception has its limits and it’s difficult to show that it exists in all cases. To test this, psychologists had a group of volunteers to help them evaluate a study where half of the people would get a pleasant and easy task (looking at photographs for ten minutes) while the others would get a boring and difficult one (solving math problems for 45 minutes). They then allowed the participants to pick what task they wanted to do and give the other task to another paired off participant.

Most participants selected the easy task for themselves and gave the difficult task to the other participant (who was actually one of the researchers). When given a questionnaire afterwards, most of the participants said that their choice was fair. However, when describing these actions to another group of participants, most of them said it wasn’t fair at all.

Up to this point, this is all consistent with the self-serving bias.

The researchers probed deeper. Did the “selfish” participants they really, deep-down think their choice was fair? Did their unconscious mind know of their own hypocrisy?

They tested this by tying up the participants conscious minds by forcing some of them to keep seven digits in memory while they filled out the questionnaire indicating whether or not their choices were fair. The truth came out: the participants judged themselves as harshly as they judged other participants. The reality was there all along, it just took some coaxing to bring it out. Be careful though, in the absence of ridicule/argument/time, the default state is for people to misjudge the harmful acts they have committed.

So, perhaps there is hope for spammers after all. Deep down, perhaps they do know that what they are doing is irritating (and illegal) but it is repressed in their unconscious minds.

Perhaps the final justification for why they spam is a Freudian slip – “You can always just hit delete.” Is this a tacit confession that the “service” they provide is not a service that everyone wants? Maybe. Spammers do use antispam filters to keep their mailboxes clean, they themselves do not want to be annoyed so they are aware to some extent what they are doing.

If only there were some way to make them memorize seven digits the next time they send out a spam campaign.

Comments (1)

  1. Matt says:

    Very interesting article. I liken Spamming to being environmentally irresponsible. If you look at the statistics of Spam and think about how much resources are used to deliver it (the compute, storage and network resources that are then translated into use of Electricity and the resources that create it), it's quite an impact. How much better would the world be without this waste? But, it's inside the 'magic internet' so it's something spammers don't even think about, because the internet costs nothing to power, right? 🙂

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