Why Do People Buy Snake Oil?

Reader Ace commented in  previous post:

“I’m afraid that we have to live with the fact that people have been buying snake oil for centuries, and will certainly continue to do so.”

That got me thinking. Why do people buy snake oil? I can understand why people sell snake oil but why do people buy it? The immediate answer would be lack of education. Obviously if people know it’s snake oil, they wouldn’t buy it. But I keep thinking there’s got to be more to it. After witnessing one such purchase first-hand, I developed a hypothesis: people buy snake oil because they expect magic.

I was at a running event recently. A booth at the Expo was selling a balance bracelet. This bracelet supposedly improves one’s balance. It does that instantly.

They did live demos with real prospective customers. The salesperson had the prospect extend her arms and stand on one foot. Then the salesperson pressed down on her extended arm. The prospect couldn’t hold the balance and the lifted foot had to touch the floor. After the salesperson gave the prospect a balance bracelet and repeated the test, the prospect could hold longer and against stronger force this time. The convinced customer bought the bracelet on the spot.

You can improve your balance by wearing a bracelet. As simple as that. That’s magic, isn’t it?

I propose an alternate test. Give the test subject the bracelet first without saying anything. Do the test. Remove the bracelet and test again. I bet the test subject will perform better the second time because she’s more prepared. Does that show having the bracelet hurts her balance?

If people expect magic, they will buy snake oil. I can think of another example: buy CDs issued by a bank in Antigua paying high interest. I’m sure you can think of other examples too.

The simplest way to guard against buying snake oil: don’t expect magic; take the slow road.

For more debunking of the balance bracelet magic, watch this video:

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  1. Slattum says

    In what way is faith in a “magical bracelet” different than faith in a religion, if one looks uncharitably on it?

  2. GammaPoint says

    I was at a dinner party at a friend’s last fall and a coworker of theirs came over and had one of those bracelets. He then tried to do the balance test on someone who really wasn’t buying into it. Then he started in on an explanation that had to do with magical energy auras that surround all living creatures.

    Honestly I’m not sure why so many people buy snake oil. Sometimes it’s probably just a lack of education and they actually think they are being “off the cuff” scientific. Other times it may be that people actually WANT to believe in magic. It can add an element of mystery and control that they may find lacking otherwise.

  3. Wai Yip Tung says

    There is well established scientific method to test the effectiveness of the magic bracelet – controlled experiment. This is basically what they did in the debunking video. People may not lack education in general. But they definitely lack science education. I don’t mean everyone should be math or physics genius. But they have to understand that a tool like controlled experiment makes valid test, and a magic show isn’t.

    And then there is the miracle aspect you’ve mentioned. People desire miracle. And there will always be snake oil salesmen to fulfil this desire. Nowhere is the desire more obvious concerning one’s health. A popular believe in Asia is Chinese medicine is a viable and effective alternative to western medicine, especially in treating condition like cancer. People closely follow some celebrities’ travail in fighting cancer. When Western doctor forsake patients and estimate them to have 6 months to live, Chinese medicine doctor take care for them and “treat” them with their miracle medicine. When tabloids report the celebrity is partying 12 months after the diagnosis, defying the western doctor’s prognosis, it was taken as compelling evidence of the effectiveness of Chinese medicine.

    I am rolling my eyes in such judement. First of all, inevitably, they all die in a few months. By then people just switch to griefing mode and nobody will ever question or reconsider if the Chinese medicine is so effective after all. And then there are probably some patients who go to the Chinese medicine doctor and die only after a few weeks. But this will hardly tarnish the reputation of the doctor. They just accept it as the outcome of terminal cancer. So if someone don’t die, it is credited to the doctor’s treatment. If they do die, well, then they die.

    People want miracle. And there are always other people to sell them miracle.

  4. Guy G. says

    I just wanted to say that I’ve seen similar demonstrations with magnetic insoles. I’ve actually had it done on myself with an allergy specialist. My right arm was weaker when vials of ragweed, tree and grass pollens were put in my left hand. At the time of this test, I wasn’t sure what was in the vials. My arm was fine when she put some in, and when she added those, it went weak. She said it had something to do with the vibrational frequency of the allergens not being congruent with that of my body.
    I don’t understand all of how it works, but she sure helps with the allergies so I don’t care.
    Thanks for the interesting post,

  5. Sapere aude says

    Uneducated pipe dreams. Even in the “post-Enlightened” world of the west, celebrities still give credence to fantasy treatments and alternative medicines when there is no facts support their claims.
    Im not saying that your crazy if you believe a rock will help you sleep better, but what I am asking for is for a bit more reasoning to be involved rather than just a faith based decision; largely influenced by the faiths surrounding you.

    The mind can be a powerful tool for manipulating our perceptions.
    Sapere aude – dare to discern

    Personal knowledge and perception does not necessarily validate truth.

  6. Judsen says

    I buy snake oil when my hopeium kicks in and the cost is low.
    Because I am frugal, the cost is rarely low enough.
    In a circus style sales pitch there seems to be an aura akin to hypnosis where the group is worked like a musician playing an instrument artfully. At these times we are in a spell where our hope and optimism lead us down the proverbial primrose path.

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