The Psychology of Why Some People Can’t Say ‘No!’

Being unable to say no can be a huge financial problem. Are you at risk? Here’s how to save yourself a lot of grief, and potentially a lot of money.

A man indicates his lips are sealed.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

“As kids growing up, my sister and I could never understand why our parents always helped with church activities, to the extent that almost every weekend was occupied with major time-consuming tasks.

“Often we would hear them complain about feeling used, but we never heard them say ‘No.’

“Also, they tend to believe and trust everyone, once buying a $3,000 vacuum cleaner from two door-to-door salesmen claiming it would purify air in their home. We were able to unwind that sale under the three-day-cooling-off law.

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“This behavior has always appeared to us as not normal, but what happened last week has us even more concerned. They went to Las Vegas for a deeply discounted weekend at a nice resort, attended a timeshare presentation, and bought one for $30,000! They are both in their late 70s! When we heard about this, immediately we drove them to the post office and sent in the cancellation form.

“Mom and Dad seem to lack internal warning alarms. Why couldn’t they say no? Surely psychological defense mechanisms that aren’t working properly can be corrected. Thanks for your insights.” Signed “‘Concerned Kids’ in Denver, Colorado, happy that our parents did not buy the Paris Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas!”

An Evolutionary Flaw

I put the question to a friend of this column, psychology professor Luis Vega of California State University in Bakersfield. In October of 2020, he was the source for my article, “The Psychology of Being Scammed.”

“From an evolutionary perspective, while some people have developed strong defenses to fend off predatory attacks — which is the safest way of viewing, for example, timeshare sales presentations routinely conducted by con artists — many have not. These predators are opportunistic, much as we see in the savanna how lions isolate the young, old, the injured. It is the exact same thing when two vacuum cleaner salesmen or timeshare crooks have at you.

“If we imagine ourselves in those terms, we should be prepared to say NO and avoid dangerous situations. We need to put mind and not heart to work for us. So, why don’t we? Why can’t some people acknowledge that it truly is a jungle out there, unable to imagine themselves in the savanna, walking into the lion’s den, right up to the pack of hyenas and letting them smell weakness?”

The Brainwashing of False Trust – ‘Don’t Hurt Their Feelings!’

Much has been written on the impact of religion and socialization upon skepticism. Lawyers see the results when con artists prey on people of faith.

We are taught to believe and to trust, making us easy victims of “affinity fraud” — scams that target specific demographics, such as evangelical Christians or the elderly. Bernard Madoff bilked billions of dollars out of thousands of fellow Jews in the largest Ponzi scam in history.

I asked Vega, “What has having been told since childhood to trust each other and not hurt someone’s feelings done to our ability of saying no and walking away?”

“In many instances, it is complacency of a blind mind,” he replied, adding, “While no one comes out and directly says, ‘Let your heart dictate economic decisions,’ emotions influence our financial decision-making ability.

“We are schooled from an early age to show sympathy for the person who needs to make that one sale in order to keep their job even though intellectually we do not believe them, don’t need nor want what they are selling, but feel that it is wrong to hurt their feelings by refusing to buy.”

We Can Learn How to Say No

To Vega, part of the challenge in getting people to not cave in and fear the consequences of a “No” is in thinking of salespeople as predators and not people we must please.

“You need to accept this broad generalization in order to protect yourself, because they see us as prey, hunt us in calculating ways, smell our weakness (being nice, old, lonely), isolate us from our pack (don't want us to speak with family or experts), and they will devour us in one bite (take all our money.)

“By seeing ourselves as potential victims, this should help us use our senses, considering it as a matter of survival to avoid them.”

Vega admits that, “The predator-prey analogy is primal, and while it overrides our humanity, it is a balance especially an aging population must get used to, where many salespeople are profiteers, dehumanize us, by treating us like animals, so they maximize their profit. They are the true animals, in the negative connotation of the word.”

He suggests these steps to follow:

  1. Recognize the trap being set by the “free” dinner you’ve been offered, “discounted three-day” vacation or similar deal. Your pleasure is not their priority but their gain.
  2. The minute we accept this invitation or the free gift, it is a lost cause, and a lose-lose situation for us. It is really hard to say no, because they put us into a situation of perceived lack of control — we can just walk away but don’t often for fear of embarrassment by appearing cheap in front of others.
  3. We don’t walk away, having been conditioned since childhood to be nice, to trust and believe in the goodness of others. Not to be so means discomfort, fear, a lack of faith in humanity. This is what makes it difficult to say no.

Vega concluded our discussion with this cautionary note:

“When you say no, expect raised eyebrows and maybe even someone yelling at you. But, so what? You have mastered the beasts of the jungle. Just like Tarzan!”


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."