You Can Be Conned
I don’t think I have ever been conned. Lied to? Sure. Deceived? Absolutely. Been hurt by an abuse of my trust? Without a doubt. But Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game isn’t a book about your everyday thief or hustler; it’s an investigation into the “minds, motives, and methods” of true con artists. Although she discusses frauds as petty as shell games and the three card monte, Konnikova’s true focus is on something bigger, something deeper: why even the smartest fall prey to what may seem, to an outside observer, like obvious tricks.
What is particularly striking about The Confidence Game is how the author seamlessly combines narrative with analysis. She begins her discussion of con artists by relating the story of Ferdinand Waldo Demara, a conman who tricked the Canadian Navy into hiring him as the sole medical professional aboard a ship during the Korean war. Stories of Demara and of many other famous con artists — as well as those who have fallen for their ploys — pepper the remainder of the book. Even when Konnikova presents a study, she tells the reader a story instead of just laying out the facts.
It’s worth noting that — contrary to what some reviewers insinuate — The Confidence Game is not a how-to guide for avoiding getting conned. If anything, when I put the book down I felt like I was more likely to be conned than I had felt before I picked it up. And that is truly the author’s intention. The subtitle makes it strikingly clear: we fall for it every time. Regardless of how rational or smart or objective we think ourselves to be, we are not immune. World-renowned physics professors, presidents of world-class art galleries, even Al Capone, all have been duped in one way or another by con artists. While there are some things we can do to limit our chances of falling for fraud, on the whole we’re still susceptible to the con artist’s game.
The author takes the reader through an especially thorough analysis of the confidence game. She draws on sociology, psychology, behavioral economics, and a myriad of other fields to educate the reader about the con. In her first chapter she discusses the psychology of both the Grifter (the conman) and the Mark (the victim). Each subsequent chapter is dedicated to each step of the con: the Put-Up; the Play; the Rope; the Tale; the Convincer; the Breakdown; the Send and the Touch; and the Blowoff and the Fix. Her final chapter “The (Real) Oldest Profession” is very much a conclusion (rather than just a summary of what came before) in that she explores to a much greater depth how we can avoid falling for cons.
The book emphasized that most con artists possess a series of traits which are collectively known as the “Dark Triad”. The Dark Triad is a relatively new concept in psychology which lumps together narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. But not all people with these traits become con artists. Take, for instance, the story of James Fallon, a prominent neuroscientist who entirely by chance, discovered that he had the brain of a psychopath. Indeed, many recent studies indicate that possessing some or all Dark Triad traits can be beneficial for moving up the corporate ladder. The same abilities that make confidence artists successful (such as lying and hurting others for personal gain) also make average Joes successful in cut-throat environments.
Almost everybody believes that they are great at knowing when they’re being lied to, but scientific literature on the matter indicates that we correctly detect lies mere 54% of the time (barely better than a coin toss). As the book points out, even professional human lie detectors fail at this task, especially when up against a seasoned liar. This naturally raises the question: why are we so bad at knowing when we are being lied to? Konnikova presents the novel theory that humans are poor lie detectors because it is evolutionarily beneficial to be trusting. The author points out that if an infant doesn’t trust its caregivers, the baby will not survive. A recent study further reinforces this point by indicating that the growth of lying in humans is a direct result of the birth of human cooperation. How can we cooperate if we can’t trust each other?
As part of her analysis of the psychology of the Mark, Konnikova dives into the many ways that our cognitive biases contribute to us falling for the con artist’s game (including some from the previous book I reviewed: Nudge). She discusses illusory superiority, confirmation bias, the gambler’s fallacy, optimism bias, and many more. Beyond simply explaining these biases, the author relates each one to how our irrationality prompts us to fall for tricks that, in hindsight — or from another person’s perspective — seem laughable.
On a couple of occasions throughout the course of the book, Konnikova touches on the idea that there isn’t a clear line between what a con artist does and what lawyers, marketers, politicians, and some religious leaders do. People who excel in these professions often possess Dark Triad traits and are experts at manipulating the psychology of their marks (juries, clients, voters, and congregants). This is an important point to make, but I wish Konnikova had gone further in examining the little cons that are perpetuated every single day.
All in all, I think The Confidence Game is an interesting and thorough book, but not spectacular. Some of the author’s sentences are oddly written and hard to follow (e.g. “Even when we’re anonymous and the group not particularly desirable, we’d still like to be included more than not — and it hurts when we are excluded.”), but on the whole her prose is understandable. Konnikova references literature from an impressive variety of fields and relates a similarly wide range of stories. This was certainly an entertaining and educational read, but I wouldn’t describe it as outstanding.
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