Do you like scary stories? Here’s one that will keep you up at night: since 2008, consumer fraud in the United States has gone up by more than 60 percent, and online scams have more than doubled. BOO!
In The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It…Every Time, journalist and psychologist Maria Konnikova explores the minds, motives, and methods of con artists—and the people they fool. Proving that the most chilling tales of terror are to be found right here in real life, The Confidence Game ensnares readers in the world of the con and will make them think twice before acting on that can’t-lose tip from a friend of a friend.
In the nineteenth century, we had the industrial revolution, and many present-day scam techniques developed in its wake. Today, we have the technological revolution. And this one, in some ways, is best suited to the con of all. With the Internet, everything is shifting at once, from the most basic things (how we meet people and make meaningful connections) to the diurnal rhythms of our lives (how we shop, how we eat, how we schedule meetings, make dates, plan vacations). Shy away from everything, you’re a technophobe or worse. (You met how? Online? And you’re…getting married?) Embrace it too openly, though, and the risks that used to come your way only in certain circumscribed situations—a walk down Canal Street past a three-card monte table, an “investment opportunity” from the man in your club, and so forth—are a constant presence anytime you open your iPad.
When Catch Me If You Can hero Frank Abagnale, who, as a teen, conned his way through most any organization you can imagine, from airlines to hospitals, was recently asked if his escapades could happen in the modern world—a world of technology and seemingly ever-growing sophistication—he laughed. Far, far simpler now, he said. “What I did ﬁfty years ago as a teenage boy is four thousand times easier to do today because of technology. Technology breeds crime. It always has, and always will.”
Technology doesn’t make us more worldly or knowledgeable. It doesn’t protect us. It’s just a change of venue for the same old principles of conﬁdence. What are you conﬁdent in? The con artist will ﬁnd those things where your belief is unshakeable and will build on that foundation to subtly change the world around you. But you will be so conﬁdent in the starting point that you won’t even notice what’s happened.
The conﬁdence game starts with basic human psychology. From the artist’s perspective, it’s a question of identifying the victim (the put-up): who is he, what does he want, and how can I play on that desire to achieve what I want? It requires the creation of empathy and rapport (the play): an emotional foundation must be laid before any scheme is proposed, any game set in motion. Only then does it move to logic and persuasion (the rope): the scheme (the tale), the evidence and the way it will work to your beneﬁt (the convincer), the show of actual proﬁts. And like a ﬂy caught in a spider’s web, the more we struggle, the less able to extricate ourselves we become (the breakdown). By the time things begin to look dicey, we tend to be so invested, emotionally and often physically, that we do most of the persuasion ourselves. We may even choose to up our involvement ourselves, even as things turn south (the send), so that by the time we’re completely ﬂeeced (the touch), we don’t quite know what hit us. The con artist may not even need to convince us to stay quiet (the blow-off and ﬁx); we are more likely than not to do so ourselves. We are, after all, the best deceivers of our own minds. At each step of the game, con artists draw from a seemingly endless toolbox of ways to manipulate our belief. And as we become more committed, with every step we give them more psychological material to work with.
Everyone has heard the saying “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Or its close relative “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” But when it comes to our own selves, we tend to latch onto that “probably.” If it seems too good to be true, it is— unless it’s happening to me. We deserve our good fortune. I deserve the big art break; I’ve worked in galleries all my life and I had this coming. I deserve true love; I’ve been in bad relationships long enough. I deserve good returns on my money, at long last; I’ve gotten quite the experience over the years. The mentalities of “too good to be true” and “I deserve” are, unfortunately, at odds, but we remain blind to the tension when it comes to our own actions and decisions. When we see other people talking about their unbelievable deal or crazy good fortune, we realize at once that they’ve been taken for a sucker. But when it happens to us, well, I am just lucky and deserving of a good turn.
We get, too, a unique satisfaction from thinking ourselves invulnerable. Who doesn’t enjoy the illicit glimpse into the life of the underworld— and the satisfaction of knowing that clever old you would be smarter than all that, that you can laugh at the poor sap who fell for something so obvious and still be safe in the knowledge that you are keener, savvier, more cynical and skeptical? They may fall for it. You? Never.
Want to know more? You can read about how to spot the con before the con spots you in The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It…Every Time by Maria Konnikova, Ph.D. Copyright ©2016 by Maria Konnikova. Published by Viking.
Maria Konnikova graduated from Harvard University and received her Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University. She is a recipient of the 2015 Harvard Medical School Media Fellowship and is a Schachter Writing Fellow at Columbia University’s Motivation Science Center. She wrote the Literally Psyched column for Scientific American and the popular psychology blog Artful Choice for Big Think. Maria lives in New York City and is currently completing her first novel.