The Confidence Game: How Con Artists Operate

the confidence game cover

“The Confidence Game” (2016) is a book about con artists, snake oil salesmen, and manipulators.
Maria Konnikova, the author, seeks to go at the psychological roots that are common to each con game, combining both the con artists efforts, and the victims’ self-manipulation.

About the Author

Maria Konnikova graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. in psychology and creative writing while being mentored by Steven Pinker. She later received a Ph.D. in Psychology from Columbia University. Konnikova is a regular contributor writer at The New Yorker and has published two other books: “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes” and “The Biggest Bluff”.

SUMMARY

10 Steps of A Con

The con can be structured as:

  1. Put-up: finding the right victim
  2. Play: creation of empathy and rapport. And of liking.
    It can start very small, with familiarity and “mere exposure”, and enhanced with conversation, finding commonalities, and remembering people’s names and conversation details.
    Some cons are based on false knowledge, like pretending to be someone’s relative at a wedding.
  3. Rope: logic and persuasion
  4. Scheme: the tale
    One of the reasons cons work so well is because in good part we want to believe the tale, we want to believe things that are too good to be true
  5. Convince: the evidence, the way it will work, and the showing of the profits
  6. Breakdown: the self-convincing that goes on as we get more and more deeply into the con
    “The good confidence man has been working his way up to this very moment, the moment when “Too good to be true” turns into “Actually, this makes perfect sense”: I am exceptional, and I deserve it. It’s not too good to be true; it is exactly what I had coming to me.”
  7. Send: the victim willingly increases investment
  8. Touch: the “hit” of the con
  9. Blow-off: the con becomes clear
  10. Fix: the con artist takes distance.
    But he might not need to do anything since the victim will either defend the con artist, selectively forget being conned, or fail to report the con artist to avoid embarrassment

Con Artists Can Be Very “Power Protecting”

On this website we use the expression “power protecting” for strategies and techniques that avoid annoying people.

Con artists can also be very power protecting.
Says Konnikova:

There’s nothing a con artist likes to do more than make us feel powerful and in control: we are the ones calling the shots, making the choices, doing the thinking. They are merely there to do our bidding.

That way, people lower their guard.

The Power Game

Con artists often seek to embody positions and ranks that grant them status and power.
Think of titles such as doctor, researcher, or group belonging such as aristocracy, political elite, or “the wealthy club”.

The status and power from the position make people more likely to believe the con, and also less likely to question him.
Says Konnikova:

You want the powerful to like you, not to think you petty for deigning to question their integrity, and so you keep any doubts to yourself

Con Artist Techniques

Some of the techniques:

  • Imagine that… “

“Picture this”, “imagine that”, “would you do with the money”.
This type of exercise makes people more excited, more focused on the reward, more risk-taking… And less rational.

  • Overload

One classic example is the magician Darren Brown, who managed to pay people with pieces of paper while he bombarded them with stimuli and with “embedded commands”:

Psychologist Katherine Milkman found that when we are bombarded with stimuli, we are more likely to make decisions that fit with what we want to do rather than what we should do.

  • Pressuring for a decision

Under pressure we are more likely to follow a strong authority that pushes us in a certain direction, rather than choosing what’s best for us.

Who Are Con Artists? The Dark Triad

Part of the dark triad are:

  • Psychopathy

On one level, the data seems to suggest a direct correlation between con artistry, and psychopathy.
When people acquire the neural impairment of psychopaths, they also start to behave more like con artists.
So psychopathy is a sort of “biological predisposition” that leads to many of the behavior we expect from con artists.

  • Narcissism

A sense of superiority, that one deserves more, can lead to cutting corners or lying.

High machs tend to be among the most successful manipulators in society.
The author here reviews some of the classic studies on Machiavellianism from Geis and Christie.

Says the author:

Machiavellianism may, like psychopathy, predispose people toward con-like behaviors and make them better able to deliver on them

Psychologist Delroy Paulhus, who specializes in the dark triad traits, suggests that “Machiavellian” is a better descriptor of the con artist than “psychopath.”

But Genes Aren’t Everything

However, says the author, con artists aren’t simply born, but they’re also made.
And she says, very astutely:

The exact same traits could easily be put to use in more or less devious ways. The choice is not predetermined. And the presence of Machiavellianism or psychopathy or narcissism no more marks someone as a grifter than the presence of charisma or nonchalance.

So part of the mix that pushes people towards con artistry are:

  • Predisposition
  • Opportunity
  • Plausible rationale

And it’s also:

A Slippery Slope Towards Full-Fledged Cons

The author uses one example to show how one generally well-behaving CFO ended up badly cooking the books after he started with a small fudging first.

Then, in the next quarter, the business didn’t get better, and he got more and more mired in his own lie.

Says the author:

There’s no such thing as an innocent cutting of the ethical corner. Once you’ve decided to get on the sled, and have eased yourself over the edge of the hill, it’s too late to break.

The author seems to suggest that the slippery slope can be “technical”, as in the case above, but also emotional:

It’s like in the Mafia movies: the only one that matters is the first one you kill. After that, piece of cake.

We All Can Be Con Men

Ultimately, the author says that it’s difficult to make up an exact profile of a con man because we all have the capacity to become one.

And we certainly have all lied and deceived, which, she says, is a hallmark of life in general.

Dark Triad Individuals Aren’t Necessarily Con Artists

Many dark triad individuals simply operate “within the law”, or at least not “too obviously outside it”.

Says the author:

If confidence men operate outside the law, it must be remembered that they are not much further outside than many of our pillars of society who go under names less sinister.” Leadership and high-profile roles. Wall Street. Politics. Law. Test most any of them, and you’ll find a percentage of psychopaths and dark-triadists that makes Hare’s 1 percent
estimate look naïvely low

Marketers Are Con Men

Hunt and Lawrence (1984) administered the Machiavellian scale to 1.000 marketers and found that 10% scored in the highest possible and “far, far above the population average”.

As Seth Godin said, “all marketers are liars”.

Con Artists Thrive During Changes

Cons thrive in times of transition and fast change, when new things are happening and old ways of looking at the world no longer suffice. Transition is the confidence game’s great ally, because transition breeds uncertainty. There’s nothing a con artist likes better than exploiting the sense of unease we feel when it appears that the world as we know it is about to change.

This Is When You’re Most Likely to Fall for Cons

If you are:

  • isolated or lonely
  • going through a job loss, divorce, or downturn in personal finances
  • concerned with being in dept (people in debt are generally more likely to fall for fraud)
  • going through a serious injury
  • going through major life changes

Victims tend to be generally more emotionally vulnerable when the con artist approaches.

This Is Who Is Most Likely to Fall for Cons

From personal traits, the only two reliable indicators of fraud susceptibility are:

  • impulsivity
  • appetite for risk

Please note though that impulsivity and appetite for risk aren’t stable, and can change through time.
When we are struggling, we might be more willing to take risks to “get back even”, for example.

But the author then also adds the following to the personality traits that make people more likely to fall for cons:

  • a general tendency to believe
    • optimism:
    • religiosity: “It’s a thin line between belief in one miracle and belief in another”

Such as, they believed things could get better, and that a “higher force” could help them.

Interestingly, in the category of “most easy to con”, the author also includes:

  • people who think of themselves as too smart to fall for cons

Says the author:

The better protected you are and the less likely you think you’ll be a victim, the more you’re apt to lose if a con artist can find a way to earn your trust. It ends up that the more you know about something, the more likely you are to fall for a con in that specific area.

Furthermore there are:

  • people in a state of fear
  • people in a happy mood
  • people feeling relief after anxiety (“the emotional drain of anxiety followed by the wave of emotional relief created a state of relative mindlessness)

For con artists, it means that a great setup is to create a sense of fear, followed by the possibility of a solution -the solution they offer-.

And finally:

  • People who think of themselves as special

And this might be most people.
Most people think they’re better than average.
And the more we care about a certain trait, the more biased we tend to be:

In the things that truly matter to us, the core characteristics that we view as central to our identity, we exhibit the greatest bias of all

(…)

Which is precisely why the tale works as well as it does. We are ready—eager, even—to believe we will personally benefit, no matter what

No matter what, and no matter the odds.

If you believe you’re a 1%, then you’re also more likely to believe that even though there is a 99% chance that what you’re experiencing might be a con… You’re more likely to be that 1% exception.

Con artists are all the happiest to appeal to our vanity and our tendency to think of ourselves as “better than average”.

And this is another why an antifragile ego is so important.

Cons Go Unreported Because…

Because people would rather never admit they were conned.

It’s a question of:

  • self-narrative: we don’t want to admit it to ourselves
  • reputation: we don’t want the world to know that we were gullible

Con Artists Take Advantage of Human Natural Cooperation

For the most part, humans have evolved as cooperative animals and we can kinda of expect that most people are not going to attack us randomly.

Konnikova says that most people kinda of care about others, and the con artist exploits that general cooperativeness.

Quoting psychologist Adriane Raine:

Persistent immoral behavior can be thought of as an alternative evolutionary strategy that can be beneficial at low rates in society

Trusting Is Good for Selfish Individuals

This website makes the case that smart cooperation is one of the best facilitators of individual success.

And says the author:

Higher so-called generalized trust, studies show, comes with better physical health and greater emotional happiness.

Countries with higher levels of trust tend to grow faster economically and have sounder public institutions.

People who are more trusting are more likely to start their own business and volunteer.

And the smarter you are, the more you are likely to trust: a 2014 survey by two Oxford psychologists found a strong positive relationship between generalized trust, intelligence, health, and happiness.

How to Increase Cooperation

Elinor Nostrom found out that people left on their own, without chances of communicating, tend to resort to “safer” returns rather than higher returns but having to trust anonymous others.

  • Make people meet face to face

But when Nostrom changed the rule and took a break where people could meet face to face, the players reached 80% of the maximum possible return by playing more often into the more socially-interconnected, higher risk, higher-collaboration market.
“All it had taken was that brief moment of social exchange”.

  • Punish the defectors

one final tweak brought performance to a new high: the ability to request that “defectors,” that is, those who opted for market one, be punished by the experimenter with a fine.

  • Develop a good reputation

Win-win games can be developed more easily over the long-term.
But you can still increase the likelihood of win-win in one-off games if you develop a good reputation that precedes you.
With a good reputation, people are more likely to be collaborative.

Cults Hide Behind Partial Truths, And Partial Self-Help

Nobody joins a cult, Sullivan repeated often and emphatically.

People join something that will give them meaning.
A group promoting peace and freedom throughout the world, or defending men’s rights, or helping other women, or “defending this race against that other race’s contamination”.
But nobody joins a cult.

Con artists, at their best and worst, give us meaning. We fall for them because it would make our lives better if the reality they proposed were indeed true. They give us a sense of purpose, of value, of direction.

More Wisdom

  • And the top cons are…

Between 2011 and 2012 the highest number of recorded cons were in fake weight-loss products, prize promotions, price clubs, unauthorized Internet billing, and work-at-home programs.

  • The best cons go undetected

People simply write it off to “bad luck”, and never realize the deception.

  • People share negative news IF others know about them

People prefer to share good news with the world, and keep bad news with the closest friends and family.
But that changes if someone else witnessed the negative news.
In that case, students in the experiment were more likely to share the bad news. Probably, the students expected the witnesses to talk, and so they were eager to talk first to put their own spin on things, and control the narrative.

  • Our willingness for things to work can make things work

This part made me change approach to a few of my reviews:

Mesmerism is one of the earliest examples of the power of our beliefs to change reality: the placebo effect, or dissonance reduction at its finest, in full action. We want to believe something works, and so we will it to work. Our mind literally changes the reality of our body’s health.

Mesmer clearly possessed strong powers of suggestion, and people really did get
better in his presence

So today I’m not so sure that con artists like Joe Dispenza are 100% bad.

  • To avoid fraud in your business, speak clearly from the top

Since the environment and culture are so important in fostering or discouraging manipulation and con artistry, business leaders who want to avoid scandals and graft must speak clearly and loudly that they expect everyone to behave morally and legally.

Says the author:

The behavioral norms of a company, culture, or setting—how it is and isn’t acceptable to act—must be communicated clearly and unequivocally. When they aren’t, it becomes too easy for those on the cusp of fraud to take the next step.

  • Culture also matters

Some cultures are also more accepting of behaviors that we might consider con-like.
In one study, foreign students were more likely to pay a kickback than American ones, no matter the incentives.
In some countries, like Russia, to people it might just feel like “how the world works”.

  • Pathological liars are poor con artists

A pathological liar’s lies are often too big and elaborate to be taken seriously.

  • Higher illusion of control makes us less effective

The illusion of control, or the belief that we are in control of random events, tends to make people less effective:

an unwarranted illusion of control can have the opposite effect: worse, more out-of-control performance.

One study followed 107 traders in four London banks and found that those with the highest illusion of control performed the worst, as measured by managers’ ratings of performance and the total compensation they received.

In another, people pursued worse investment diversification strategies the higher their perceptions of control.

In a third, the more illusory control a group of financial analysts experienced, the more overconfident—and wrong—they were in their market predictions.

  • People talk mostly about other people

When researchers analyzed the topics (…) over 65 percent of every conversation was taken up with social topics—for the most part, discussing others’ behavior and analyzing your own relative merits, or how others acted and what kind of a person you are

  • Con artists and beggars target men on dates…

… Because those men are in a difficult situation in which they need to positive impress the date.
This is something I’ve noticed more than once, and I was never happier when I could get rid of them quickly, with no damage -or improved standing-.

QUOTES

On self-manipulation for personal success:

The whole secret to our success is being able to con ourselves into believing that we’re going to change the world—because statistically, we are unlikely to do it.

Tom Peters

On self-serving biases:

When it comes to you, I see clearly. When it comes to myself, I see what I want

On self-duping and people wanting to believe:

Had it been up to Raines, he might have kept believing until the end. It would have been a simpler, happier reality. And that basic desire for a happier, simpler reality is at the center of the convincer’s success.

On the psychological dynamics of self-duping, whereby the more time people spend in the con, the more they self-dupe:

Fool me for a day, shame on you. Fool me for months, years, or decades, well, that’s a different story. I’m not that gullible. I couldn’t possibly be fooled for that long.

On the power of reputation to increase the chances of win-win:

A reputation is a shortcut. It lets us know how someone will likely act and how we should respond to them even if we’ve never met or spent any time getting to know them

Criticism

Misunderstands evolutionary processes: not spotting lies is adaptive?

The author says that we are bad at spotting lies because “it makes us feel better”.
And she also says that we self-manipulate for the same reason.

However, that’s not how evolution works.
Evolution doesn’t select much for the traits that make us feel good, but for the traits that make us more effective.

I can see there can be some benefits in making oneself happier as long as the costs remain small enough.
But not when the costs are high, as it’s the case for what the author says next:

We never learn to be expert people-readers because that expertise can backfire spectacularly. Why form accurate judgments when the inaccurate ones make our lives far more pleasant and easy?

Not reading people well might make our life more pleasant in some limited circumstances. But it certainly doesn’t make them easier -or more effective-.

Over-hypes con artists powers

For sure some con artists are great at what they do.

But I’m sure not all of them are.

In Konnikova’s description though it seems like everyone is some sort of a dark-psychology genius that you can never see coming.

She says for example:

they are, truly, artists—able to affect even the most discerning connoisseurs with their persuasive charm

(…)

Their technique, at its best, is so perfectly honed that almost no one is immune to it. So dangerous is the effect that there are actual statutes trying to guard against it

And of Demara, a specific con artist, she says:

He was a mind reader second to none, so good at the put-up that he could manipulate almost anyone he chose to deal with.

Except that she’s judging him on his successful cons, and she probably doesn’t know of all the times he’s failed.
Plus, he was caught and spent six months in prison.

Downplays the role of personality, skills, and knowledge, in the “likelihood of being conned”

The author makes it sound like being deceived is independent of personality.

And goes on to describe how even the smartest and most power-aware individual is equally easy prey for the con artist.
As a matter of fact, she says that everyone will be deceived:

At some point, everyone will be deceived. Everyone will fall victim to a confidence artist of one stripe or another. Everyone will fall for it. The real question is why

That approach might be more captivating and get better reviews for the book, but it’s not very accurate.
Personally, I’m pretty sure that different personalities have a (very) different likelihood of being deceived.

And some of her own examples seemed to prove the point: some of those victims were extremely gullible people, as also confirmed by the people closest to them.

Confusing on the “illusory superiority” bias

There are some imperfections and some of the usual “over-hype” in the section in which the author discusses the “illusority superiority” bias.

In one of them, the author says that “most people are average by definition”.
But that’s a generalization that’s not always true.
Whether or not most people are average depends on the distribution. Most people might instead be either above average, or below average.

Plus, the author speaks as if nobody was actually above average and as if anyone who thought of himself as above-average truly was not.
Obviously, that’s also not the case as some individuals do are indeed above average.

Sometimes sounds judgmental, not realizing her own cons?

Says the author of Dale Carnegie work:

“Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view,” Dale Carnegie advised in his treatise on winning friends and influencing people, a sort of unwitting bible for cons in training.

That sounds a bit harsh and judgmental.
Especially if you consider how the book “The Confidence Game” used so many interesting stories for selling better.
So wasn’t that a con as well?

The point is… As long as we’re not actively and badly hurting people with our social strategies, then we’re good, we don’t need to be so judgmental towards smart social strategies.

Sometimes gets lost in tangential topics: could have been briefer

Topics such as:

  • “how good we are at spotting lies”
  • microexpressions
  • storytelling and how effective it is

Felt somewhat unneeded, or too long.
In some parts, it felt like the book started becoming a book on random curiosities of general psychology. Topics such as human biases, nudging theory, Cialdini’s principles of influence felt loosely connected to con artists.

Review

“The Confidence Game” is a very good analysis on the psychology and mechanisms of dark psychology, manipulation, and cons.

There might be a few minor imperfections as mentioned above, but I learned a lot and also used Konnikova’s work to expand on some core articles and pillars of this website.

Also see:

Or get the book on Amazon.

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