The confidence game Why we fall for it... every time

Maria Konnikova

Book - 2016

Explores the psyches, motives, and methods of con artists to reveal why they are consistently successful, identifying common hallmarks of cons to share additional insights into the relationship between artists and victims.

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New York, NY : Viking 2016.
Physical Description
x, 340 pages ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Main Author
Maria Konnikova (author)
  • The grifter and the mark
  • The put-up
  • The play
  • The rope
  • The tale
  • The convincer
  • The breakdown
  • The send and the touch
  • The blow-off and the fix
  • The (real) oldest profession.
Review by New York Times Review

It happened when I was in college, traveling around Turkey with a friend. We were approached one night in Istanbul by a chatty young man who spoke good English. He was headed to a nightclub to meet some people. Would we like to join him? When we arrived at the place a few minutes later, it was empty. A couple of half-dressed women soon appeared at our table, as did a bottle of champagne that we hadn't ordered. (Come to think of it, we were never even given a menu.) Another few minutes passed, and the check came: Between the cover charge and the champagne, we had evidently rung up a bill of more than $500. We walked out of the nightclub not only broke but embarrassed by our own stupidity. How could we have been such suckers? As I learned from Maria Konnikova's "The Confidence Game," people are instinctively trusting: Why not assume that this stranger we met on the street was perfectly well intentioned? What's more, con artists are experts at reading their victims. "Size someone up well, and you can sell them anything," Konnikova writes. It's as true of the psychic who takes advantage of the brokenhearted or the cult leader who preys on lost souls as it is of that Turkish swindler who knew that nothing would sound more enticing to a couple of American college kids than the prospect of a night on the town with a local. "The Confidence Game" belongs to the genre popularized by Malcolm Gladwell: social psychology designed for mass consumption. Typically, books of this sort are intended to be both useful and entertaining; their appeal is at least partly bound up in their potential to change your life, whether that means becoming more productive at work or turning your 8-year-old child into a Carnegie Hallworthy violinist. Unless you're an aspiring hustler or serial mark, "The Confidence Game" doesn't have much to offer by way of practical advice. (In contrast to Konnikova's first book, "Mastermind," which was tantalizingly subtitled: "How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.") But it turns out there's a lot to be learned about human nature from the con's enduring success. And Konnikova, a psychologist and a contributor to, is an insightful analyst of the dark art of the scam. Of course everyone has the capacity to deceive, but we are all constantly engaging in minor acts of deception. According to one study cited by Konnikova, we lie an average of three times during a routine 10-minute conversation with a stranger or acquaintance. "Con artists, in some sense, merely take our regular white lies to the next level," she writes. Complimenting someone's tie is not exactly the same thing as cleaning out his bank account with the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunity, but the point is well taken: Because we already inhabit a universe of small, casual lies, it's that much easier to buy into larger, preconceived ones. The book is structured, loosely, to mirror the progression of a con, with its particular and irresistible terminology. It begins with "the put-up," or the sizing up of the mark. Next is "the play": The grifter makes his approach, customizing his script accordingly. "The rope" - the hooking of the victim - follows. The moment of actual fleecing is "the touch." And finally comes "the blowoff," when the con artist disappears, his pockets freshly lined. By design, it all happens quickly and seamlessly. "Never give a hot mooch time to cool off," Konnikova quotes one grifter saying. "You want to close him while he is still slobbering with greed." What makes a convincing con? It helps to have a vulnerable mark, someone in the throes of some sort of life turmoil. But other emotional states, like happiness or fear, can also lower our defenses and make us more open to persuasion. Clark Stanley, the 19th-century salesman who peddled actual snake oil - or what he claimed was snake oil, anyway - is part of a long tradition of scam artists who exploit our anxieties about our health and well-being. Con artists thrive in times of social and political upheaval, when instability and uncertainty reign, making it easier for emotion to overwhelm reason. The technological revolution, which has upended so many aspects of everyday human behavior, has been especially good for business. Not only has the Internet given scammers easy access to countless marks who might be sympathetic to the plight of a grammatically challenged Nigerian prince, but it has also made it easy for them to establish convincing false identities. With a big assist from a memorable 2013 profile in The Times Magazine, Konnikova recounts the story of a lonely 68-year-old physics professor at the University of North Carolina whose trip to Bolivia and Argentina to meet a Czech model with whom he'd been corresponding via an online dating service lands him in jail after unwittingly serving as a cocaine mule. Con artists aren't just master manipulators; they are expert storytellers. Much as we are intrinsically inclined to trust, we are naturally drawn to a compelling story. Just ask any advertising executive or political operative. "When a fact is plausible, we still need to test it," Konnikova writes with characteristic concision. "When a story is plausible, we often assume it's true." And once we've accepted a story as true, we're not likely to question it; on the contrary, we will probably unconsciously bend any contradictory information to conform to the conclusion we've already drawn. There's a name for this phenomenon - confirmation bias. It provides the key psychological scaffolding for the long con, during the course of which the mark finds a way to rationalize any number of warning signs. (Like the fact that we were the only patrons in that empty bar in Istanbul.) If there's an argument at the heart of "The Confidence Game," it's that marks ought not be dismissed as chumps. "Ultimately, what a confidence artist sells is hope," Konnikova writes. It's an interesting idea - there's an optimist born every minute - but it only goes so far: As often as not, con artists are availing themselves of our less noble human impulses, maybe most commonly greed. Konnikova sticks to her genre's familiar formula, juxtaposing academic research with brief narratives of a wide range of cons, from the two-bit three-card monte games that were once ubiquitous on New York City street corners to more outlandish scams, like the 19th-century Scot Gregor MacGregor who made a fortune persuading the public to invest in the bonds of a fictional government. And MacGregor wasn't done yet. He then convinced seven ships' worth of settlers to emigrate to this imaginary nation. The stories in "The Confidence Game" can feel a bit clipped and superficial. Konnikova dispenses with MacGregor's crazy tale in just a few pages; I would have happily read a few hundred more. And then another couple of hundred on Thierry Tilly, a law-school dropout who took millions off a family of French aristocrats by convincing them that he could protect their fortune from "sinister" forces (Jews, Freemasons, etc.). I could go on. But this may be more of a statement about the endlessly juicy possibilities of the subject matter rather than a criticism of the shortcomings of the book. Konnikova has learned at least one thing from the con artists she studied: Always leave your marks wanting more. Con artists aren't just master manipulators; they are expert storytellers. JONATHAN MAHLER is a reporter for The Times and the author of "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning" and "The Challenge."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [December 13, 2015] Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Konnikova (Mastermind) opens a door to the fascinating world of truly brilliant con artists-not the quotidian hustlers, but the Madoffs of the world. She asks whether they are psychopaths, epic narcissists, or just regular Joes with extraordinary confidence and a skill for telling a good story. Konnikova provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of some of recent history's smoothest talkers, covering the setups and executions of some of their extraordinary scams. From consumer fraud and online scams to complex, multiyear grifts and bald-faced lies, readers are reminded that these scams could happen to anyone and are far more common than is commonly realized-no one, after all, wants to admit to having been duped. As for why people fall for these cons, Konnikova shows that it's because humans want to believe great stories and don't necessarily recognize the fine line between a legitimate story and an illegitimate one. Told with vigor and enthusiasm, this study of the psychology of the con artist is riveting and cleverly told. Agent: Seth Fishman, Gernert Company. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Library Journal Review

Everyone has the potential to be conned, posits Konnikova (contributing writer, The New Yorker; Mastermind); no matter how intelligent and wary they are, everyone has their weak spot. The author explains how con artists do what they do and why it works. The book dissects the various parts of the con, gives examples of each part, and cites psychological studies into why they work. For example, when discussing "the play," when a victim is first hooked, the author notes that persuasive stories are often used instead of facts and data because of their emotional effect and difficulty to refute: "Facts are up for debate. Stories are far trickier." Each section features accounts that provide interesting illustrations as well as studies of the psychological elements at work, often with further academic discussion. Konnikova presents a thorough and engaging investigations of the elements of a con and why such people still succeed no matter how invulnerable we think we are to them. VERDICT This book provides just enough personal narratives and studies to hold the attention of the layperson with a curiosity about the subject, but the heavier discussions and psychological jargon, though well defined, make it ideally suited for those in the psychology or sociology fields.-Stacy Shaw, Orange, CA © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

What makes a con artist, and why are we duped by them? New Yorker columnist Konnikova (Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, 2013) takes us deeply into the art and psychology of the con game. They are known as "confidence artists," a term first applied in 1849 to William Thompson, who befriended New York passers-by before asking them, "Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?" The con game existed long before Thompson (or Manhattan, for that matter), and it continues today in Ponzi schemes, e-ticket scams, and missives from Nigerian princes. Konnikova dissects the con into its component stages, illustrating each with accounts of con artists whose mastery made them legend and sent their victims to the poorhouse: Cassie Chadwick, who for years posed as the illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie; Greenwich Village psychic Sylvia Mitchell, who cleaned out customers' bank accounts as "Zena the Clairvoyant"; Victor Lustig, the man who twice sold the Eiffel Tower; and many more. She reveals the inner workings of well-known cons and provides insight into techniques such as information priming and the Marc Antony gambit. Konnikova studies the psychology of both the grifter and the mark, laying bare what makes each well-suited for the roles they play in the confidence game. In uncovering the characteristics of a con artist, the author points to a "dark triad" of traits: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. She examines the roots of both deception and trust, and she explores a range of behaviors and attributes that include the chameleon effect (why Dale Carnegie's treatise on winning friends and influencing people is "a sort of unwitting bible for cons in training"), the inherent human belief in positive outcomes, and the sunk-cost fallacy, a tendency that keeps us clinging to an investment despite glaring signs that we should walk away. With meticulous research and a facility for storytelling, Konnikova makes this intriguing topic absolutely riveting. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.