Why We All Fall for Con Artists

Man holding nutshells
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Con artists surround us: Bernie Madoff. Nigerian princes. Psychics. But we never think we’ll fall prey to their wiles. We can spot a gimmick a mile away, while those who become victims are foolish, or greedy, or both. Well, that’s not quite the case. If the NSA can be hacked, so can the average — or even exceptional — human mind. Our capacity to trust, which makes us successful, also makes us vulnerable — as does the natural bias to overrate our own bullshit detection.

In her new book The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time, published today by Viking, science writer Maria Konnikova explores the art and science of the con. Following each stage of a con, one chapter at a time — from selecting a victim to reeling him in to shutting him up once he’s been had — Konnikova covers wide-ranging studies in social psychology and illustrates them with colorful stories about real-life con men and women in action. We hear about a Japanese composer who claimed to be deaf, a dealer of counterfeit art who made millions, and a pretend victim of sex trafficking.

Science of Us spoke with Konnikova about who cons, who gets conned, and what con games can tell us about advertising, religion, and making friends.

What surprised you the most in writing this book?
How vulnerable we are. I came away much more pessimistic in our ability to be able to emerge unscathed from con artists.

What are some of the most common everyday cons?
A lot of advertising and marketing is a type of a con. If they’re trying to sell you something that you don’t need or doesn’t do what it says, it’s a minor con. One of the most common scams that we see every day is the snake-oil salesman. Anyone who watches Dr. Oz has seen this. You don’t need to run into someone who’s a con artist to be exposed to one.

If conning is so easy, why isn’t everyone conning everyone all the time? Or are we?
Well, I think that conning people actually isn’t so easy. It’s easy for the right person. You have to be good at it because people can’t see you coming. They have to think you’re an honest person. Otherwise you’ll just seem like a two-bit swindler or a sleazeball. That said, even if it were ridiculously easy, most people are actually decent human beings, and we aren’t all out to get each other.

Are certain types of people more skilled or motivated in conning?
In my book I talk about the dark triad of traits: psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. Any of those can predispose someone to being a con artist. In order to be a con artist you have to take advantage of other people’s belief in you, and psychopaths don’t really have a conscience, so it’s much easier for them to take that step. Narcissism, you have to have an overinflated sense of self in order to rationalize conning other people, especially if you’re not a psychopath. If you’re someone who feels emotion normally, narcissism will protect you, because you say, “Well, I deserve it.” And finally, Machiavellianism is a textbook definition of a con artist, because it’s someone who is like Machiavelli’s “ideal prince,” someone who uses the tools of persuasion and deception and connivance to get what he wants. The ends justify the means. But a lot of it, as with so many things in psychology, is a meeting of predisposition and opportunity.

What type of person is more vulnerable?
Everyone. [Laughs.] Seriously, the thing I discovered is that it’s not actually a matter of being trusting or having a certain type of predisposition as it is where you are in life. People who are going through times of extreme life change, for instance, are very vulnerable to con artists because you lose your equilibrium. There’s some really interesting work that shows that you end up more susceptible to all types of cons when you, for instance, have lost a job. Not just financial cons but a sweetheart scam or a health scam. A lot of the time, positive changes also make you vulnerable — you start being more credulous of good things in general.

What are some common methods of subconscious persuasion that con artists use?
Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People is kind of the unofficial con artist’s bible, because a lot of those tactics he talks about, in terms of building relationships and being successful in business, are ideal for getting people to trust you. One of the really easy things is creating a feeling of familiarity. You’re more likely to trust someone who feels more familiar to you. It’s even enough to exploit something called the “mere exposure effect,” where, say, you just go to the same coffee shop as someone every single day, and they may not consciously note you, but all of a sudden you feel more familiar.

Another way to do it is just in conversation — con artists are very good listeners. And once you figure out what the other person’s about, especially if you’ve done your homework, you start exploiting feelings of being similar to them. “Oh, I’m also from a small town,” or “I see you’re wearing a Red Sox cap —  I’m a huge fan.” Also, having a good memory. It is crazy how much more we will like someone if they remember our name. And you can fake this: If I’ve looked up your picture and I can say, “Hey, Matt, do you remember me?” you are not going to say, “I don’t know who the hell you are.” You’re going to say, “Oh, right right right.” You will fake it, and you might even convince yourself that you have met me in the past.

There’s also the “foot in the door” technique, where you ask someone for several small favors before a big one. Clearly, if I’ve said yes to you in the past, that means that you’re worth it. Otherwise it would have been very stupid of me to say yes before. And then there’s the opposite, the “door in the face” technique, where you ask for something really crazy first. And I say no, but then if you ask for even a pretty big favor later, I become more likely to say yes because I feel guilty for saying no earlier.

There’s also the Mark Antony gambit, which comes from Shakespeare, where Mark Antony begins a speech by saying, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” He says the opposite of what he then goes on to do, but he primes people to think that he is on their side.

Why do so many cons go unreported?
One, we often don’t want to acknowledge to ourselves that we’ve been conned. It’s crazy how often you have people who, even when you present them with evidence that they’ve been the victim of a scam, refuse to believe it. The other thing is even if we do realize we’ve been scammed, we often don’t want to let other people know, because we’re embarrassed. One of the con artists that I follow in the book, the mass impostor Ferdinand Demara, was able to operate over and over because nobody reported him. One of his most daring escapades was fooling the Canadian Navy during the Korean War by posing as a surgeon, and the Navy never pressed charges.

Recently I was conned out of $5 by a shoe shiner in Turkey, and what was remarkable was that there was no outright lying involved, just the sneaky construction of a situation in which I voluntarily offered him money, making me complicit in my own conning. Would you say it’s usual that victims are active participants?
Absolutely. I think we’re almost always active participants in our own conning. It’s scary how many times con artists don’t break the law at all. They didn’t steal; you willingly handed over cash. The whole premise of the confidence game is that they ask for your confidence, and you give it to them. We con ourselves as much as they con us, because we supply the missing links, we tell ourselves the story that we want to hear.

What are some red flags that you might be entering a situation where someone is trying to con you?
The more we want something to be true, the more skeptical we have to be. Let me give you an example. The psychic scam is one of the most common scams out there, and psychics will actually comb through the obituaries for victims, because if you’ve just lost someone you’re much more likely to believe that I can communicate with the dead.

If someone comes out of the blue and starts to become your best friend, that’s also probably a red flag. And if someone really tries to emotionally manipulate you and you really don’t want to question them because it would make you a terrible human being, you unfortunately should try to question them. There was a con artist I write about in the book who pretended that he was out of gas and he was on his way to see his daughter in the hospital who had cancer and was undergoing surgery, and almost everyone would give him money. What are you going to say, “Show me her cancer records”? But it’s a really difficult piece of advice. I’d probably wind up parting with some money even if I saw the red flag.

In the book you say you’re not sure if you’ve been conned before. Is that still the case?
[Laughs.] That is still the case. I think the best cons really do go under the radar. But I’m sure that sometimes people who I thought were really nice people who I was trying to help were con artists. I don’t know. I think in some ways I don’t want to know. I’d rather go on believing that they were nice people.

Are cons more likely in the digital age, or less likely because potential victims can do defensive research?
Oh, it’s much more likely. All a con artist needs is one single point of vulnerability, and in the online worlds there are just so many to choose from. All it takes is one careless person to accept a friend request from someone he doesn’t know, and all of a sudden a con artist has access to your friends, and you think he’s legit because he’s friends with your friends and so on. It’s a whole different game, and unfortunately it’s not in our favor.

What’s you favorite story from the book?
I was really fascinated by Demara, because he’s a really complicated character. He has the hubris to keep pulling off these grand scams after grand scams. After he was a surgeon he duped the Texas penitentiary system by being a prison warden. The thing that really got me was he had a biographer who made him really famous in the 1950s. I got access to the biographer’s original materials, and you realize just how thoroughly even he was deceived by the Great Impostor, because there was so much really terrible stuff that he never put in this book because he really believed the best of Demara. That’s a talent, to be able to have your biographer do your bidding, and to have him not even realize that’s what happened.

Are there ways that religion resembles a con game?
Oh, absolutely. I distinguish between bogus spiritual movements and organized religion, because the one doesn’t tell you what its true purpose is, whereas the other is pretty transparent. And so in that sense organized religion is not a con, whereas something like a cult is a con. But the underlying reason they work is identical. The storytelling, the emotional appeals, the need for a better world and a deeper meaning: These things are uniform across religion and cons.

Is there anything else you want to mention?
I want people to come away from this book optimistic. Yeah, there are some bad people out there, but that doesn’t mean I should go through life being a complete cynic and not trusting anyone, because that will lead to a very impoverished existence. For the most part people are good and decent, and if I end up falling for a scam, even after having written this book, so be it — as long as it makes my other encounters deeper and more meaningful.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why We All Fall for Con Artists