We know con artists are out there—from psychics and Ponzi schemers to identity thieves and insurance fraudsters—and that they will surely succeed in finding their next mark. We just never think it’ll be us. But all of us are vulnerable to the wiles of the con artist, because humans have evolved to trust one another, to empathize with other people’s stories. Science writer and journalist Maria Konnikova sets us straight in her new book, The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It…Every Time.
Konnikova deconstructs the act of swindling step by step in an attempt to finally understand why we can’t seem to escape the con artist’s lure. She examines a wide range of psychological and social research, accompanied by a host of trickster true stories that span centuries: a woman who convinces a nation that she is the victim of sex trafficking; a psychic who goes so far as to blackmail her victims; an imposter who plays almost every role there is—from pretending to be a navy doctor and performing surgeries at sea to stealing his biographer’s identity.
Scientific American MIND spoke with Konnikova about the hows and whys of the hoax, and the role it ultimately plays in our society.
[An edited transcript of the conversation follows.]
What first made you interested in con artistry as a subject for your book?
I saw a David Mamet film called House of Games, where the protagonist is a psychologist and a bestselling author—someone who is very savvy about the human condition yet ends up falling for a big con. She thinks she’s in on it but she’s actually the target. I just started wondering about how that happened to such an atypical victim, someone who’s smart and sophisticated about human nature. I was so fascinated, I ended up spending the next three years researching that.
Did your research lead you to new insights or findings that were particularly surprising?
Oh, absolutely. First of all, that I’m a potential target. I realized that really anyone can be conned—literally. And a lot of people get mad and say, “No, everyone but me.” And I say, yes, but because everyone thinks “everyone but me,” that’s why everyone can get conned.
Did your opinion about con artists and how they operate change as you wrote your book?
Yes. There’s a very popular media portrayal of the con artist. It’s almost like you’re watching a film noir. You know what you’re looking for. Before [my research] I was expecting to find a bunch of, you know, evil psychopaths. That’s not what I found. They don’t look or talk like con artists, they’re just nice, very charming people you really like and who are quite like you. The very surprising thing was just how ordinary they were.
[While writing the book] it was difficult to stay objective. A lot of the con artists are very charismatic, and you do start sympathizing with them. I had to keep reminding myself that they’re really bad people who do bad things to others and that we can’t glamorize them. I think I’m guilty for glamorizing them a little bit—I really tried not to. And that’s the one thing I was really struggling with throughout the entire process.
In your book you discuss a lot of surprising trends: that it’s often easier to target people who have been conned before; that the same tricks have persisted in some form for decades or even centuries; that highly intelligent people fall for seemingly obvious cons. So how does that work?
We think differently when we’re thinking about an abstract victim versus ourselves. We have this dual conception that we can easily divide in our minds. When this is happening to someone else, we can see everything. If it seems too good to be true, it is. We say: Oh, that’s the Nigerian prince fraud, that’s the sweetheart scam. But when it’s happening to us, we don’t think that way. It’s something we deserve. We’ve had it coming to us and it’s finally here.
And people fall for it, because if a con artist does it the right way, it can be a very persuasive proposition. So you don’t even realize that you’re falling for the Nigerian prince scam when you’re falling for it.
It seems like the victims need to possess some of the same traits that you attribute to the con artists themselves, like narcissism. Is that actually the case?
It’s not necessarily narcissism—not in the same way that it is in the con artist. It’s something that we all have, which is a positivity illusion: the bias that we’re above average and slightly better than we actually are. I talk about one study in my book that I think illustrates this very well. Researchers went to a hospital where people who had been in car accidents were being hospitalized and more than two thirds of the people had caused the accident. They were asked a very standard question: What kind of a driver are you? And the vast majority—almost all of them—said that they were above average, even those people who were in the hospital for a car accident that they had caused. It’s this positivity bias, this sense of illusory superiority, that makes us prone to be victims.
How, if at all, might mental illness factor into how con artists operate?
Con artists are not mentally ill. We really want them to be. We want to dismiss it as some sort of mental defect because that’s so easy. But that’s not true. It goes back to when I was talking about how ordinary they are. And I think that goes to the heart of this—they know exactly what they’re doing. They’re not pathological liars; they lie for very specific reasons. Most of them are not psychopaths. They’re just ordinary people who end up going in a very different direction in life. And for some of them you can easily see—they’re so smart, and it takes so much energy to be a good con artist—if their life had gone on a slightly different path, they could have been very productive members of society.
On that note, there are clearly similarities between traits that con artists display and traits that you see in journalists, lawyers, marketers, businesspeople. Where can we actually draw the line between con artistry and legitimate professions?
This question is one that I wrestle with. It’s obviously shades of gray. There’s no black-and-white divide. To me, at the end, it’s a question of intentionality—whether your intent is nefarious or not. Are you intentionally deceiving, setting out to dupe people for your own personal ends, whether those ends are financial or not? Or is your intent kind of more benign—where you’re not setting out to dupe people and really think that what you’re doing is something that’s worthwhile? So yes, on some level every single profession that uses the tools of persuasion has a bit of the con in it, but I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss all lawyers, all businessmen, all politicians and all writers as con artists. I think that then, the term stops meaning anything.
You discuss this idea of the con being predicated on narrative. What are the implications of that—that con artistry is inevitable?
Yes. That there will always be con artists, and we can’t inoculate ourselves against them, no matter what. I have spent multiple years researching this and written a book about it, yet I’m still a wonderful target. In fact, I’m probably a better target. And I think they will still be able to con me, because that’s the power—the good story. You’re going to fall for it because you want to believe it.
And con artists are such good psychologists. They will tell me the story that I want to hear. They’re not going to tell me the story they told someone else. It’s not like they have, you know, a story book that they read out of. They’re going to profile me and sell me the things I’m not going to question. And I will end up falling for it. I think that’s true of everyone.