The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It ... Every Time
by Maria Konnikova
Viking, 2016 ($28; 352 pages)

Texas rancher J. Frank Norfleet came to Dallas with one task: raise enough cash to buy 10,000 acres of his neighbor's Panhandle ranch. He was a “cash man,” who didn't believe in credit. But after only a few days in the big city, he left $90,000 in debt, having been swindled not once but twice by a conman called Stetson.

How could such a sensible man abandon his usual frugality? Because Stetson exploited psychological principles that foster trust and cooperation, argues psychologist and best-selling author Konnikova in her new book. To forge a bond with Norfleet, Stetson pretended to lose his wallet; when Norfleet returned it, he offered him a reward. Stetson's feigned gratitude, and Norfleet's good-deed afterglow helped blind Norfleet to the very possibility of Stetson's impending fraud.

Norfleet is hardly unique. As Konnikova explains, nearly anyone can be a good mark under the right circumstances. When we are emotionally raw or flustered, we are especially vulnerable to a scam. And con artists are adept at identifying an easy target using appearance, speech or body language, such as a harried gait or distracted eye movements.

Drawing on autobiographies, news reports and original interviews, Konnikova builds a narrative rich with details of confidence games spanning hundreds of years, from snake oil salesmen in the late 1800s to present-day Bernie Madoffs. In each chapter, she focuses on one aspect of a swindle and the psychological factors at play. In “The Grifter and the Mark,” for example, she examines whether all con artists are psychopaths. She reveals that although grifters share some of the same personality traits and brain morphology as psychopaths, not all con artists qualify, clinically speaking. Con artists do tend to exhibit Machiavellianism—or the ability and inclination to manipulate others—and narcissism. Of course, so do many lawyers, businesspeople and psychiatrists.

Konnikova's descriptions of the psychology involved are insightful but pale in comparison to her captivating narratives of the cons themselves. Her portrayal of the notorious Ferdinand Waldo Demara, for instance—a man who conned his own biographer into sending him money again and again—is far more entertaining than her explanation of the negative recency effect, whereby people think a coin cannot flip heads up again if it just landed that way three times in a row.

Overall, Konnikova does a great job of mapping the various parts of a con to known psychological effects, but the book falls short in two minor respects. First, it skims over religious cons, exploring cults only in the last chapter. Also, Konnikova does not give away many con artists' tricks, which left me wanting a more inside-baseball point of view. Even if she did, though, most of us would still be an easy mark, thanks to our innate inclination to trust. The confidence man does not need to work hard to dupe us, she notes. “We're quite good at getting over that hurdle ourselves.”

Read an interview with Konnikova at