Arts & Entertainment

Exploring the Mind and Lifestyle of a Con Artist

Introducing The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It…Every Time by Maria Konnikova, a psychological book about the mind of a con artist, how to spot them, and why the in­evitable trustworthiness of humans make it easy for people to get scammed. The novel came out on Jan. 12th, 2016 and explores why some pursue the life of a con and why people fall for their tricks.

Journalist and psychologist Kon­nikova intends to unravel the psy­chological dimensions of a con artist. The Confidence Game teaches how a confidence artist works and how to outwit one. The author does this through a process of answering ques­tions: How do con artists work? What is their motive and purpose? Why do people get lured into their trap? Kon­nikova attempts to answer these questions through an examination of the relationship between the art­ist and the victim.

Konnikova brings in a variety of personal profiles and narratives about con artists. The book uses his­torical tales, narratives of million dollar and small time swindlers and their victims, and stories of famous celebrity con artists like stockbroker Bernie Madoff, evangelical Christian leader Jim Baker, and cyclist Lance Armstrong. Throughout the book, she draws from psychology, and chemistry studies and experiments in order to explore why people fall for cons.

The book delves into tales of im­personators and liars that tricked others into believing they were hon­orable men. One story is about a man named Ferdinand Waldo Demara who impersonated a psychologist, a pro­fessor, a monk, and a surgeon. An­other tale is about 19th century Scot MacGregor, who made a fortune by persuading the public to invest in the bonds of a fictional government and nation. He convinced seven ships of settlers to emigrate to this fake na­tion.

Konnikova exposes the three main character traits of a con man in her section called the “Dark Triad of Traits.” These three traits include psychopathy, narcissism, and Ma­chiavellianism.

Psychopathy is a lack of empathy. These psychopaths continue to take advantage of people because they feel no guilt or remorse in their actions.

Narcissism is an ego-driven trait that makes one feel entitled to praise and rewards. Most narcissists tend to steal credentials from others and want easy shortcuts towards their rewards.

Machiavellianism is the subtle persuasion that causes others to do what the con artist wants them to do without them realizing it. Thus, one’s sense of truth is manipulated and altered through charismatic per­suasion.

The Confidence Game delves into the strategy of the con artists and the evil plans they perform on oth­ers. The first task is “the put-up” where the con artist sizes up their victim in preparation for their scheme. They will ask internal ques­tions: Who is he? What does he want? How can I play on that desire to achieve what I want? Then comes “the play” where, once the con artist gets to know their subject, they create an approach for manipulation. The motto of the con artist is to make their victim want more. Then comes “the rope” where logic and persua­sion is used to trap the subject. Once the victim is hooked, the con man enacts “the blow off” where they dis­appear.

We are all receptive to the mind-boggling tricks of a swindler. One reason is because humans inevitably lie all the time, making it easy to fall for a con man’s big lie. According to the New York Times, Konnikova dis­covered in a psychological study that people will lie on an average of three times during a 10-minute conversa­tion with a stranger. Con artists take white lies to the next level.

Confidence artists sell a better version of the world. Konnikova states in her book, “The con artist will find those things where your belief is unshakeable and will build on that foundation to subtly change the world around you.” Since all hu­mans envision a perfect world that is made just for them, when an op­portunity for true happiness is of­fered, people won’t see the opportu­nity as “too good to be true.” We will do everything in our power to con­vince ourselves by bending contradic­tory information that might get in the way of our happiness.

Thanks to the Internet, scammers can easily establish a false identity. One of the biggest scams that society falls for in today’s information age is the “sweetheart scam.” This is where an online relationship turns into someone getting lured into risky situations in order to please the con artist in the relationship. One sweet­heart scam that the book delves into is the story about a 68-year-old phys­ics professor at the University of North Carolina who takes a trip to Bolivia and Argentina to meet his online girlfriend who is a Czech model. He ends up in jail for serving as a cocaine smuggler.

Another common Internet trend is the “catfish scam” where one im­personates as someone else on social networks in order to gain informa­tion from others. One story that the book shares is a con man who imper­sonated a political reporter on the Internet and got to become friends with a lot of journalists.

In college it is easy to get involved with a con artist, whether it’s some­one you met on Tinder, a student trying to get you involved in a fake organization or club, or an internship or scholarship that ends up not being real. There is always a scam waiting for young adults. The students who are most likely to get involved with a smuggler are those who are very trustworthy or are vulnerable victims going through a life crisis, are in fear, or are in search for happiness.

Konnikova advises that when en­countering a con artist, the best thing to do is to look at yourself in the third person and to be skeptical. What if the same situation happened to your friend, would you advise them to give in or to think back a little?

The Confidence Game warns people to think twice before someone offers a chance of a lifetime, as you may have just encountered a con man. But this is not just a book about con artists or simply practical advice. Instead, it’s an exploration of human nature and manipulation.