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Review of Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It Every Time

Maria Konnikova’s book is a lively and educational read. With a series of expertly-told stories, the writer takes us into the world of ‘con games’.

Konnikova opens with a story that has the bonus of Canadian content. Ferdinand Waldo Demara, without a medical degree, assumes the role of a surgeon lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy. One afternoon, a rickety boat pulls up alongside the HMCS Cayuga. The Korean War is underway and the boat is packed with young men who were caught in an ambush. Under the pseudonym, Dr. Joseph Cyr, Demara takes charge of the messy bullet and shrapnel wounds. Somehow, over the following 48 hours, Demara fakes his way through nineteen surgeries. He has the help of a field guide he had persuaded a physician back in Ontario to create “for the troops” in the event a doctor wasn’t readily available.

With all the publicity that accompanied this heroic day, Demara is discovered by the real Dr. Joseph Cyr who had known him in a different disguise, Brother John Payne of the Brothers of Christian Instruction.

Konnikova traces this con man’s success and the success of the other real-life characters in the book to the human tendency toward ‘belief’. We want to believe. The genius of the con is “in figuring out what, precisely, it is we want, and how they can present themselves as the perfect vehicle for delivering on that desire”. What Konnikova wants to do with her book is to explore the psychological principles that underlie con games. 

The con game has a structure that begins with identifying the victim (the put-up), the creation of rapport (the play), logic and persuasion (the rope), the scheme (the tale), the evidence and the way it works to your benefit (the convincer), the time when we can no longer extricate ourselves (the breakdown), we choose to up our involvement (the send), (the touch) we are fleeced, the decision to stay quiet about what has happened (the blow-off and fix). The chapters of the book follow this structure.

Konnikova addresses what, for me, is a key element in the con game. Everyone thinks they are immune. The cautious person is too cautious to be scammed. The bold extrovert is too strong to be conned. The old ones are too experienced and the young ones are too quick. It is so hard to convince ourselves and others that we are being scammed. Everyone falls, but Konnikova’s question is “Can you understand your own mind well enough that you learn to extricate yourself before it’s too late?”

As more writers follow Malcolm Gladwell (Konnikova’s fellow The New Yorker writer) down the path of popular psychologizing, I enjoy the breezy, stimulating discussions. At the same time, I am dismayed at the process. Instead of careful citations of academic studies and cautious applications, we get broad generalizations and imprecise references. 

When Konnikova identifies a triad of psychological traits: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism as traits of the con artist, her argument is weakened by a lack of attention to clinical evidence. It is also not hard to see how these powerful psychological labels can be used as weapons. We are now seeing these labels routinely lobbed at politicians. Probably the worse effect is to distinguish the grifter as some sort of monster very different from ourselves. This only makes the con artist more difficult to recognize.

I think it might be more helpful to acknowledge that everyone uses some measure of deception to achieve our aims, but the con artist is someone who has acquired expertise in this area. Konnikova shows that deception is a common trait in nature and among human beings. Even small children are liars. Some are better at lying than others but people are generally not good at detecting liars. “... It is better for us to be more trusting”

By focusing on individual psychology, the writer overlooks some of the elements of successful con games. Con games are numbers games. The con artist may be good at sizing people up but the main thing is to apply the technique to many potential marks until the scam and technique are brilliantly polished. This is what made Demara, mentioned in Konnikova’s introduction, so devastatingly effective as a con artist. He did it again and again, whereas his victims had probably never encountered such bold, skillful lies. 

The most successful cons are those that go unreported, unseen and even enjoyed by the ‘victims’. For example, the book tells the story of a lonely sixty-eight-year-old American Professor Paul Frampton. Frampton falls into a passionate long-distance relationship with a ‘Denise Milani’. He ended up in an Argentine jail for drug smuggling without ever surrendering his belief that Denise was out there somewhere. He seemed to remain oblivious to how he had been scammed. He had never met a Denise Milani in person.

What does it mean to be conned when we are not hurt by the result? Konnikova tells the wonderful story of Count Victor Lustig. He was the one who sold the Eiffel Tower twice for scrap metal to unwitting investors. Lustig also created a famed money box that could create perfect copies of twenty-dollar bills on demand. He’d seed the box’s false bottom with real bills. He sold the boxes for $4,000 or more. 

Lustig’s reputation preceded him to Chicago, where he sought to meet Al Capone. If Capone would give him $50,000, he would double his investment within two months. Capone was suspicious, but who would dare to cheat Al Capone? Over the next two months, Lustig went about his business, and then returned to Capone’s office. Capone asked for his doubled return. Lustig could not deliver. With an abject apology, he returned the $50,000 to Capone admitted that he had failed. With that, an astonished Capone gave Lustig $5,000, to “help him along” in his financial difficulties. 

On the other hand, survival requires the con artist to identify those who might retaliate with violence or reports to the authorities. There was James Franklin Norfleet. In an extended account in chapter seven, Norfleet is scammed of his farms and money. He vowed to get revenge. Scouting across North America, from Mexico to the wilds of Canada, he tracked down every member of the gang that had conned him out of wealth and reputation. He single-handedly took down one of the largest organized crime rings in the nation.

Reading this sort of book is time spent with colourful rogues, safely and at a distance where they cannot quite reach our wallet, public reputation, or pride. Recommended.

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