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Maria Konnikova on How we Get Conned

There’s a scene in the classic Paul Newman film The Sting, where Johnny Hooker (played by a young Robert Redford) tries to get Henry Gondorf (played by Newman) to finally tell him when they’re going to pull the big con. His response tells the tale:

You gotta keep his con even after you take his money. He can’t know you took him.

It’s this same subject that our friend Maria Konnikova — whom we interviewed a few years ago upon the release of her book Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes — has mined with her new book The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For it…Every Time.

It’s a good question: Why do we fall for it every time? Confidence games (cons for short) are a wonderful arena to study the Psychology of Human Misjudgment.

In fact, you could call a good con artist — you have to love the term artist here — a master of human psychology. They are, after all, in the game of manipulating people into parting with their money. They are so good, a successful con is a lot like a magic trick:

When we step into a magic show, we come in actively wanting to be fooled. We want deception to cover our eyes and make our world a tiny bit more fantastical, more awesome than it was before. And the magician, in many ways, uses the exact same approaches as the confidence man—only without the destruction of the con’s end game. “Magic is a kind of a conscious, willing con,” Michael Shermer, a science historian and writer who has devoted many decades to debunking claims about the supernatural and the pseudoscientific, told me one December afternoon. “You’re not being foolish to fall for it. If you don’t fall for it, the magician is doing something wrong.”

Shermer, the founder of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, has thought extensively about how the desire to embrace magic so often translates into susceptibility to its less savory forms. “Take the Penn and Teller cup and balls. I can explain it to you and it still would work. It’s not just knowing the secret; it’s not a trick. It’s the whole skill and art of presentation. There’s a whole narrative—and that’s why it’s effective.” At their root, magic tricks and confidence games share the same fundamental principle: a manipulation of our beliefs. Magic operates at the most basic level of visual perception, manipulating how we see—and don’t see—and experience reality. It changes for an instant what we think possible, quite literally taking advantage of our eyes’ and brains’ foibles to create an alternative version of the world. The con does the same thing, but can go much deeper. Tricks like three-card monte are identical to a magician’s routine—except the intent is more nefarious.

Psychology and show magic have more in common than you’d think: As Shermer says, there are many magic tricks that you can explain ahead of time and they will still work, and still baffle. But…wait…how?

The link between everyday psychological manipulation and show magic is so close that the magician Harry Houdini spent a good portion of his later life trying to sniff out cons in the form of mediums, mystics, and sooth-sayers. Even he couldn’t totally shake free of the illusions:

Mysticism, [Houdini] argued, was a game as powerful as it was dangerous. “It is perfectly rational to suppose that I may be deceived once or twice by a new illusion,” he wrote, “but if my mind, which has been so keenly trained for years to invent mysterious effects, can be deceived, how much more susceptible must the ordinary observer be?

Such is the power of the illusion. The same, of course, goes for the mental tricks in our psychological make-up. A great example is the gambling casino: Leaving out the increasingly rare exceptions, who ever walks in thinking they have a mathematical edge over the house? Who would be surprised to find out the casino is deliberately manipulating them into losing money with social proof, deprival super-reaction, commitment bias, over-confidence bias, and other tricks? Most intelligent folks aren’t shocked or surprised by the concept of a house edge. And yet casinos continue to do healthy business. We participate in the magic trick. In a perverse sense, we allow ourselves to be conned.

In some ways, confidence artists like Demara have it easy. We’ve done most of the work for them; we want to believe in what they’re telling us. Their genius lies in figuring out what, precisely, it is we want, and how they can present themselves as the perfect vehicle for delivering on that desire.

The Beginning of a Con: The “Put-Up” & The “Mark”

Who makes a good mark for a con artist? Essentially, it could be anyone. Context trumps character. Konnikova wisely retracts from trying to pinpoint exactly who is easiest to con: The truth is, in the right time and place, we can all get hit by a good enough con man. In fact, con artists themselves often make great marks. This is probably linked, in part, to over-confidence. (In fact, you might call conning a con man an…Over-confidence game?)

The con artist starts by getting to know us at a deep level. Konnikova argues that con artists combine excellent judgment of character with a honed ability to show the mark exactly what he wants to see. An experienced con artist has been drowned in positive and negative feedback on what works and does not. Through practice evolution, he’s learned what works. That’s why we end up letting him in, even if we’re on guard:

A con artist looks at everyone at that fine level. When it comes to the put-up, accuracy matters—and con men don’t just want to know how someone looks to them. They want to correctly reflect how they want to be seen.

What’s more, confidence artists can use what they’re learning as they go in order to get us to give up even more. We are more trusting of people who seem more familiar and more similar to us, and we open up to them in ways we don’t to strangers. It makes a certain sense: those like us and those we know or recognize are unlikely to want to hurt us. And they’re more likely to understand us.

There are a few things at play here. The con is triggering a bias from liking/loving, which we all have in us. By getting us committed and then drawing us in slowly, they also trigger commitment bias — in fact, Konnikova explains that the term Confidence Game itself comes from a basic trust exercise: Get into a conversation with a mark, commit them to saying that they trust you, then ask them if they’ll let you hold their wallet as a show of that trust. Robert Cialdini — the psychology professor who wrote the wonderfully useful book Influence — would certainly not be surprised to see that this little con worked pretty frequently. (Maria smartly points out the connection between con artists and Cialdini’s work in the book.)

The “Play,” the “Rope,” the “Tale,” and the “Convincer”

Once the con artist decides that we’re a mark, the fun begins.

After the mark is chosen, it is time to set the actual con in motion: the play, the moment when you first hook a victim and begin to gain her trust. And that is accomplished, first and foremost, through emotion. Once our emotions have been captured, once the con artist has cased us closely enough to identify what it is we want, feeling, at least in the moment, takes over from thinking.

[…]

What visceral states do is create an intense attentional focus. We tune out everything else and tune in to the in-the-moment emotional cues. It’s similar to the feeling of overwhelming hunger or thirst—or the need to go to the bathroom—when you suddenly find yourself unable to think about anything else. In those moments, you’re less likely to deliberate, more likely to just say yes to something without fully internalizing it, and generally more prone to lapses that are outside the focus of your immediate attention.

As far as the context of a good con, emotion rules the day. People in financial straits, or who find themselves in stressful or unusual situations are the easiest to con. This is probably because these situations trigger what Danny Kahneman would call System 1 thinking: Fast, snap judgments, often very bad ones. Influenced by stress, we’re not slowing down and thinking things through. In fact, many people won’t even admit to be conned after the fact because they feel so ashamed of their lack of judgment in the critical moments. (Cult conversions use some of the same tactics.)

Now begins the “Tale”

A successful story does two things well. It relies on the narrative itself rather than any overt arguments or logical appeals to make the case on its own, and it makes us identify with its characters. We’re not expecting to be persuaded or asked to do something. We’re expecting to experience something inherently pleasant, that is, an interesting tale. And even if we’re not relating to the story as such, the mere process of absorbing it can create a bond between us and the teller—a bond the teller can then exploit.

It’s always harder to argue with a story, be it sad or joyful. I can dismiss your hard logic, but not how you feel. Give me a list of reasons, and I can argue with it. Give me a good story, and I can no longer quite put my finger on what, if anything, should raise my alarm bells. After all, nothing alarming is ever said explicitly, only implied.

This is, of course, the con artist preying on our inherent bias for narrative. It’s how we sense-make, but as Cialdini knows so well, it can be used for nefarious purposes to cause a click, whirr automatic reaction where our brain doesn’t realize it’s being tricked. Continuing the fallacy, the con artist reinforces the narrative we’ve been building in our head:

One of the key elements of the convincer, the next stage of the confidence game, is that it is, well, convincing: the convincer makes it seem like you’re winning and everything is going according to plan. You’re getting money on your investment. Your wrinkles are disappearing and your weight, dropping. That doctor really seems to know what he’s doing. That wine really is exceptional, and that painting, exquisite. You sure know how to find the elusive deal. The horse you bet on, both literal and figurative, is coming in a winner.

 The “Breakdown,” and the “Send”

And now comes the break-down. We start to lose. How far can the grifter push us before we balk? How much of a beating can we take? Things don’t completely fall apart yet—that would lose us entirely, and the game would end prematurely — but cracks begin to show. We lose some money. Something doesn’t go according to plan. One fact seems to be off. A figure is incorrectly labeled. A wine bottle is “faulty.” The crucial question: do we notice, or do we double down? High off the optimism of the convincer, certain that good fortune is ours, we often take the second route. When we should be cutting our losses, we instead recommit—and that is entirely what the breakdown is meant to accomplish.

A host of biases are being triggered at this point, turning our brains into mush. We’re starting to lose a little, but we feel if we hang in long enough, we can probably at least come out even, or ahead. (Deprival super-reaction tendency, so common at the roulette table, and sunk-cost fallacies.) We’ve already put our trust in this nice fellow, so any new problems can probably be rationalized as something we “knew could happen all along,” so no reason to worry. (Commitment & consistency, hindsight bias.) And of course, this is where the con artist really has us. It’s called The Send.

The send is that part of the con where the victim is recommitted, that is, asked to invest increasingly greater time and resources into the con artist’s scheme—and in the touch, the con finally comes to its fruition and the mark is completely, irrevocably fleeced.

The End of the Line

Of course, all things eventually come to an end.

The blow-off is often the final step of the con, the grifter’s smooth disappearance after the game has played out. Sometimes, though, the mark may not be so complacent. If that happens, there’s always one more step that can be taken: the fix, when a grifter puts off the involvement of law enforcement to prevent marks from making their complaints official.

Like the scene in The Sting, the ideal con ends without trouble for the con-man: Ideally, the mark won’t even know it was a con. But if they do, Konnikova makes an interesting point that the blow-off and the fix often end up being unnecessary, for reputational reasons. This self-preservation mechanism is one reason so many frauds never come to light, why there are few prosecutions in relation to the amount of fraud really going on:

The blow-off is the easiest part of the game, and the fix hardly ever employed. The Drake fraud persisted for decades—centuries, in fact—because people were too sheepish about coming forward after all that time. Our friend Fred Demara was, time and time again, not actually prosecuted for his transgressions. People didn’t even want to be associated with him, let alone show who they were publically by suing him. The navy had only one thing to say: go quietly—leave, don’t make a scene, and never come back.

Besides the reputational issue, there are clearly elements of Pavlovian mere association at play. Who wants to be reminded of their own stupidity? Much easier to sweep it away as soon as possible, never to be reminded again.

***

Confidence Game is an enjoyable read with tales of cons and con artists throughout history – a good reminder of our own fallibility in the face of a good huckster and the power of human misjudgment.