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Maria Konnikova (@mkonnikova) shows us how we can defend ourselves against would-be con artists and use the same principles for more benign purposes in her new book The Confidence Game.
All of us are vulnerable to deception and persuasion — and if you haven’t been conned already, chances are good you will be. But you don’t have to accept this as an inevitability if you know how to spot a con in progress and understand the principles behind it.
On episode 478 of The Art of Charm, we talk to Maria Konnikova about identifying the ways con artists exploit trust, how we can arm ourselves against their manipulation games, and reverse engineering their tactics to subtly persuade others when our aims are more legitimate than a con as laid out in her new book The Confidence Game.
Maria Konnikova describes herself as a writer who explores what it means to be human — the things that unite us, separate us, excite us, scare us, and make us who we are. Her first book, the New York Times bestselling Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes examined the psychology behind how the world’s greatest (albeit fictional) sleuth operated and how we might apply his power of intellect to our own endeavors.
In The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It…Every Time, Maria explores how we’re all subject to gullibility, how others exploit this, what we can do to spot would-be manipulators and defend ourselves, and how we can use the same principles of persuasion for good rather than evil. But gathering this information definitely took its toll on Maria while she prepared to share her findings with the rest of us.
“As I was researching the book, the deeper I got into it, the more disgusted with humanity I became,” says Maria. “I realized…it just turned me into such a cynic. By the end I just thought, ‘Yep. People suck. Everyone’s out to get you. I basically shouldn’t believe or trust anyone because I am just going to be totally gullible.’ And after just talking to con artist after con artist and looking through the techniques of persuasion and why they’re so effective, it just really made me realize that I am so vulnerable. We all are so vulnerable that it’s scary.”
We may stereotype a typical mark as someone who is uneducated, naive, or greedy, but Maria tells us the overall victim profile tends to be someone who is incredibly sophisticated, savvy, and anything but greedy. Contrary to the old saying that you can’t fool an honest man, “honest men are really easy to fool,” she says. “People don’t really understand, a lot of times, that they’re victims of a con because they believe it so much they want to keep believing.”
But some con artists justify their trade by contradicting this logic and saying that their marks somehow deserve it for being greedy. “I think that makes a lot of them able to live with themselves, even though that’s absolutely not true,” says Maria. “Greed is the last thing that’s motivating them.”
A lot of times, honest people are scammed in ways that prey on their emotional need for affection — say if they can be convinced that a long distance contact (who also happens to be attractive) is in need of money. “It’s really depressing if you think about it,” says Maria, “because these are people who just want love [and] affection — things that we all want. And they end up broke and emotionally devastated.”
Depressing or not, don’t be so quick to give up on trust — because cynicism has its downfalls, too. “What you find is that people who are more trusting actually end up doing better in life,” says Maria. “There’s a lot of work that shows that trusting societies end up prospering. People who have higher levels of trust end up being smarter. They do better on a lot of tests of creativity [and] intelligence — so this is a good thing most of the time. What has happened is we have the small number of people who’ve basically co-evolved with the nice ones to take advantage of it. And because there aren’t that many of them, we are usually okay.
“And then you have the other end of the spectrum where, if you’re very cynical, you’re also a very easy mark…you’re totally not trusting, but you think that you are so incredibly wise that you become completely overconfident and so you become a really easy target.”
In other words, people on both ends of the spectrum have trouble spotting deception. It seems we’ve evolved to trust, but overriding this programming with cynicism doesn’t do us any favors, either. Add to this our modern proclivity for willfully surrendering every manner of information about ourselves online, and we’re all pretty much ripe targets.
“All it takes for a con to succeed is one point of vulnerability,” says Maria. “With the Internet and with social networks, it makes it so easy to find that one point, whereas before, you had to do a lot of legwork.”
So how do we keep opening ourselves up to cons? Because we tend to feel like we’re special — exceptional and exempt from the truly bad things that can happen to people, and better than average at most things. Sadly, the people who wind up being an exception to this rule are the clinically depressed. “They end up being much more realistic about themselves and how they’re doing…” says Maria.
If most of us have evolved over the course of human history to become easy marks, then what does that say about the people who choose to become con artists? “The first thing I started investigating was…something that a lot of people naturally think, which is, ‘Are all con men psychopaths?'” says Maria. “And it ends up that a good number of them are. Psychopaths are a really interesting subset of the population because they’ve basically co-evolved to take advantage of the fact that everyone else isn’t a psychopath. So they’re pretty constant in the small single digit percentages of the population. Usually around one percent, although in some professions — like law, business, politics — they’re really overrepresented, so you get into double digits pretty quickly. I won’t speculate on what that means about humanity!”
Because con artists comprise such a small percentage of the general population while the majority of us follow the rules, they can ply their trade without society completely crumbling. They operate as narcissistic, Machiavellian manipulators, happy enough to do what it takes to make themselves comfortable even if it means ruining the lives of others. “The ends justify the means…as long as you get what you want, it doesn’t really matter how you get there,” says Maria, “and con artists tell themselves this all the time because that makes them able to go to sleep at night.”
We already know that being too trusting makes us easy targets. We also know that being too cynical makes us easy targets. And, of course, most of us are probably giving away way too much information about ourselves online whether we realize it or not. So what can any of us do to avoid getting scammed?
Being aware of the most common scams currently making the rounds is helpful, but new ones enter the scene so frequently that it’s likely impossible to be on top of all of them. But from what we’ve learned about human nature, there are some things we should keep in mind.
“What we can do is understand ourselves a little better,” says Maria. “Try to understand the things that we most want to be true. I want to be incredibly healthy and I want to find food that’s very good for me, for instance. So I should be very wary of people who try to sell me the miracle fruit or something that’s really going to make my health improve, because that’s exactly what I want to hear. And whenever someone tells you exactly what you want to hear or exactly what you think you should be hearing, your alarm bells should go off.”
Of course, everyone becomes vulnerable at moments of emotional instability or emotional loss. If you’ve experienced a breakup or a divorce, lost a job or a lot of money, or happen to be going through some big change that’s disrupting your day-to-day life, you’re more likely to be victimized. At this point, it’s not as important to identify a potential con artist as it is to up our defenses. Maybe we let people we truly know and trust help us through this difficult time — making our reliance on unknown variables (like a con artist in waiting) less likely.
If you want to get an idea of your own susceptibility to deception — or deceiving — try taking this Self-Reflection test. With a finger, trace an invisible, capital letter Q on your forehead.
Before reading further, take careful note of how you’ve traced it.
Is your letter Q facing outward in a way that would make it easy for someone else to read (as in a mirror image), or is it facing inward in a way that would make it easy for you to read?
If the Q’s tail is facing to the left (outward), then you’re a high self-monitor. You’re very concerned with appearances, with perception, and with how others see you. You’re much more likely to manipulate reality to make a better impression, so you’re more likely to fib just a little bit so that you come off looking better. This would mean you’re also more likely to be a con artist.
If the Q’s tail is facing to the right (inward), then you’re more self-reflective and introspective. You’re more likely to question things and try to understand rather than make reality different to fit your own desires.
No matter your Q, we’ll move on and look at some persuasive tactics we hope you’ll use for good rather than evil…
The Double Favor
Imagine that you want someone to do you a favor. Don’t ask them for that favor. Ask them for some other huge favor to which they’re probably going to say “No.” Say you want someone to write you a recommendation letter. First, ask, “Hey, would you volunteer to spend a day with my students — give up a day of your time to teach them about writing?”
They’ll probably say “No,” because that’s pretty ridiculous, right? But then what happens is they’re going to feel a little bit guilty because they’ve said no to you. And so a week or two later, say, “Hey, by the way, would you mind writing me a recommendation?” Boom. They say “Yes.” And that happens all the time. There are studies that show that someone who’s refused a big favor is much more likely to say “Yes” to another big favor — as long as it’s relatively smaller than the original big favor.
The Serial Favors
Ask someone for a really small and easy favor. If they do it, you can probably rely on them to do further, comparable favors because they’ve already done the one. This helps them avoid cognitive dissonance because they’ll think, “Oh, I’m a nice and generous person, and if I’ve already done a favor for them, then that means that person is deserving of favors — and I should keep doing them favors.”
The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It…Every Time by Maria Konnikova
Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova
The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
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