Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Book Review - The Confidence Game

Maria Konnikova’s fascinating new book, The Confidence Game, examines how (and why) people fall for con jobs - be it the proverbial Nigerian prince spamming our email inbox, the mysterious stranger offering us a sure fire way to double our money or the fortune teller who can see our future. Of course, *you* would never fall for it - you are too smart, would get out before it got really bad, or suss out the scam and call the police. What Konnikova details, richly, and in exhaustive detail, is that it is precisely because people have too much faith in their own intelligence, ability to walk away from a bad situation or report things that make the con work. 

Like a wrestler who uses his opponent’s leverage against them, the con man uses our own assuredness, our own desire to trust others, and our need to believe that we are entitled to good things to manipulate us so severely that many victims not only defend the person who steals from them, they often provide the ideas that slit their own financial throat. And when the moment arrives when you realize you have been had, the fear of public shaming stops many people from ever reporting their victimization. Worse still, even after the con artist has been caught, some of their victims will still refuse to believe this person who they trusted could have wronged them. 

How is this done? Konnikova takes us step-by-step through the process, from the moment a grifter sizes up his prey (“mark”) through other steps like the “play” (gaining the mark’s trust) the “rope” (the pitch a grifter uses to lure his victim) and the “tale” (the inflection point when the mark has internalized the story) all the way to the “blow off” when a con man disappears into the ether with his mark either none the wiser or reluctant to admit they have been had. At each point, like an expert puppeteer, the con man pulls at the dupe’s emotional strings, leading him down a path that will lead to his (voluntary) ruin. 

The tales in The Confidence Game have an accident-in-slow-motion quality. There is the story of the Wall Street investment banker who walks into a fortune teller’s office while nursing a bad break up and, little by little, sees her life’s savings evaporate and her life completely upended. The lonely heart 60something college professor who strikes up an online romance with a 20something European bikini model who ends up being arrested in South America after he picks up a piece of what he thinks is her luggage and turns out to have several kilos of cocaine in it. Willful blindness? A lack of credulity? Sure, both, to a certain extent, but these and other stories just underscore the insidious ability of a con artist to ingratiate themselves into our lives when we are at our most vulnerable - when emotion trumps logic and we are susceptible to suggestion that a simple solution can bring order to chaos or a long-overdue reward is finally ours. 

The true danger in confidence games is that they work because they rely, at their core, in very basic beliefs we all share - in the trustworthiness and goodness of others, in our own inherent right to happiness, and our innate ability to see right from wrong. The closest analogy I could think of to those who have been conned is to the experience of falling in love - both require a massive leap of faith where we place our trust, total and complete, in another person, and when it fails, the fall out is devastating, yet we often do not see the end coming or understand how it happened. And that is what makes the con so alluring and so dangerous. Who does not want to feel good or happy or rich or wanted? Who does not want to be told that if you just suspend logic and reason easy money, a beautiful woman, or a priceless painting can be yours. Satisfying these basic needs can lead the smartest, most rational people to make incredibly foolish mistakes.

Finally, a word about Konnikova. She is a master story teller. The Confidence Game is the natural companion to her prior work, Mastermind, which used the stories of Sherlock Holmes to examine how the rational mind solves mysteries. If the latter is about the head, the former is about the heart, and together, these two books provide deep insight into what makes us tick. The Confidence Game will not fill you with pride in your fellow man (or woman). Over and over, the reader is slapped in the face with the fact that people can be truly despicable. And don’t get me wrong, I am a cynic by nature, but the sociopathic behavior of the con artists Konnikova spotlights even made *me* depressed.  

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