I bought and read “The Confidence Game” by Maria Konnikova a few days ago. It’s an insightful and easy to read book that explains the psychology of con artists, and delves deep into how they manipulate victims’ emotions. (FYI this book was awarded the 2016 Robert P. Balles Prize by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry)
Maria Konnikova is a 36 year old Russian-American writer who has a B.A. in psychology and creative writing from Harvard University and a Ph.D in psychology from Columbia University. She’s written other books like “Mastermind: how to think like Sherlock Holmes” and “The Biggest Bluff: how I learned to pay attention, master myself, and win”.
If you’re interested in behavioral psychology, this book would be a really fun read for you! Here are some great lines from the book that I’d like to share:
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“Persistent immoral behavior can be thought of as an alternative evolutionary strategy that can be beneficial at low rates in society. By lacking the emotional experiences that serve to deter immoral behavior, and by using deception and manipulation, individuals may be able to successfully cheat their way through life.”
There’s another word for this calculated- inbred, even- nonchalance. Psychopathy, or the basic absence of empathetic feelings for your fellow human beings. It’s nonchalance brought to a biological extreme.
…con artists…are they just slightly more devious versions of our more conniving selves? …just a simple matter of degree?
When psychopaths experience something that would shock most people…their pulse stays steady, their sweat glands normal, their heart rates low …failed to engage the same emotional areas as non-psychopaths when making difficult moral decisions.
Narcissism entails a sense of grandiosity, entitlement, self-enhancement, an overly inflated sense of worth, and manipulativeness.
A narcissist will do everything necessary to preserve his image.
It is possible…to possess all the tents of the dark triad, and then some and still not turn to con artistry.
Psychopaths, narcissists, and Machs may be overrepresented in the grift, but they are also overrepresented in a number of other professions that line the legitimate world.
..genes load the gun; the environment pulls the trigger.
A single traumatic event or a baseline of stress at home or at school could both, in theory, interrupt normal development and make the psychopathic traits you were genetically predisposed to more likely to assert themselves…
For most people to go from legitimacy to con artistry, three things need to align: not just the motivation- that is, your underlying predisposition…but alongside it, opportunity and a plausible rationale.
The behavioral norms of a company, culture or setting- how it is and isn’t acceptable to act- must be communicated clearly and unequivocally. When they aren’t, it becomes too easy for those on the cusp of fraud to take the next step.
…cognitive load may come from many other areas, not just deceptions. Even with microexpressions, there is no surefire way of knowing whether someone is actually being untruthful.
Some were obvious…gullibility, a trusting nature, a proneness to fantasy, and greed were perceived to be the traits that set victims apart …As it turns out, a good con artist will upend all of these expectations.
When it comes to predicting who will fall, personality generalities tend to go out the window. Instead, one of the factors that emerges is circumstance: it’s not who you are, but where you happen to be at this moment in your life.
People in debt, in fact, are also more likely to fall for fraud that’s completely unrelated to finances, like weight-loss products.
…it’s often hard to calibrate your reading of social cues in a new environment, especially when that environment is unlike any you’ve previously encountered.
Risk taking and impulsivity need not be stable aspects of our personalities; they are intimately tied to where we find ourselves emotionally at any given point.
Con artists are often the best marks because they think themselves immune. And that false sense of immunity extends to victims more broadly: the better protected you are and the less likely you think you’ll be a victim, the more you’re apt to lose if a con artist can find a way to earn your trust.
That’s what grifters are particularly good at: looking at a sea of faces and finding the one, who at this point in time, would be the perfect mark.
“Most people are intuitive psychologists in their daily lives- wondering why people think or behave as they do.”
There’s…”ordinary personology”. We look at basic physical features, like gender, age, and height, at facial structure, at skin tone, at body language…at clothing.
…mind perception- being able to tell what others feel, what they desire, what drives and motivates them. We listen to their words and their voice, read their gestures and their tone, infer between the lines to get a sense of their inner world.
But practically, we remain superbly egocentric in all our judgments.
People, however, are far from being a homogeneous mass. And so, when we depart from our own perspective, as we inevitably must, we often make errors, sometimes significant ones.
…”egocentric anchoring”: we are our own point of departure. We assume that others know what we know, believe what we believe, and like what we like.
Those who were better at reading threatening cues also felt worse about their partners and marriages by the end of the study. The less accurate actually came out ahead- as did their relationship satisfaction. We never learn to expert people-readers because that expertise can backfire spectacularly. Why form accurate judgments when the inaccurate ones make our lives far more pleasant and easy?
…one central factor that can override most shortcomings and make us far more accurate at figuring out who someone is and what makes her tick: motivation. People who are motivated to be accurate, whether financially or personally, suddenly become far more adept at reading faces, bodies, and minds alike. In one set of studies, people in powerful roles failed spectacularly at reading others.
He was using lines that would fit almost any job description, and dilemmas that most any youngish woman in the earlier stages of her career would most likely ask herself. Who doesn’t worry about the future of their career path? Who doesn’t think these days that their industry is in a state of flux? Who hasn’t thought about leaving it all behind?
When it comes to ourselves, we employ a fine-grained, highly contextualized level of detail. When we think about others, however, we operate at much higher, more generalized and abstract level.
…con men don’t just want to know how someone looks to them. They want to correctly reflect how they want to be seen.
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: those like us and those we know or recognize are unlikely to want to hurt us.
When we like someone or feel an affinity for them, we tend to mimic their behavior, facial expressions, and gestures, a phenomenon known as the chameleon effect.
In one study, seeing someone once, however briefly, even with no further interaction, made people more likely to agree to something later asked of them…
They had changed…”from hostility to the Black Bag to curiosity and finally to friendship.” The Black Bag hadn’t done anything, said a word, or interacted with a single student.
…could exposure without conscious processing accomplish the same thing?
Zajnoc called it the mere exposure effect: familiarity breeds affection. And affection is a fount of the personal information so essential to the successful put-up.
We like it when feel someone knows the “real” us.
All a con artist needs is to do his homework.
But then he made one slip too many, and fell as quickly as her rose, to be replaced, in short order, by the next miracle worker.
…even as he perfects the put-up, he knows how to make us even worse at reading social cues than we normally are….put up the mark all the while making sure he can’t do the same thing right back.
Things that trip us up…include pressure- time, emotional, situational- and power. When we’re feeling pressure, we grow far less able to think logically and deliberately.
There’s nothing a con artist likes to do more than make us feel powerful and in control: we are the ones calling the shots, making the choices, doing the thinking.
That way, he could glean all he could from them, and they, in turn, would be too flattered to scrutinize him too closely.
…people who were reminded of money, even in passing, ended up paying less attention to others, and, indeed, wanted to put more distance between themselves and others.
…the marks, in a certain respect, come preselected. Just by walking into the parlor, you’ve shown yourself to be open to belief and suggestion, and you’re obviously searching for an easy answer to your problem or situation.
The bad grammar and seemingly implausible notes: those aren’t from stupidity. They’re actually well thought out beforehand. Scammers have learned the hard way that notes that sound too legitimate hook too many fish, making the weeding-out process incredibly costly. Now only the true sucker falls for the pitch.
Conveniently forgotten were the instances where he had real power to do harm.
Each put-up is tailored for you, so while you may understand its operation in general, in your particular case you are unlikely to see it coming.
“…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.”
They don’t mess with just any beliefs; they mess with the deepest beliefs we have.
…the most intelligent among us succumb all too easily.
Governing our reality are two systems, one emotional, one rational. And the two don’t follow the same rules.
If you accept that those types of instant judgments are essential to our continued survival as a species, you, in a sense, accept that feeling precedes thinking.
How we say something ourselves, even if we’re asked to do in the absence of any genuine emotion, can often boil over into how we ned up feeling. Merely smiling or frowning, for instance, changes the pattern of blood flow to our brains …a psychological change in our emotion that can come quite close to mimicking the genuine artifact.
…we can frame experience in two ways: propositional and narrative. Propositional is the part of thought that hinges on logic and formality. Narrative, on the other hand, is more like a story. It’s concrete. It’s imagistic. It’s personally convincing. It’s emotional. And it’s strong.
The best confidence artist makes us feel not like we’re being taken for a ride but like we are genuinely wonderful human beings.
The con artist, after all, often gets what he wants without ever having to ask.
We believe because we want to. Con artists are just there to spin the yarn. And even when we think they’ve told their last, they have the uncanny ability to resurface.
Pathological liars lie for no reason at all. For them, lying is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or may point to a deeper psychopathy.
Pathological liars lie for no reason at all. For them, lying is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or may point to a deeper psychopathy.
…she crossed a social taboo. An area so rife with emotion that to lie about it would be to betray our trust in humanity…because of the power of emotion, such taboo ruses are far from unique in the confidence game; many a play revolves around the topics that no one would dare question.
It’s a quintessential Machivaellian dilemma. Do the ends justify the means?
The way I process the information will be colored by my emotion all the same.
….affect heuristic: we make decisions based on whether we feel that something is “good” or “Bad”, without much conscious analysis.
…affect pool. We then act not just based on the current moment but based on the associations with all the prior moments like it, be they good or bad.
…any emotional arousal will cloud our judgments to some extent. It makes us unthinking and it makes us unthinking and it makes us malleable.
Arousal can compel us to act against our long-term interest- because, in the immediate term, we suddenly can’t quite tell the difference. The most primitive parts of our brain take over the rational.
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.
Some people don’t see the signs of fraud, true, but he felt, this couldn’t be the fundamental reason. If it were, there wouldn’t be nearly as much diversity as the victim pool.
It was…a question of visceral influence: greed, hunger, lust, and the like.
…ignore scam cues that may be obvious to others not so overwhelmed by desire.
It’s not always enough to make us emotional; you have to think ahead and tailor the approach with the eventual touch (the actual moment of fleecing the mark) in mind.
Irrational fears trump rational reasoning.
The single most persuadable type of driver: the one who had just experienced a wave of relief following anxiety.
…more likely to give money to a stranger asking for a donation after they’d heard a police whistle when they’d been jaywalking.
Fearmongering knows no expiration date.
…all persuasive strategies could be categorized into two types. The first, alpha, was far more frequent: increasing the appeal of something. The second, omega, decreased resistance surrounding something.
…can convince me of something by making me want to approach it and decreasing any reasons I might have to avoid it.
The funny thing is…the approach worked even if the person doing the requesting the second time around was someone else: doing a small favor seemed to open the door to being nice, generally speaking. It’s one of htthee reasons con artists work in gangs.
…one of the elements that make us more vulnerable to persuasion is our desire to maintain a good image of ourselves. We want to behave in a way that’s consistent with the image we’ve created.
…if I’ve helped you before, you must be worth it. Therefore, I’ll help you again.
People who were approached with a that’s-not-all story…were more likely to buy into it than those who heard the great offer right away.
Disrupt-then-reframe attacks the evaluative part of the process: we don’t have a chance to give a proper assessment because each time we try to do so, the situation changes.
A request for a tiny amount of money legitimizes you in the eyes of others.
If you’re looking for a tiny donation…not the type of person to go all tricksy on me.
Pose something as unique or rare, and takers will line up where there used to be none. It works for goods. It works for information. It works for almost anything.
We often obey power reflexively, without ever quite stopping to reflect on why we’re doing what we are and whether it is, in fact, something we should be doing.
The Internet…made establishing a trustworthy identity far simpler than it ever has been. All you need to do is create a firm social media presence- the more accounts, the better…
….the order effect…is but one of the many elements of decision architecture- how information is presented to us- that can get us to make decisions in a very precise way, and not necessarily in a way that corresponds to our stated preferences.
In many cases, our choices aren’t based on some innate preferences. Instead, they are constructed at any given moment by a combination of situational factors.