Book report #7 (2021)

The Confidence Game, by Maria Konnikova.  Pub 2016

I’ve read several long-form articles by this author, and wanted to read this one to try to understand a) my own gullibility, and b) the psychology of some I’ve encountered at work – people who fake or mask something about themselves to get a job, and then continue the con in order to keep it or to maximize the payout for them to go away.

Konnikova breaks down the big con into its component parts – the tale, the rope, the convincer – using stories of real cons to show each part in the game. She starts with the psychology of the grifter and the mark, and shows throughout that the con relies not on shrewd psychopathy or naive gullibility, but on some basic elements of human nature taken to extremes. Most people want to believe they deserve a break or something good to happen, like to be in on the ground floor of something, and are sufficiently embarrassed enough to be reluctant to tell anyone when they’ve been conned.

For example, when most people are asked to rate themselves compared to the average, the vast majority of people claim to be better than average. This is true across many dimensions – intelligence, honesty, generosity, driving skills, cooking. Many people will also rate themselves not just above average but WAY above average. And yet mathematically, that’s not possible. Our self perceptions are most often bent towards believing we are better than average, or at least wanting to believe we are. A grifter plays that up, creating a story that pushes or pulls on that element of ourselves that we believe is better or want to be better.

Ultimately, a grifter purports to test or enhance our faith (as seen through the many grifters that use religion as their lever). It is this that makes the last part of a con – the blow-off and the fix – so devastating, when our faith is shattered and our reality broken so that we no longer trust even ourselves.

Learning more about the confidence game helps to perhaps see the red flags more clearly, and hopefully to reduce the instances of and the damage from cons. Reading the stories here about elaborate and extensive cons, the immediate tendency is to think, “what an idiot – I would never fall for that, it was so obvious.” And yet, own tendencies to believe that we’re smarter than average actually can make us more susceptible, not less. Those sure things that we see – those have to be legit because no one could fool us, right? Um, no.

Also revealed in these tales and research (and there’s a lot of that here, sometimes too much so that the reader forgets the point of the story and enough that I’m counting this as a science book) is how natural a con can be. From a little white lie to an exaggeration to a negotiation, we all use stories and perspectives in ways that help us achieve our goals. When we write a cover letter and tell the hiring manager we are a perfect candidate for the job, we don’t really know that to be true, but we’re trying to convince the reader that we are, or at least to believe it enough to schedule and interview. Et voila – a con, kind of. Similarly, magic tricks can convince us of someone’s power over mind and matter, until we see the strings. The difference may be in the consequences or perhaps the morality of our goals and the outcomes, but the principle is mostly the same – telling a story in such a way as to persuade someone to take a specific action to our benefit. Indeed, the line between persuasion and con can be quite fuzzy.

I can’t say that this book prepared me to see through all or even most cons. But the various pieces of the puzzle will hopefully help to understand why it happens so often, why the Nigerian prince scam is still around, why phishing campaigns are effective, and how stories remain the best way to get messages across – because we want to believe.

Fate: will remain on my work bookshelf as a reference for future teaching about persuasion.

8 – a book by a female author
25 – a book by an author I’ve not read before (just article)
26 – science non-fiction

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