Our world positively teems with swindlers, ripoff artists, and con-men. From ordinary curbside Three-Card Monte to charming, narcissistic domestic abusers, to Ponzi schemers and Wall Street market riggers, the confidence game exudes from society’s very pores. Psychologist turned journalist Maria Konnikova wants to unpack what makes us susceptible to con artists, a journey that leads through all human psychology, sometimes vulnerable to diversions and cow paths.
Konnikova’s first book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, dealt with how crime fighters organize thoughts, observe reality, and undermine criminal mentality. This book essentially addresses the same issues from the opposite angle: how criminals create situations that need busting. Konnikova’s conclusions may seem surprising, until we consider them further. Vulnerability to confidence artists and other professional chiselers actually means our psyches are healthy.
Confidence artists work with an encyclopedic understanding of human psychology with which research scientists are only now catching up. They recognize common traits, like our tendency to see others as similar to ourselves, our illusion of control, and our unwillingness to think badly about ourselves. These traits aren’t weaknesses; without them, we’d be functionally paralyzed. Effective swindlers work by turning our best characteristics and human capabilities against us.
We must recognize, therefore, that making ourselves insusceptible to cons isn’t actually desirable. Fraudsters prey on traits that open us to community, family, and fiscal reward. As Konnikova writes: “The same thing that can underlie success can also make you all the more vulnerable to the grifter’s wares. We are predisposed to trust.” With swindles, as with propaganda, those who think themselves most immune are, actually, most vulnerable.
All isn’t bleak. Throughout most of this book, Konnikova suggests it’s difficult to prevent con-games without isolating ourselves and descending into cynicism. In the later chapters, though, she reverses the trend, showing how skilled, self-aware people can resist flim-flam artists’ techniques. Not hypothetically, either: she shows how real people, cult busters and cultural anthropologists and police, have maintained their sanity when confronted by seemingly insurmountable double-dealing. Resistance is possible.
As Konnikova writes, psychologists once believed humans achieved maturity when they were able to see themselves objectively. We now know that isn’t true. Humans naturally see the world through rose-colored glasses; if we didn’t think the best of ourselves, other people, and the future, we’d be unable to move. Even the bleakest pessimists think more positively than they probably realize. We must sustain such positivity to sustain forward movement.
The solution, then, is to test everything. Know who you are, what you want, and others will find it difficult to warp your identity. Understand the ways swindlers misuse your best tendencies, and you’ll have better luck distinguishing friendliness from abuse. No technique, Konnikova admits, is foolproof; even professional fraud busters sometimes get over their heads. But you have the capacity to withstand grifters.
This book’s release at the beginning of an election season certainly isn’t coincidental. The techniques Konnikova describes—make yourself look friendly and approachable, tell audiences an engaging story, start targets on tiny commitments so they’ll double down later—exactly reflect the techniques long used in demagoguery and electioneering. Journalist Sasha Issenberg has described previously how election managers use exacting scientific advances to improve upon what candidates have long done intuitively.
As Konnikova explains confidence artists’ psychological techniques, her focus expands to include much about recent discoveries in psychology and behavioral economics. She wants readers to emerge with as thorough an understanding of human minds as the fraud merchants enjoy. This sometimes makes her technique sprawling (this book runs over 300 pages plus back matter, unusually long for its genre). Reading Konnikova sometimes requires especial concentration and focus.
She richly rewards those who stick with her narrative, though. I’ve recently seen one friend lose rafts to shady investments and two others get burned by charming, narcissistic romantic partners. Even if we never vote for crooks, invest with Bernie Madoff, or buy salvation sellers’ wares, the potential for confidence games still surrounds us. Konnikova provides needed tools for self-awareness, clear boundaries, and bold self-defense. Swindles are inevitable; victimhood isn’t.