How to avoid being taken for a ride

Maria Konnikova explains the subtle wiles of the grifter— but might her book itself be an elaborate con?

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

The Confidence Game: The Psychology of the Con and Why We Fall for it Every Time Maria Konnikova

Canongate, pp.338, £12.99, ISBN: 9781782113881

This book, the blurb warns us, was written by ‘an established voice in popular psychology, with a regular column on the New Yorker online’. Maria Konnikova is also the ‘bestselling author of Mastermind’, a book which explains how we can train our minds to see the world as Sherlock Holmes saw it. The Confidence Game identifies a template pattern of stages peculiar to every successful confidence trick, and devotes a chapter to each: the Put Up, the Play, the Rope, the Tale, the Convincer, the Breakdown, the Send, the Touch and the Fix. (The first chapter offers a psychological profile of ‘the Grifter’ or confidence trickster and ‘the Mark’ — his prey.)

Konnikova’s voice might be established in popular psychology, but it’s not always easy to follow. Though most of her sentences are simple, when she sets sail for the choppy waters of two or more clauses linked together, this tends to happen:

The more you look, the more you realise that, even with certain markers, like life changes, and certain tendencies in tow, a reliably stable overarching victim profile is simply not there.

Or this:

Even when we’re anonymous and the group, not particularly desirable, we’d still like to be included more than not — and it hurts when we are excluded.

And such Americanisms as ‘shill’, ‘ass’, ‘ritzy’, ‘morphed’, ‘multifold’, ‘mentalist’, ‘lucked out’ and ‘ramped up’ might leave older British readers ‘beyond surprised’. I love the American language, the slang particularly. But it’s hard to love when it’s arranged as complacently as this.

But hey! Let me try to convey the psychology of the confidence trick in the light of Konnikova’s stages. And let’s pretend that this book itself is an audacious confidence trick, then imagine a potential purchaser, in the popular psychology section of Waterstones, reading the cover.

First: ‘the Put Up’. This is where the confidence trickster (the author) decides what she wants — in this case, a bestseller of Gladwellesque proportions. Books about psychopaths are all the rage at the moment. A section of the book-buying public is mad for stories about nutters. These desperadoes, Konnikova decides, are her ‘mark’. She writes a book at 100 miles an hour about confidence tricksters, and shovels in some amazing stories about the breathtaking nerve of con artists and the pitiful gullibility of their victims. On top of this she piles a great steaming heap of contemporary psychological theory, most of which explains that our thoughts are based on our feelings, rather than the other way around, and that our feelings are based on nothing more than our flibbertigibbet fantasies about ourselves. (All of which makes one mentally tip one’s hat to the confidence trickster — apparently the only objective human being out there.)

Back to our hesitant book-buyer, or ‘mark’, who happens to be a sucker for popular psychology. He recently half read Jon Ronson’s book about psychopaths and enjoyed himself. He sometimes wonders whether he himself is a psychopath. He very much hopes that he might be.

At the next stage, the confidence trickster creates an empathy with her victim. Here, ‘the Play’ is perpetrated on the inside front cover, where white type on an inflammatory orange background tells our man that the paperback in his hands is ‘for fans of Steven Pinker, Malcolm Gladwell, Jon Ronson and Michael Lewis’ — heavy hitters all. Our chap takes a closer look.

‘The Rope’ stage is where the confidence trickster, having gained the victim’s best attention, makes her persuasive pitch. In our hypothetical case, ‘the Rope’ is applied on the back cover:

As technology brings us into a new golden age of the grift, and centuries-old tricks flood inboxes across the world, this is The Confidence Game: what it takes, how it works, and why none of us is immune.

‘Cripes,’ thinks our hesitant book-buyer; ‘the grammar’s a bit off, but she’s right. Only last week my laptop was infected with a virus via that horrible porn site. I need to read this.’

And so he is inexorably drawn into the sting, which is ‘the Tale’. Now he is emotionally involved in the story. He not only believes what the confidence trickster wants him to believe (that he must read this book); he also believes it as sincerely as if he was the one who first thought of it, and that it is an absolute necessity. Our man turns greedily to the introduction — ‘the Convincer’ — where he encounters the shocking statistic that 63 per cent of scam victims over the age of 55 have never admitted to being conned. It all makes perfect sense. He needs to read this book. You can stick a fork in him; he’s done.

Our chap buys the book, takes it home and tries to make sense of the prose. This stage is called ‘the Breakdown’. Like a fly caught in a spider’s web, the more he struggles, the more he becomes enmeshed. ‘The Send’ is where things start to go wrong, and the Touch’ is when it dawns on him that he has been fleeced. Finally, ‘the Fix’ ensures that our bewildered punter is too embarrassed to tell a soul that he bought a popular psychology book the other day and barely understood a single bloody word.

The Confidence Game is not, however, a confidence trick. If one can summon the powers of concentration to negotiate the thorny prose, one is rewarded with fascinating stories of some fantastically elaborate cons. Cynics will revel in up-to-date psychological theories about the human mind which entirely discredit it as an independent, rational agency. But it’s difficult country.

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