Decoding the grifter

What makes a convincing con? Sanjay Tripathy tells us in this review of Maria Konnikova's 'The Confidence Game'

Published 7 years ago on Feb 25, 2017 4 minutes Read

“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

Have you watched the movie The Founder? Based on the rise of the McDonald's empire, the movie talks about how not only the business idea but also the name is stolen from the McDonald brothers by the current founder of the company. And while watching the movie, even though I was repulsed by his dishonesty, I was also in awe of the way he went about it and got away with it. This troubled my conscience. So, when I read the synopsis of the The Confidence Game, it seemed like the answer to many of my questions.

We may think we are all good judges of character and believe in giving the benefit of doubt to every person we meet. But more often than not, we end up meeting individuals who appeal to exactly that part of us, to swindle us of our money and maybe sometimes our pride.

Conmen are everywhere, but there are some that have left a clear mark on our psyche. These elegant artists of persuasion and gainers of trust, while definitely not revered, are looked at with awe for their ingenious schemes, flair and charisma. Generations of people have not only fallen for their con, but some still believe them despite knowing their true nature. Why does this happen and how are they so successful? In this intriguing book, the author Maria Konnikova, tackles this question with meticulous research and attention to detail, using her dual experience as a journalist and a psychologist.

Through autobiographies, news reports and original interviews, Konnikova explains the psychology behind a con and its successful and enduring presence that has spanned hundreds of years. Each chapter has been dedicated to one psychological factor at play during a con. For example, in one of the chapters, she talks about how some con artists give all the indicators of being psychopaths — from their brain morphology to their traits. These ‘Grifters’, as she calls them, exhibit a streak of Machiavellianism and narcissism that are textbook traits of a psychopathic personality. But of course, this is something that is true for people who aren’t con artists or psychopaths as well.

Filled with captivating stories of real-life con interwoven with psychological experiments, Konnikova’s The Confidence Game demonstrates the genius of the con that relies solely on the magic of persuasion. Like William Miller who was easily able to sell a story that was too good to be true, making millions in the process. This is because stories appeal not to a person’s logic and intellect but to their emotions. The author states that most of the cons are never reported to authorities because the victim refuses to accept that their core beliefs have been tampered with. The book includes not only the convincing power of the con and the manipulations of truth that is right in front of us, but also the very act of the victim’s belief. The relationship between the two (con artist and the victim), forms a pivotal part of the narrative.

The Confidence Game does make you question the intentions of every single person you may have met in your life and every oddball situation you are able to recollect. As you read chapter after chapter, con after con, you become more and more convinced that you have been conned at least once in your life. And it doesn’t end there, as it also makes you take stock of yourself and your psychology.

But though the author makes you question the level of trust you may place in a human being, she also insists that if the con men teach us anything, it is to believe in something impossible and hope for a better life. She says that being "endlessly skeptical and miserly" will only lead to despair. Through a number of studies, Konnikova implies that in the grand scheme of things trusting people are physically and mentally more healthy. It is in this positivity, in the light of all the negative aspects of humanity, that we find the selling point of this book — its ability to grip its readers and hold their attention until the end, providing hope to the most cynical of us.