Dissecting the Art of the Con in Maria Konnikova’s ‘Confidence Game’

Lee Polevoi

 

The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time

By Maria Konnikova

Viking

352 pages

 

At the outset of her new book, The Confidence Game, veteran journalist Maria Konnikova disarms the reader with this candid admission:

 

“Whenever people ask me if I’ve ever been conned, I tell them truth: I have no idea. I’ve never given money to a Ponzi scheme or gotten tripped up on an unwinnable game of three-card monte—that much I know … But here’s the thing about cons: the best of them are never discovered. We don’t ever realize we’ve fallen; we simply write our loss off as a matter of bad luck.”

 

Readers may pause and reflect on whether they have fallen victim to a cunning fraud at some time in their lives. Others, acutely aware of past victimhood and the significant loss of hard-earned funds at the hands of a confidence man (or woman), won’t find any of this hard to believe.

 

Konnikova’s goal in The Confidence Game isn’t to chronicle spectacular examples of the con, but instead, to offer “an exploration of the psychological principles that underlie each and every game … from the moment the endeavor is conceived to the aftermath of its execution.”

 

Towards this end, she structures her chapters along the essential steps involved in every con, long and short. This includes choosing the victim (the “put-up”); establishing rapport with said victim (the “play”); moving to logic and persuasion (the “rope”), how the scheme will benefit the unknowing victim (the “convincer”), and so on.

 

It’s an eye-opening dissection of the process that should empower us to recognize the onset of a con if and when we encounter such ploys online or in the course of our daily lives.

 

 

Of course, it’s impossible for her not to touch upon some of the more notorious practitioners of the con throughout history – from the inveterate imposter Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr., posing as a surgeon (and actually performing medical procedures) to Victor Lustig, a self-proclaimed “count” who managed to twice deceive investors into buying shares in the Eiffel Tower.

 

For her excavation into the lurid undergrowth of confidence games, Konnikova relies heavily on academic sources and research studies to bolster her conclusions. But the sheer plethora of references noted (i.e., “In a 2011 study,” “In a series of studies …”, “In one study …”, “A separate study found …”, “In fact, one study showed …”) threatens to exhaust the reader and rob the narrative of the flesh-and-blood drama and chicanery that drives the best confidence games.

 

At the same time, The Confidence Game serves to inspire us, insofar as we remember that, over time, human beings have nurtured an instinctive bias towards trusting one another: “We can trust one another, rely on one another, walk around with a wallet full of cash not worrying that every single stranger will rob us, and go to be bed with the certainty we won’t be killed in our sleep.”

 

On the other hand, there’s reason to feel demoralized about the baser strains of human nature: “A very small number of people may have evolved to take advantage of the general good of others, fueled by the nonchalance that makes many a con artist what he is. These people don’t care; they remain perfectly indifferent to the pain they cause, as long as they end up on top.”

 

While it’s true a sucker is born every minute, The Confidence Game is an enlightening guide for those of us lucky enough to be on the outside looking in on these crafty and illicit ventures.

 

Author Bio:

 

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is the author of a novel, The Moon in Deep Winter.

 

For Highbrow Magazine©

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