Book review: Maria Konnikova – The Confidence Game

As a self-declared persuasion junkie, I devour books about behavioural economics, consumer psychology and neuroscience. But some of the most inspiring things I read tend to come from a slightly different angle.

Neil Strauss’ The Game for instance, is a mish-mash of sensationalist memoir, self-help  paperback and truly fascinating insights. Where Strauss dived into the world of seduction seminars and pick-up artists, this new book by Maria Konnikova* explores the shadowy world of con artists.

The difference is that instead of dodgy NLP ideas, Konnikova uses solid knowledge of behavioural economics to explain the con artists’ success. And she does so through the kind of real-life stories you’ll want to tell to your friends immediately. While your heart breaks for the victims of the con, you can’t help feeling admiration for the con artists’ sheer mastery of their dark art.

So what can we as law abiding citizens learn from card sharks, master forgers and fortune tellers? Most strikingly of all, they never use just a single technique to influence their mark’s behaviour. Like spiders, they build intricate webs out of persuasion tactics like authority, loss aversion, commitment, similarity, endowed progress … And like spiders, they do so instinctively, without reading the works of mr. Cialdini.

Silly? Or smart direct marketing? This is a Dutch example, but psychics apply the same techniques around the world. Cheap cards promise that the ‘highly gifted’ medium can solve anything from impotence to tax debts. The angle? Only desperate,  uncritical people would grab the phone after reading this. And those are the only people the Mr. Nassims of this world care to meet.

Low-life grifters apply much more long-term vision than most marketeers

Another thing that’s hard not to admire is their thoroughness. It’s a sobering thought that these low-life grifters approach their goals with much more long-term vision and commitment than the average marketing director targeting consumers. Taking a prospect through several stages on a mapped-out consumer journey? Confidence men have been doing that since at least the 1900’s.

And of course, these stages have names right out of the golden age of Hollywood: The Put Up, the Play, the Rope, the Tale, the Convincer, the Breakdown, the Send, the Touch and the Fix. In fact, it would be easy to get caught up in the romance of it all and imagine these criminals as Robert Redford in The Sting or Leo DiCaprio in Catch me If You Can. But Konnikova makes sure we don’t. By telling both sides of these stories.

And the victim’s side is equally fascinating. Intellligent and succesful people tend to fall more, not less for con artists’ tricks. They have high self confidence, believe they are above average judges of character, and feel they are special and entitled to have more luck than others. Which makes them easy marks. 

Are our own minds the greatest con artists?

In the end, our own minds may be the greatest con artists in the world. Our talent for self deception is immense (as it was crucial in the evolution of mankind). And Konnikova actually saved some of the greatest examples of this for the accompanying podcast, The Grift

Well-recorded and edited, offering additional content as good as what’s in the book, featuring interviews with both con artists and victims, The Grift really raises the bar for podcasts in this field. I cannot recommend it highly enough. And hearing Konnikova’s conversations with con artists truly adds a whole new level.

Because while she has done thorough research, her question remains: can we trust a con man’s confessions? By not sweeping this under the rug but acknowledging it, Konnikova has made her book even more compelling. Because by writing it, has she also become part of the con? And does reading it make us smarter? Can we even apply some of these insights in business as ‘White Hat con artists’? Or are we in the end still just easy marks, suckers for a good story?

Verdict: Entertaining and essential reading and listening.

*  Yes, somebody called Konnikova is writing about con artists, name-letter effect fans!