With their smarts, charm, and daring, con artists have been proven to be an endless source of fascination in entertainment, including films like 2001’s Heartbreakers, which focuses on a mother-daughter con team played by Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt, American Hustle, Catch Me If You Can, and 2015’s Focus, in which Will Smith and Margot Robbie portray master manipulators. Unfortunately, the same characteristics that make them so much fun to watch onscreen are the same traits that make them dangerous in real life. There’s a lot that’s compelling about con artists, but only when you don’t have the misfortune of being their mark.
In the new book, The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It…Every Time, author Maria Konnikova examines how human nature drives con artists, along with how it makes them adept at preying upon others. She interweaves psychological studies with stories of bizarre cons people actually managed to pull off to delve into how these schemers operate. The book isn’t meant to scare; rather, it gives readers a chance to better understand the complicated factors that influence a con’s success and how we might attempt to guard ourselves against them.
Here are eight crazy facts about con artists and the people who become them, based on Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game:
1. Con Artists Aren’t Obvious Villains
In the movies, it’s often easy to spot a sketchy character, but what makes many con artists successful is their ability to present themselves in a way that appeals to their marks and the general public. One review of nearly 600 cases of company fraud found that about 40 percent had been considered “highly respected” by their co-workers.
2. It Takes The Right Circumstances To Create A Con Artist
While psychologists have identified certain traits that seem to predispose people to becoming con artists (i.e. being manipulative, devious, aggressive, etc.), it seems that it takes the right set of circumstances for them to actually get into the confidence game. Based on the results of a study on corporate fraud, Konnikova argues that a person also needs to have opportunity and a plausible rationale.
3. Con Artists Take Advantage Of Humans’ Inclination To Trust
Trust is important to humans because working together has allowed us to evolve more successfully. It’s so vital that higher levels can make us both happier and healthier, according to an Oxford University study. Unfortunately, this can make us vulnerable to those who wish to take advantage of us. “The irony is inescapable,” writes Konnikova. “Those of us who trust more do better. And those who trust more become the ideal, albeit unwitting, player of the confidence game: the perfect mark.”
4. Con Artists Are Masters At Reading People
In order to gain their marks’ trust and pull off their plans, con artists have to be experts at reading others. Ferdinand Waldo Demara, one of the most infamous con artists, was a master at it. Even after being exposed as a fraud, he still managed to win people over. Konnikova tells the story of how he scoped out the man who wished to write his biography, digging into the writer’s background and even scheduling appointments with him that he wouldn’t attend so that he could (creepily) hide and observe his behavior. Over time, Demara used his knowledge to gain his biographer’s trust, convince him he was reformed, and then — surprise! — con him out of a great deal of money.
5. A Con Artist’s Strength Can Be Their Greatest Weakness
While we think of innocent, everyday people as being the most commonly taken advantage of by con artists, the cheat sometimes becomes the cheated. As Konnikova explains it, the supreme confidence of con artists, which is usually a weapon, can ultimately be what leads to their downfall. “Con artists are often the best marks because they think themselves immune,” she explains. How's that for karma?
6. Con Artists Aren’t Pathological Liars
Con artists may be willing to disregard the truth, but according to Konnikova, it’s not due to any compulsive need. They differ from pathological liars, who lie as “a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder.” Instead, their lies are very calculated and strategic, told with the purpose of moving their plan forward.
7. Con Artists Benefit From Technological Advances
It’d be great if new technology made it easier to protect ourselves from cons, but unfortunately, the opposite is true. As Konnikova points out, consumer fraud in the United States is climbing, increasing by 60 percent since 2008. She quotes Frank Abagnale, the man who inspired Catch Me If You Can, who said, “What I did fifty years ago as a teenage boy is four thousand times easier to do today because of technology. Technology breeds crime. It always has, and always will.” Eesh.
8. Most Cons Get Away With It
It’s commonly believed that only foolish people get conned — an idea that Konnikova thoroughly debunks — so it’s understandable that people are often unwilling to admit that they’ve fallen victim to a con artist. “Most cons don’t ever come to trial: they simply aren’t brought to the authorities to begin with,” writes Konnikova. Talk about a bleak picture.
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