Lance Charnes's Reviews > The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time

The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova
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bookshelves: nonfiction-crime-espionage, reviewed
Recommended for: readers who want to know why The Sting could be a documentary

Whenever we read about some con job that nets a sucker or ten, the first thing across our minds is: how could they possibly have fallen for that? It's such an obvious scam! What were they thinking?

According to psychologist/author Maria Konnikova, they were thinking the same way we would. In their shoes, we'd have been saps, too.

In the 1950s, linguist David Maurer called confidence men the "aristocrats of crime." Unlike most other crimes, the con requires us to become willing participants in our own fleecing. Ridiculous? Maybe in the abstract. But as the author points out, time and time again the victims of con games go out of their way to help the grifter take them to the cleaners, then fail to notify the police or even refuse to admit they've been taken.

The author divides her narrative into ten chapters, the middle eight of which focus on each step of the long con (the kind that takes days or weeks to unfold, like in The Sting). In each chapter, she pins the text to a particular scam that best illustrates the concepts in that chapter; for instance, in "The Tale" (about the importance of narrative in promoting a con), she follows the story of a college professor duped into smuggling drugs by a woman he thought had fallen for him. She uses academic studies, psychological analysis, the views of lawmen and con men alike, and the examples of other cons to show why a particular trick works.

In short: we as a species became what we are by evolving certain societal traits -- trust, empathy, optimism, faith, a need to feel special (ego), a yen for material or spiritual enrichment (greed), an inability to understand statistics (see "optimism") and a reluctance to believe in the worst-case scenario (see "faith"). Confidence wo/men are both uniquely able to find these traits in other people and powerfully inclined to exploit them without experiencing a lot of angst about it. They prey on belief, on faith, and on greed; that old saw "you can't cheat an honest man" has more than a little truth to it. However, it can also be said that the entrepreneur is the ideal mark, because s/he is more than most a creature of optimism, ego, faith and greed.

The object of a con is nearly always money or power. Satan was the first grifter, and Eve was the first mark; he told her a story that played on her ego, optimism, greed and faith, she went all-in, and she ended up losing her home. Advertising is a form of con job, with the tools of the ad man being the same as those of the grifter, though the former's remuneration comes a bit more indirectly. Pyramid schemes are cons, and so were Enron, the mortgage industry in 2007, religious cults, and nationalist politics at just about any time. They all play on belief and all those other traits that make us human and social creatures, then turn it against us.

Despite being an academic, Konnikova writes clearly and engagingly, with a pleasant shortage of fifty-cent words and specialist cant. The case studies she uses are varied enough to not induce deja vu from one chapter to the next. While Charles Ponzi (of the eponymous scheme) and Frank Abagnale (he of Catch Me If You Can) get name-checked, it's likely you won't have heard of most of the scams she uses as case studies, which are drawn from over a hundred years of bad behavior. Where'd the fifth star go? The author often doesn't know when to quit while she's ahead, so she's prone to repeating her arguments until you have them embedded in your brain.

The Confidence Game isn't meant to be a casual read; you need to really want to understand con men and what they do at the office every day. If you do want that, though, it's an excellent primer on how and why cons work. It's also a big, fat injection of empathy for the suckers, who at bottom are guilty of little more than being human. Reading this book may not stop you from getting taken, but at least you'll understand why you let it happen.
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Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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PattyMacDotComma Terrific review, Lance! I tend to be very sceptical about all sorts of things, but given the right circumstances, I'm sure I could be easily conned anyway. What a fascinating topic. Maybe the author was repetitive to con you into paying attention. : )


Lance Charnes PattyMacDotComma wrote: "Maybe the author was repetitive to con you into paying attention. : )"

You can never tell with these things. Thanks!


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