Book Report: The Confidence Game

The Confidence Game - Why We Fall for It...Every Time“After reading this chapter, you will be intrigued by all of these forays with exceptionalism. But you will remain convinced that you, personally, have already properly taken them into consideration. Your present understanding of yourself and of the world around you is now fairly objective. Everyone else, however, is a potential sucker. (The Confidence Game)

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

Author: Maria Konnikova

Publisher: Viking

Publication Date: 2016

Origin/Intention: Personally, I don’t want to get conned =) So I want to understand the psychology behind why we fall victim to cons, in the hope of building up some resistance by being able to recognize the warning signs. As Konnikova asks at one point: “Can you ever understand your own mind well enough that you learn to extricate yourself before it’s too late?”

Summary: In Konnikova’s own words (p11): “This book is not a history of the con. Nor is it an exhaustive look at every con that there was. It is, rather, an exploration of the psychological principles that underlie each and every  game, from the most elementary to the most involved, step by step, from the moment the endeavor is conceived to the aftermath of its execution.”

To explore and illustrate those principles, Konnikova takes us through the steps of a con, explaining the psychological forces at work during each phase.

Ultimately, Konnikova shows that the confidence game is “the oldest story ever told. The story of belief.” In vivid detail, supported with examples that – from the outside looking in – seem almost stunningly obvious cons, Konnikova shows how we often do the con artist’s job: we convince ourselves we are special, we write our own tale (unknowing that the seeds were planted by the con artist), we offer up what the con artist wants without even needing to be asked. And when things go South, we explain it away as bad luck, as a product of fate or circumstance, rather than seeing it for what it is: the only possible result of a well-executed con.

And why? Because (p307):

“We want to believe. Believe that things make sense. That an action leads to a result. That things don’t just happen willy-nilly no matter what we do, but rather for a reason. That what we do makes a difference, however small. That we ourselves matter. That there is a grand story, a higher method to the seeming madness. And in the heart of that desire, we easily become blind. The eternal lure of the con is the same reason religions arise spontaneously in most any human society: People always want something to believe in.

My Take: Really enjoyed it. If you’ve spent any time on this blog, then you’ve probably seen that lots of the books I’ve read explore cognition, psychology, neuroscience, biases, and so on, and The Confidence Game is right up that alley, albeit from a slightly different perspective.

Konnikova’s done a delightful job showing how our own psychology can be exploited by con artists, and how common misconceptions – like only idiots become suckers, or that we could spot and remove ourselves from a con – are completely baseless.

The stories Konnikova includes illustrate her points clearly, and would be entertaining if they weren’t often so very tragic (some literally involve thousands of people dying).

Unfortunately, one point that’s driven home clearly and repeatedly is that we’re all potential ‘marks’, and there’s not much we can do about it. Kind’ve a bummer.

Read This Book If: …You have an interest in how your own psychology can be used against you.

Notes and Quotes

Introduction

The next day, he again walked past the blind man. ‘How is it going now?’ he asked. ‘Incredible,’ the man replied. ‘I’ve never received so much money in my life.’ On the sign, Prévert had written: ‘Spring is coming, but I won’t see it.'”

  • p4: “It’s the oldest story ever told. The story of belief – of the basic, irresistible, universal human need to believe in something that gives life meaning, something that reaffirms our view of ourselves, the world, and our place in it. ‘Religion’, Voltaire is said to have remarked, ‘began when the first scoundrel met the first fool.'”
  • As a marketer, I love this story, from p6: “There’s a likely apocryphal story about the French poet Jacques Prévert. One day he was walking past a blind man who held up a sign: ‘Blind man without a pension.’ He stopped to chat. How was it going? Were people helpful? ‘Not great,’ the man replied. ‘Some people give, but not a lot – and most just keep walking.’ ‘Could I borrow your sign?’ Prévert asked. The blind man nodded. The poet took the sign, flipped it over, and wrote a message. The next day, he again walked past the blind man. ‘How is it going now?’ he asked. ‘Incredible,’ the man replied. ‘I’ve never received so much money in my life.’ On the sign, Prévert had written: ‘Spring is coming, but I won’t see it.'”
  • p7, and throw in extraneous details to make it more believable! “Give us a compelling story, and we open up. Skepticism gives way to belief.”

When it comes to the con, everyone is a potential victim. Despite our deep certainty in our own immunity – or, rather, because of it – we all fall for it.

  • p13: “When it comes to the con, everyone is a potential victim. Despite our deep certainty in our own immunity – or, rather, because of it – we all fall for it. That’s the genius of the great confidence artists: they are, truly, artists – able to affect even the most discerning connoisseurs with their persuasive charm.”
  • p13 closes the introduction with a question that strikes at the core of why I picked up this book: “Can you ever understand your own mind well enough that you learn to extricate yourself before it’s too late?”

The Grifter and The Mark

We are predisposed to trust. Those who trust more do better. And those who trust more become the ideal, albeit unwitting, player of the confidence game: the perfect mark.

  • This passage from p29 reminded me of Garry Kasparov’s argument that political institutions need to be structurally strong to withstand the inevitable arrival/emergence of corrupt individuals; that is, beef up the institution itself and its resilience, because people will always eventually arrive to screw it up: “The experimental literature could have predicted that outcome. One study of marketers found that the ethical structure of the organization where they worked affected whether or not those high in certain con-like skills (specifically, Machiavellianism) would act on their propensities. Those who worked in more highly ethical organizations, with greater structure and less flexibility for making decisions according to one’s own whims, were significantly less likely to act in con-like ways than those who worked in more loosely structured organizations with less of a clear-cut ethical direction.”
  • p32: “Thus is a grifter born. There’s no such thing as an innocent cutting of the ethical corner. Once you’ve decided to get on the sled, and have eased yourself over the edge of the hill, it’s too late to break.”

There’s no such thing as an innocent cutting of the ethical corner. Once you’ve decided to get on the sled, and have eased yourself over the edge of the hill, it’s too late to break.

  • p43, in a partial explanation of why successful people are often easier marks: “It wasn’t the people who saw the world most clearly who did best; it was, rather, those most skilled at the art of seeing the world as they wanted it to be. And the world-as-we-want-it-to-be is precisely what the con artist sells. The irony is inescapable. The same thing that can underlie success can also make you all the more vulnerable to the grifter’s wares. We are predisposed to trust. Those who trust more do better. And those who trust more become the ideal, albeit unwitting, player of the confidence game: the perfect mark.”
  • p50, again illustrating that expertise does not create immunity, but vulnerability: “Con artists are often the best marks because they think themselves immune. And that false sense of immunity extends to victims more broadly: the better protected you are and the less likely you think you’ll be a victim, the more you’re apt to lose if a con artist can find a way to earn your trust. It ends up that the more you know about something, the more likely you are to fall for a con in that specific area.”

The Put-Up

Scammers have learned the hard way that notes that sound too legitimate hook too many fish, making the weeding-out process incredibly costly. Now only the true sucker falls for the pitch.

  •  p71…we should always ask ourselves if the information someone’s using to woo us is available: “We reveal a great deal about ourselves without necessarily realizing it. And everything we reveal becomes the perfect fodder for the well-executed put-up, to then be used to gain our trust.”
  • p74, which is reminiscent of any high-pressure sales environment: “Things that trip us up…include pressure – time, emotional, situational – and power. When we’re feeling pressure, we grow far less able to think logically and deliberately. When we’re feeling more powerful, we tend to feel as if we don’t need others quite as much, and our ability to read their minds and the cues they throw off falters.”
  • p77, on email spam…a bit of an Aha! moment for me (but it makes perfect sense; basically the scamming version of a lead processing funnel): “The bad grammar and seemingly implausible notes: those aren’t from stupidity. They’re actually well thought-out beforehand. Scammers have learned the hard way that notes that sound too legitimate hook too many fish, making the weeding-out process incredibly costly. Now only the true sucker falls for the pitch.”

The Play

Before a single persuasive appeal is made, before a mark knows that someone will want something, anything at all, from him, the emotional channels are opened.

  • p89, quoting con artist Victor Lustig: “Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con man his coups).”
  • p91: “As any good confidence man will tell you, someone who is emotional is someone who is vulnerable. And so, before a single element of the actual con is laid out, before a single persuasive appeal is made, before a mark knows that someone will want something, anything at all, from him, the emotional channels are opened.”
  • p95, presenting research and findings from Robert Zajonc, and inadvertently explaining much of why many (including otherwise good, sensible) people support the embodiment of fraud that is Donald Trump: “Not only do we form emotional impressions long before we create any rational understanding, but those impressions, in turn, are ‘irrevocable.’ ‘We can readily accept that we can be wrong,’ Zajonc told his audience that September afternoon. ‘But we are never wrong about what we like or dislike.’ Or, in a con artist’s interpretation, most any cries of foul play will fall on deaf ears if you’ve already decided you like the person doing the conning. They ‘feel’ more right. We trust our feelings more than anything anyone can tell us to the contrary. Our preferences need no inferences – and activating those preferences is what the play is all about.”

We may even find ourselves, later, thinking that some idea or concept is coming from within our own brilliant, fertile minds, when really it was planted there by the story we just heard or read.

  • p101, on the power of stories: “No matter the format, they are an ever-present form of entertainment. That’s precisely why they are such a powerful tool of deception, and so vital when it comes to the play. When we’re immersed in a story, we let down our guard. We focus in a way we wouldn’t if someone were just trying to catch us with a random phrase or picture or interaction. And in those moments of fully immersed attention, we may absorb things under the radar, so to speak, that would normally either pass us by or put us on high alert. We may even find ourselves, later, thinking that some idea or concept is coming from within our own brilliant, fertile minds, when really it was planted there by the story we just heard or read.”

The best confidence artist makes us feel not like we’re being taken for a ride but like we are genuinely wonderful human beings.

  • p102: “When a fact is plausible, we still need to test it. When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true…Facts are up for debate. Stories are trickier. Emotions on high, empathy engaged, we become primed for the play. The best confidence artist makes us feel not like we’re being taken for a ride but like we are genuinely wonderful human beings.”
  • p103: “Gripping narratives may often supersede any logic or more direct tactic: in some cases, it can be the only strategy for getting someone to agree with you or behave in a certain way, where any direct appeals would be met with resistance. The con artist, after all, often gets what he wants without ever having to ask. You yourself kindly offer it up.”

The Rope

  • p133, in what sounds like basic marketing tactics: “In 2003, Eric Knowles, a social psychologist at the University of Arkansas who has been researching persuasion since the 1970s, and Jay Linn, an organizational and social psychologist at Widener University, posited that all persuasive strategies could be categorized into two types. The first, alpha, was far more frequent: increasing the appeal of something. The second, omega, decreased resistance surrounding something.”
  • p133: “The rope, then, is the alpha and omega of the confidence game: after finding a victim and lowering his defenses through a bit of fancy emotional footwork, it’s time for the actual persuasive pitch.”
  • p142, describing a tactic familiar to anyone who’s seen an infomercial: “In 1986, Santa Clara University psychologist Jerry Burger proposed a persuasion – or roping, if you will – tactic that relied not on a comparison between two separate favors but on a comparison within the favor itself: the that’s-not-all technique. An effective approach, Burger found, is to start with a false baseline (that is, not at all what you’re planning to eventually propose) and then, in quick succession, make changes and additions to that starting point that make it seem increasingly attractive. You make an initial bid – how would you like to get in on this land deal in Florida? – and before your mark can respond, you turn it into something else. ‘That’s not all. You also get a guaranteed return on your initial investment.’ People who were approached with a that’s-not-all story, Burger found, were more likely to buy into it than those who heard the great offer right away. (The that’s-not-all-ing, incidentally, can continue for a while. You need not stop at one.)”

The Tale

And so when the tale is told – that is, we’re told how we, personally, will benefit – it’s no longer really being told to us. We are the ones who are now doing the telling.

  • p172, illustrating how we convince ourselves, doing the con artist’s job: “At this stage in the confidence game, the mark has been chosen, the play has begun, and the rope has been cast in a very specific way. We’re no longer deciding between abstract, cold courses of action that we don’t much care about. We’re emotionally involved. We’ve already had the case persuasively laid out for us, in a way that makes it seem like a version of what we ourselves would most want, in the way we most want it. And so when the tale is told – that is, we’re told how we, personally, will benefit – it’s no longer really being told to us. We are the ones who are now doing the telling. The good confidence man has been working his way up to this very moment, the moment when ‘Too good to be true’ turns into ‘Actually, this makes perfect sense’: I am exceptional, and I deserve it. It’s not too good to be true; it is exactly what I had coming to me. The chances may be less than 1 percent, but then again, I’m a less than 1 percent kind of guy.”

‘Too good to be true’ turns into ‘Actually, this makes perfect sense’: I am exceptional, and I deserve it. It’s not too good to be true; it is exactly what I had coming to me. The chances may be less than 1 percent, but then again, I’m a less than 1 percent kind of guy.

  • p185 (Richard Nisbett is the author of Mindware): “One of the reasons that the tale is so powerful is that, despite the motivated reasoning that we engage in, we never realize we’re doing it. We think we are being rational, even if we have no idea why we’re really deciding to tact that way. In ‘Telling More Than We Can Know,’ a seminal paper in the history of social and cognitive psychology, Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson showed that people’s decisions are often influenced by minute factors outside their awareness – but tell them as much, and they rebel. Instead, they will give you a list of well-reasoned justifications for why they acted as they did.”
  • p190: “Cons are often underreported because, to the end, the marks insist they haven’t been conned at all. Our memory is selective. When we feel that something was a personal failure, we dismiss it rather than learn from it. And so, many marks decide that they were merely victims of circumstance; they had never been taken for a fool.”
  • p190 supports the previous point with this story: “In June 2014, a so-called suckers list of people who had fallen for multiple scams surfaced in England. It had been passed on from shady group to shady group, sold to willing bidders, until law enforcement had gotten hold of its contents. It was 160,000 names long. When authorities began contacting some of the individuals on the list, they were met with surprising resistance. I’ve never been scammed, the victims insisted. You must have the wrong information.”
  • p194, get out of my head! “After reading this chapter, you will be intrigued by all of these forays with exceptionalism. But you will remain convinced that you, personally, have already properly taken them into consideration. Your present understanding of yourself and of the world around you is now fairly objective. Everyone else, however, is a potential sucker.”
  • p195: “‘The secret of rulership,’ wrote George Orwell, ‘is to combine a belief in one’s own infallibility with the power to learn from past mistakes.'”

The Convincer

  • Wow, no notes!

The Breakdown

  • p237, on reducing dissonance: “Changing your perception or your memory is easier than changing behavior.”
  • p245: “Confidence men are master storytellers, so by the time things appear to be getting dicey, they are perfectly placed to make us believe ever more strongly in their fiction rather than walk away, as we by any sane estimation should. They don’t just tell an original tale; they know how to make even the most dire-seeming evidence against them look more like evidence in favor of their essential trustworthiness and their chosen scheme’s essential brilliance.”
  • p253 summarizes a wonderful piece of comeuppance: “Not all marks are created equal. Twice suckered was two times too many for Norfleet. He vowed to get revenge. Over four years and thirty thousand miles, crisscrossing the country, traveling into Mexico and Cuba, scouting up into the wilds of Canada, he meticulously tracked down every single member of the vast gang that had conned him out of wealth and reputation. ‘Go get those miserable crooks,’ his wife had told him. ‘Bring them in alive.’ And that’s precisely what he did. By the time Norfleet died, in October 1967, he was no longer the Boomerang Sucker. He was the ‘Little Tiger of Hale County,’ the one who single-handedly took down one of the largest organized crime rings in the nation.”

The Send and The Touch

Once we’re in the home stretch of the confidence game, our investment renders us unable to be objective about the past evidence.

  • p266: “The Teton Dam seems far removed from the world of the confidence game, except for one key similarity: once we’ve invested heavily in something, we no longer see it clearly, no matter the costs.”
  • p268, referencing inattentional blindness (perceptual blindness): “To a disinterested observer, with nothing invested and no preconceived notions, the gorilla is there, plain as day. To someone invested in a specific task or engrossed in the drama of the confidence game, it is essentially invisible.”
  • p270…like locking in a loss: “To psychologists, the results were clear: cutting losses would mean admitting a mistake, and the psychological costs of doing that were simply too high.”
  • p273: “From toys to elections (the incumbent effect) to jobs and relationships that coast along on inertia, the status quo is extremely attractive. As Samuel Johnson once said, ‘To do nothing is within the power of all men.’ Once we’re in the home stretch of the confidence game, our investment renders us unable to be objective about the past evidence; we ignore the breakdown and open the way for the send because we refuse to admit we could have been wrong. We persist in acting as we did before, despite the growing evidence that we should change course. And so of course the con is successful: the touch goes off without a hitch, and we’re left completely fleeced.”
  • p275: “Once we’re in the game, it’s easiest to follow the path of least resistance. It justifies what we’ve already done and reduces the effort we need to make going forward. The deeper we get, the more difficult psychologically it becomes to extricate ourselves, or to see that we’re even in need of extrication. All of the factors are aligned against us.”

The deeper we get, the more difficult psychologically it becomes to extricate ourselves, or to see that we’re even in need of extrication.

  • p276, familiar to anyone who’s read Success and Luck: “We overestimate the extent to which we, personally, are the designers of our own success, as opposed to it just happening all on its own. When something goes wrong, we’re only too eager to blame ill fortune. Not so when it goes right.”

The Blow-Off and The Fix

  • This quote from Warren Buffett, on p296, reminded me of the reservoir metaphor that James Comey used in A Higher Loyalty: “It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”
  • p301: “We are not statistics to ourselves. And our view of the world is so egocentric, so intimately tied to the notion that we are just as important to everyone else as we are to ourselves, that we cannot fathom that everybody isn’t caring nearly as much about our story as we ourselves do. So we cling to our reputation. We think everyone pays attention to the slightest thing we do, the slightest thing we say, the slightest deviation in our demeanor. And so, to the end, our concern for our reputation allows the confidence game to continue, over and over and over.”

The (Real) Oldest Profession

  • p307: “We want to believe. Believe that things make sense. That an action leads to a result. That things don’t just happen willy-nilly no matter what we do, but rather for a reason. That what we do makes a difference, however small. That we ourselves matter. That there is a grand story, a higher method to the seeming madness. And in the heart of that desire, we easily become blind. The eternal lure of the con is the same reason religions arise spontaneously in most any human society: People always want something to believe in.”

The eternal lure of the con is the same reason religions arise spontaneously in most any human society: People always want something to believe in.

Lee Brooks is a freelance technology marketer based in the high-tech hub of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

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Posted in Books, Everything, Math and Science

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