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The Confidence Game: A book review by Bob Morris

Confidence GameThe Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It…Every Time
Maria Konnikova
VIKING/An Imprint of Random House (2016)

A brilliant analysis of “the aristocrats of crime” and how they manipulate their gullible victims

Long before we are adults and others have deliberately gained and then betrayed our confidence, most of us have already mastered several of the skills of self-delusion. “After all,” Maria Konnikova suggests, “we are the best deceivers of our own minds. At each step of the game, con artists draw from a seemingly endless toolbox of ways to manipulate our belief. And as we become more committed, with each step we give them more psychological material to work with.” 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.”

She wrote this book so that those who read it will be much better prepared to understand their own minds well enough that they learn to extricate themselves from an involvement with a con artist before it is too late.

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Konnikova’s coverage:

o Dark triad of traits (23-29)
o Robert Crichton (Pages 25-26)
o Lying (35-41, 112-113, and 117-118)
o Trust (41-43, 63-67, and 154-155)
o Victims (46-52)
o Psychics 51-52, 60-61, 77-78, and 82-84)
o Put-up (53-88)
o Judgments (56-61 and 120-121)
o “The Great Imposter”: Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. (78-82)
o Play (89-127)
o Emotions (91-95, 98-100, and 120-124)
o Decision making (120-121, 16-165, and 185-186)
o Robert Cialdini (133-134 and 139-140)
o Knoedler & Company (144-145 and 255-263)
o Art Fraud: Glafira Rosales (144-145, 255-263, 266-278, and 309-3410)
o Mental Overload (164-166)
o Biases (175-182, 191-195, 193-194, 206-207, 240-241, and 272-275)
o Exceptionalism (175-183 and 191-195)
o Bernie Madoff (180-183 and 180-181)
o Cognitive Dissonance (235-239)
o Touch (255-279
o Cults: David Sullivan (307-317 and 319-321)

Like all other games, this one has rules (dos and don’ts), players, metrics, strategic objectives, perils, and rewards. Keep all these factors clearly in mind. I also urge those who read this book to pay special attention to the nomenclature that Konnikova employs. The key terms include grifter, mark, the put-up, the play, the rope, the tale, the convincer, the breakdown, the send, the touch, the blow-off, and the fix. Be sure to underline or (better yet) highlight the definitions she includes when introducing them. Some of the most valuable material explains how to spot tell-tale signs, best viewed as early warning indicators. Of course, the consummate masters of this game (one that can be traced back to a fatal attraction in the Garden of Eden) are exceptionally clever deceivers. The film The Sting (1973) illustrates one of Konnikova’s key points, that the best con occurs when the victim is wholly unaware of being duped, as is the case with mobster Doyle Lonnegan (played by Robert Shaw) who has been stung by Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) and his team.

Various “aristocrats of crime” have mastered skills of persuasion and manipulation. They read other people as easily as their victims read a menu or a newspaper. They know where people are most vulnerable and focus their efforts there, exploiting self-delusions and special needs. They offer whatever their victims seem to need most.

This is what Maria Konnikova has in mind when observing, “Ultimately what a confidence artist sells is hope. Hope that you’ll be happier, healthier, richer, loved, accepted, better looking, younger, smarter, a deeper, more fulfilled human being – hope that the you that will emerge on the other side will be somehow superior to the you that came in.”

I share her hope that each person who absorbs and digests the abundance of information, insights, and counsel she provides in The Confidence Game will be able to recognize and avoid “the aristocrats of crime” but will also be able to recognize others who are worthy of a trust they are eager to earn. The ancient African aphorism remains true today: “Trust but verify.” Also, whatever the given situation may be, if it seems too good to be true, it almost always isn’t.

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