In her new book The Confidence Game (Viking, © 2016), psychologist Maria Konnikova describes the tactics successful con artists use to get people to fall for their schemes. In the following edited excerpt, Konnikova explains how even the most skeptical people can easily be persuaded into believing outlandish lies.

The confidence game starts with basic human psychology.

From the artist's perspective, it's a question of identifying the victim (the put-up): who is he, what does he want, and how can I play on that desire to achieve what I want? It requires the creation of empathy and rapport (the play): an emotional foundation must be laid before any scheme is proposed, any game set in motion. Only then does it move to logic and persuasion (the rope): the scheme (the tale), the evidence and the way it will work to your benefit (the convincer), the show of actual profits. And like a fly caught in a spider's web, the more we struggle, the less able to extricate ourselves we become (the breakdown).

By the time things begin to look dicey, we tend to be so invested, emotionally and often physically, that we do most of the persuasion ourselves. We may even choose to up our involvement ourselves, even as things turn south (the send), so that by the time we're completely fleeced (the touch), we don't quite know what hit us. The con artist may not even need to convince us to stay quiet (the blow-off and fix); we are more likely than not to do so ourselves. We are, after all, 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 every step we give them more psychological material to work with.

Everyone has heard the saying "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is." Or its close relative "There's no such thing as a free lunch." But when it comes to our own selves, we tend to latch on to that "probably." If it seems too good to be true, it is--unless it's happening to me. We deserve our good fortune. I deserve the big art break; I've worked in galleries all my life and I had this coming. I deserve true love; I've been in bad relationships long enough. I deserve good returns on my money, at long last; I've gotten quite the experience over the years. The mentalities of "too good to be true" and "I deserve" are, unfortunately, at odds, but we remain blind to the tension when it comes to our own actions and decisions. When we see other people talking about their unbelievable deal or crazy good fortune, we realize at once that they've been taken for a sucker. But when it happens to us, well, I am just lucky and deserving of a good turn.

We get, too, a unique satisfaction from thinking ourselves invulnerable. Who doesn't enjoy the illicit glimpse into the life of the underworld--and the satisfaction of knowing that clever old you would be smarter than all that, that you can laugh at the poor sap who fell for something so obvious and still be safe in the knowledge that you are keener, savvier, more cynical and skeptical? 

And yet, 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. A theoretical-particle physicist or the CEO of a major Hollywood studio is no more exempt than an eighty- year-old Florida retiree who guilelessly signs away his retirement savings for a not-to-miss investment that never materializes. A savvy Wall Street investor is just as likely to fall for a con as a market neophyte, a prosecutor who questions motives for a living as likely to succumb as your gullible next-door neighbor who thinks The Onion prints real news.

They may fall for it. You? Never.

Published on: Jan 25, 2016