In ‘The Confidence Game,’ are we conning ourselves?

Ferdinand W. Demara Jr. outside a courtroom in Augusta, Maine in 1957.
Ferdinand W. Demara Jr. outside a courtroom in Augusta, Maine in 1957.ASSOCIATED PRESS/Associated Press

Get in shape. Drink less. Just be better. Such typical New Year's resolutions aren't usually mentioned in connection with con artists. It is, however, both a strength and weakness of Maria Konnikova's "The Confidence Game'' that one can't help but see both the grifter and the mark in such perennial end-of-the-year optimism. Like most cons, as Konnikova presents them, our resolutions blend desire and optimism to create a convincing delusion — and underscore our own collusion.

"The Confidence Game" examines "rationality and its departures," offering a guide to the psychological dynamics exploited by con men. Konnikova, author of "Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes" and contributor to numerous publications including the Globe, focuses on the con's victims more than its perpetrators. The result is a brisk, engaging overview of the ways these skilled tricksters masterfully manipulate us to their own ends. It's con artistry as applied psychology.


These schemes succeed because they follow a seductive narrative arc. "Given the right cues," Konnikova writes, "we're willing to go along with just about anything and put our confidence in just about anyone . . . [f]or our minds are built for stories." The grifter's tale usually hits a set of moves, including the "Play," the moment the victim is hooked; the "Convincer," when the subject feels that everything is going according to plan; and the "Touch," the moment of the fleecing. Konnikova, who holds a PhD in psychology from Columbia, structures her book around these and other moves — each chapter isolates a section of the con — taking readers through the mechanics at work during each part of a hustle.

Every successful deception is a "story of [the mark's] exceptionalism." Why wouldn't I be given a stock tip? Why wouldn't a prince ask me to help him out with his stranded fortune? (Believe it or not, those e-mails are written poorly, she tells us, to weed out all but the most willing victims.) After all, I'm pretty great. "Ultimately," Konnikova writes, "what a confidence artist sells is hope." Konnikova supports her argument by drawing on a significant trove of social scientific research, usually focusing on trust, confirmation bias, and our impulse to claim responsibility for our successes while distancing ourselves from failure.


Alongside the discussion of psychology, "The Confidence Game" features brief vignettes that highlight some exceptional practitioners, including: Ferdinand Demara, who conned his way into being both a surgeon lieutenant of the Royal Canadian Navy and a structural engineer; Gregor MacGregor, a master salesman who tricked hundreds into investing in — and moving to! — the fictional Central American nation of Poyais; and Alan Knight, who "faked being a quadriplegic in a coma for almost three years."

Brazen ruses, to be sure, but none of these master grifters hold the spotlight for long. Konnikova always returns to the "exploration of the psychological principles that underlie each and every game." The benefit of this approach is that it helps redeem those of us who have been taken. As she amply demonstrates, the deck is stacked against us. As a species we have evolved to accommodate trust and belief, as it allows us to get along with one another and to work communally — in addition research shows that those who are optimistic about the basic decency of others are happier, healthier, and more successful.


Yet Konnikova's approach both strips much of the majesty from audacious cons and defines confidence schemes too broadly. Bernie Madoff? Yes, a con. Three-card monte? Yes. Urban psychics. Likewise. The Nigerian prince e-mail? Your promise to get in shape this year? For Konnikova, these are all variations on the same mental legerdemain. This confuses victims' shared psychological traits with the fabulously dissimilar artistry of each deception. The devil is in the details Konnikova chooses not to highlight. True students of con artistry should read Konnikova's entertaining book alongside David Maurer's seminal "The Big Con" or Amy Reading's recent "The Mark Inside."

Even though "The Confidence Game" doesn't revel in the sorcery of the con as much as those books, it does remind us of at least two essential things. First, we're all potential marks. Second, crime interests us not because it deviates from human nature, but because it is a distillation of human nature.

THE CONFIDENCE GAME: Why We Fall for It — Every Time

By Maria Konnikova

Viking, 340 pp., $28

Michael Washburn is the director of programs at the New York Council for the Humanities. He can be reached almost at michael.a.washburn @gmail.com.