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Why We Fall for Con Artists (and How to Be Con-Proof)

Maria Konnikova joins Savvy Psychologist to discuss the psychology of the con, how to make yourself less vulnerable, and why there's a perfect con out there for each of us.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
November 3, 2017
Episode #176

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a wolf in sheep's clothing from the book cover of Maria Konnikova's Confidence Game

"Who me? I'd never fall for a con." We all believe ourselves to be con-proof. But con artists make suckers out of all of us.

Today, we are lucky to have with us Maria Konnikova, psychologist and author of not one, but two New York Times bestsellers. The first was the tantalizingly titled Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. And her most recent, The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It…Every Time was awarded the 2016 Robert P. Balles Prize for Critical Thinking. 

SP: Maria, thank you so much for being on the show.

MK: Thanks for having me.

SP: Sure! So I am really excited to talk to you about the psychology of the con. I’ll admit that I didn’t know that the term “con”—like con artist, con man, getting conned—is short for “confidence,” as in, “Do you have confidence in me?” "Do you trust me?" Because that’s what the con is based on: trust.  

Now, we all think we’re con-proof, that we could never be so gullible as to fall for a con. But you say that is exactly what makes us so vulnerable. So what about us—what about each of us makes us a good mark?

MK: Well, to back up a little bit, a lot of people have taken issue over time with the fact that I say that everyone is vulnerable. They say, “Well, I’m not vulnerable, or I’d never fall for that.” And I’m not saying that every single person is vulnerable to every single con. I’m saying that there’s a con out there for everyone.

SP: There’s a lid for every pot.

MK: Exactly. And I think the reason that’s true is because we all have things we want to believe in. We all have our own versions of reality that we live in, and just to be clear, my version of reality is not the same as your version of reality.  So we all have slightly different viewpoints and interpret events in different ways, and neither one is objective reality. 

There’s the famous experiment where people observe a car accident and you get twelve different descriptions based on the twelve different people and it sounds like twelve different events. And I think that’s indicative of who we are.  So what con artists are really good at doing is figuring out what version of the world do you believe in? And how do I craft a story that will fit in with that reality? And that’s tapping into your individual psychology, your individual hopes, dreams, fears, insecurities, and that makes you vulnerable. 

And the reason I say that thinking yourself invulnerable actually makes you more vulnerable is that overconfidence can be a really big problem, because if you think that you’re not likely to be able to fall for a con, then you might get into all sorts of trouble. And con artists love that. There’s a quote that I use in my book from David Maurer who was a linguist and in 1940 wrote this brilliant book, The Big Con, and he writes that the New Yorker is the best sucker in the world because he fancies himself so wise. He’s just ready to be taken. And I love that. I think that really captures it. The wiser you think you are the better a mark you are because you’re just not going to see it coming. Who me? I’d never fall for a con.

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