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.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
Episode #176

SP: And so that’s the victim—the mark. Of course, now we have to talk about what makes a good con artist. So I’ll ask you: what is the Dark Triad and how does it manifest in a con artist?

MK: So the Dark Triad is three traits that don’t necessarily have to go together but often do go together and that’s psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism. 

And the first one, psychopathy, is one that most people are familiar with. It’s basically that a psychopath does not experience emotion in the way a non-psychopathic brain does. The brain is actually physically different, so this is one of the few traits that actually has a neuroanatomical signature, so you can look at brain scans and figure out which ones are psychopaths and which ones aren’t. Now, this doesn’t mean you’re a serial killer; it doesn’t mean you’re a horrible human being. It just means that you’re not experiencing emotions the same way that someone who’s not a psychopath is, so you don’t have that hot visceral response. Instead it’s all cognitive—logical—because your brain is simply wired up differently. 

And so the reason why a lot of con artists have those psychopathic tendencies is because con artists really have to be ruthless. You can’t feel any sympathy for your victims. Once you do, you’re no longer a very good con artist. 

You can’t feel any sympathy for your victims. Once you do, you’re no longer a very good con artist.

One of my favorite stories that I came across was a guy…there’s a very common con called the IRS Scam, where someone calls you on the phone and says you owe two thousand dollars or four thousand dollars or whatever to the IRS in back taxes and if you don’t pay you’re going to go to jail. And this works really well because people are really anxious. They’re scared of the IRS. They think, “Oh, maybe I did make a mistake because taxes are scary and complicated.” Anyway, this works and a lot of people fall for it. 

So this guy calls a woman and says, “I have bad news for you. You owe two thousand dollars,” and she starts crying and says, “Oh my God, I’m nine months pregnant, we own a store, how am I going to pay my bills?” And she loses it. She has a fit on the phone. And he’s listening and finally he says, “Lady, it’s a scam!” And he hangs up the phone. So that’s not a good con artist. Psychopathy would take care of that problem. 

For the next two features of the Dark Triad, listen using the article's embedded audio player.

Keep listening to hear:

  • How a narcissist’s sense of entitlement makes him think he deserves more than you, which enables him to take it.
  • How Machiavellianism includes the ability to persuade someone to do something without them even realizing it. We think it’s our brilliant idea, but really it’s what the con artist wants.
  • Why the single most crucial element of a con is surprisingly low tech: a well-told story.
  • How con artists hijack millennia of evolution and our brain’s preference for making sense of the world.
  • When we stop seeing logic and ignore red flags.
  • How we can con-proof our selves without giving up our humanity.
  • The “Next Door Neighbor Bob Test” and how it can help keep you safe from cons.

Pick up a copy of Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It…Every Time and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes anywhere books are sold.

how to be yourselfPre-order Ellen's forthcoming book HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. Get even more savvy tips to be happier and healthier by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or get each episode delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for the newsletter. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

For free, helpful downloads to fight social anxiety and be your authentic self, visit EllenHendriksen.com.


About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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