Maria Konnikova on Con Artistry & What Sherlock Holmes Might Teach Us About Mindfulness

The 'New Yorker' in-house psychologist explores human nature and vulnerability in her second book, 'The Confidence Game.'

You’ve received the emails. The ones from the Nigerian prince that promise you $150,000 (US!) and all you need to do is transfer $10,000 to an offshore bank account to pay for lawyer fees.

You probably laugh those off. It’s easy to laugh those off; who would ever fall for such an outrageous scam?

Then there is the recent New York Times profile about Niall Rice, a 33-year-old search engine optimization consultant who handed $718,000 over to two psychics who vowed to reunite him with the woman he loved.”I just got sucked in,” he said in a phone interview with the newspaper of recordThat story was closer to home. Still, even though he fell for it, you would never fall for it—you would never get “sucked in”—you’re smarter than that.

Now take stock of that claim, the one where you believe you’re smarter than that—have you ever been conned? Whatever you believe your answer to be, you have. From white lies to more significant misdirections and life-altering deceptions, we stumble into cons around nearly every corner we turn. And the truth of the matter is, in many ways we celebrate them, at least the intellectual feat we perceive them to be.

From timeless classics such as The Sting to more recent blockbusters like Ocean’s Eleven (and its sequels), the con artist has been celebrated in fiction as a hero, a clever character duping hapless targets, all for a good, harmless laugh. In fact, more often than not, these fictionalized victims deserve it. Either they’re criminals themselves or are just plain stupid. And if you’re stupid, you had it coming to you the entire time.

But when we pull the lens back, away from the sets and studios, and re-establish focus on non-fictionalized victims like Rice, we see a different narrative. A relatable one of human nature and vulnerability, that delivers far-reaching consequences and real sadness. And that is precisely the narrative that New Yorker in-house psychologist Maria Konnikova explores in her second book, The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It…Every Time, in which she rings up the curtain on multimillion-dollar Ponzi schemes as well as small-time frauds through extensive research both dramatic and scientific.

Photo: Margaret Singer | Max Freeman
Photo: Margaret Singer | Max Freeman

I want to begin with how this all came about—I read that you were initially inspired when watching House of Games* by David Mamet…

…I wish I had a better story. You know, I wish I could give some very intellectual answer; I find it very amusing that this is actually the origin of the book, but it is, so I decided to just go with it.

*House of Games follows psychiatrist Margaret Ford as she is swept up into the “shadowy world of stings, scams, and con men” after one of her patients, a compulsive gambler named Mike, threatens suicide. Margaret goes to confront the Mike’s antagonist only to become intrigued by and eventually involved with the very sources of his anxieties.

I know the story of psychiatrist Margaret Ford and the con she fell for was what first attracted you, but how did this idea evolve from that attraction to execution in the way of research and determining the larger narrative of The Confidence Game?

Once I realized what was going on with this character—the fact that she was so smart, so psychologically savvy—I think that’s part of it: she wasn’t just intelligent, she studied psychology, she should’ve been someone who really knew the ins and outs of human nature and yet she fell for it. And if she is a victim, anyone can be a victim—I can be a victim, you can be a victim—nearly everyone is vulnerable. That made me think, Can that really be true?

I started digging into it and fell down a rabbit hole because it’s such fascinating research, such fascinating stories, and the more I read the more I realized that it is true: everyone can be a victim. And no one had yet raised that point, no one had ever written about it, so I thought it was very important. It was fascinating to me on a personal level which is obviously important, but it was also kind of a public service—I want people to know this can happen to them. And, in a way, I also want to break through stereotypes; our society is so bad at blaming the victim in these particular instances and I wanted to make it very clear that we’re wrong. It is not about stupidity. It is not about avarice. It’s not about dishonesty. It’s about something else.

Absolutely. I want to follow up on a couple statements you made there, but first would like to focus more on the victims. You recently wrote an Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times titled “Victims of confidence schemes have something in common: They think they’re special.” Would you explore that further, the psychoanalysis of the victims and what traits, such as emotional vulnerability, you identify in them?

I think that all of us think we’re special, with a few exceptions—and the exceptions are one very specific group of people: the clinically depressed. The clinically depressed, as far as we know, are the only people who don’t have a better-than-average positivity bias, people who don’t think that they are slightly better than they actually are, that their world is going to be slightly better and their future is going be slightly better. This is the way the all of us who are not clinically depressed actually think. It goes to show that when we lose that rosy glow we go into depression which is not a good place to be—it’s terrible. Therefore all of us go through life thinking we’re a little bit better than we actually are.

One of my favorite studies was done on car drivers who had just gotten in car crashes. Over two-thirds of them had caused the car crash, and they were in all in the hospital. People surveyed these victims in the hospital and asked, “What kind of a driver are you?” Almost all of them said they were above average, even though they just caused a car accident. To me there is no better illustration of the fact that we really do think we’re above average in everything. We can’t all be, obviously, otherwise the average would change—there always has to be an equal number above and below average—but people really don’t want to believe that. And con artists take advantage of this: they sell you the world that you seek. Not the world as it is, but the world as you see it in your mind. They sell you that too-good-to-be-true story but to you it isn’t too-good-to-be-true, because to you, you’re already better so you deserve better things. You see someone else, you see them objectively; you see yourself, and you’re completely subjective—you do not realize that this is too good to be true, you think it’s perfect for you because you deserve it, because you are better than average, you are exceptional.

In a way, this delusional self-reflection leads you to be instinctively trusting. Aside from being increasingly aware of ego, how do people protect themselves from being conned if a majority of us have this issue of believing ourselves to be above average and putting ourselves in these situations where we are indeed vulnerable?

The first thing to realize is that there is no way to be invulnerable—you can protect yourself to a certain extent, but you’re always going to be vulnerable—and to give yourself permission to be vulnerable, to realize that it’s part of what makes you human and that giving that up means giving up your humanity. If you don’t trust people, how in the world are you going to forge relationships? How are you going to develop connections with anyone? That would be such a sad and lonely existence.

The other thing that we can do is to learn to look ourselves in the third person. What I mean by that is: imagine if this exact scenario were happening to a colleague, a coworker at the office. What would you tell them? Would to say, “I’m so happy for you, this is amazing!” Or would you say, “Huh? This seems suspect to me…” If the answer is the latter, then maybe you should raise an eyebrow in your own case, even if you really, really don’t want to.

Do you think that by raising this point, writing this book, and having this conversation there is a risk of unnecessary paranoia surrounding interactions and relationships, people always looking for microexpressions or the Marc Antony gambit or alpha and omega tactics? I know you encourage us to give ourselves permission to be vulnerable, but that isn’t a natural reaction to receiving all the information you provide in your book.

It’s something that I definitely struggled with. When I finished researching this book, I went through a phase where I just said people suck, humanity sucks, everything sucks—I’m going to give up and lock myself in a room, I never want to talk anyone again. I had to fight through that by realizing that while there are bad actors, but the vast majority of the people out there are not out there to get you. I just happened to spend the last three or four years of my life with the bad actors and therefore they are overrepresented; but the reality is you can trust most people and most people are not going to take advantage of you in that sort of way.

To me, that’s what we have to realize: we can still be hopeful—we can still meet new people, make new friends, forge new connections—and most of the time we will be perfectly justified in doing that. Of course, it is a delicate balance. After studying all these persuasion tactics, I see them all the time. I see myself using them inadvertently and I’ll start laughing and think, Oh my god, this is bad. But they’re effective for a reason.

You say that these “bad actors” are overrepresented, but after you research, do you think there is a larger issue to be discussed, a larger issue that isn’t confined to a personal level but one that is reflective of our collective narrative? You write: “Con artists in some sense merely take our white lies to the next level.” Is that “next level” more accessible in our present-day society?

I think that there are certain social moments that are really wonderful for con artists and we’re living in one of them. We’re experiencing this great change with technology evolving very quickly so I think new venues and new ways for con artists to operate. The basic tendencies are universal, they’re the same as the ones that existed thousands of years ago and likely are the same ones that will exists thousands of years from now assuming we survive. Yes, we all have a bit of the con artist in us, and we all use these techniques at some level, but I do think that right now we’re living in a particularly good time for con artists to operate, and so in a sense it is indicative of a broader moment that allows some sorts of bad actors to flourish in way that they couldn’t flourish however many years ago. I spoke to Frank Abagnale [of Catch Me If You Can fame] now, and he didn’t say this to me but in another interview, but somebody asked him, “How easy would it be for you to pull off your imposter scheme today?” He responded, “It would be so much easier. I would pull this off so much easier now than I could ever have in the past because technology is a wonderful enabler of the con.

Tuning it towards the con man, you point us in the direction of the “dark triad” (psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism), but was there anything else you noticed in the most successful con men such as Ferdinand Waldo Demara, almost comical similarities that weren’t exactly deep-seeded psychological conditions?

The dark triad is definitely part of it—those give you both the means and the motives to be able to do this. You’re able to take advantage of people because you don’t empathize with them, you justify it by saying that you’re actually entitled to whatever you’re after, you deserve it more, and you’re able to persuade them, you have these wonderful soft skills of persuasion that you can get people to do what you want and they don’t even realize it.

To me, what is kind of, as you say, humorous about all of them is that almost none of them will admit to being a con artist. It’s quite fascinating. They’ll say, “Oh no, I’m not a con artist, I’m actually a really good-hearted person, I care a lot about people.” You’re listening to this thinking, Wow, and then you realize that you’re actually buying their lies because they’re very charismatic and they’re giving you really good justifications for why they’ve pulled every single con that they’ve pulled. I found myself often sympathizing with them and saying, “You’re right, you really are a good person who just caught a bad break.” But then you realize just how poisonous they are.

Then what types of people—and we’re generalizing here—make the best con artists?

We know the the dark triad is overrepresented in con artist, but it is also overrepresented in a few other professions: businessmen, lawyers, politicians, advertisers, marketers. Basically any field where you’re persuading people to act a certain way using your influence, trying to get them to do something. In that sense, it’s a very thin line between the legitimate and illegitimate. And the people who are good at those professions are probably the people who would be very good at con artists.

And by the way—me, I’m a writer. Writers use a lot of the same skills, that’s how we’re able to tell our stories. We have to engage people emotionally, we have to be really good storytellers, we have to make them care, we have to sell them on a certain vision of reality.

That was going to be my follow up question. Do you feel that you were playing the part of con artist in your research of this book? Were you ever trapped by a preconceived narrative, how you felt the stories should be portrayed?

Absolutely. You have to fight against it all the time. You do it when you’re interviewing victims even. You try to get them to tell you things that they wouldn’t really want to tell you. You’re trying to get people to open up to you. It’s not just a skill in writing, but as a reporter and gathering the information. You use a lot of the same tactics. I definitely found myself doing that. It’s part of what I do, unfortunately. I don’t think there is a good way around it. The skillset is very, very similar.

For me, there is a linearity between your first book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, and Confidence Game. What two or three traits might we take away from the detective and apply in the context of con artistry.

I think one trait we could definitely take from Sherlock Holmes is the ability to divorce yourself from emotion, because one of the ways that the con artist takes advantage of us is by making us emotionally engaged. And if we’re able to disengage, we’re able to see much more.

Something else would be mindfulness. If we practice mindfulness the way Sherlock Holmes did in observing people and trying to learn about them, we would quickly disabuse ourselves form the notions that we are able to tell when someone is lying, that we can tell when someone is deceiving us, and that will make us much better prepared for dealing with con artists because we can’t see them coming but if you’re prepared to really observe people, you’re going to become a better judge of character, and that might help you to figure out in which situations you should be a little more wary.

Last question, completely removing ourselves from the context of The Confidence Game: what are the most interesting conversations happening in human psychology?

This doesn’t have to do with human psychology, but one is the replication crisis, [a methodological crisis in which scientific experiments are difficult or impossible to replicate, thereby calling validity into questions,] where we start seeing a lot of the papers that people have relied on—that those effects might not actually replicate. That is an incredibly important moment in science, that psychologists have to figure out why this is going on and let’s make a science that people can actually respect and where you can really depend on the results.

The other thing I am excited about is to watch how neuroscience is going to develop in the next fifty years. We’re still in the infancy. Will it ever be able to help us solve really fundamental questions, questions of consciousness and free will—the big philosophical dilemmas. So far we have no good answer to that, and this is going to be (potentially) one more tool to help us really delve into what makes us human, what makes us who we are.