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

By Maria Konnikova

Viking. 340 pp. $28.

I was in New York’s Penn Station a few years ago, about to take an evening train to Washington, when a young woman approached me, flustered and rambling. “Please don’t walk away,” she pleaded. Her purse and phone had been stolen, she said. She had to catch a train out of town right away — there was some family emergency — and she needed money for her ticket. A few other people had already blown her off, she said. “You seem like a good guy,” she added softly, as though embarrassed by the presumption.

I asked a few questions, suggested some alternatives. Every time, she offered an entirely plausible answer that led back to her need for cash. She would pay me back, of course, if I gave her an address.

I hesitated. I wanted to help. I wanted to believe her.

In the span of just a couple of minutes, I understand now, she had walked me through the early stages of the con: the put-up, when she first identified me as her mark; the play, when she manipulated my emotions; the rope, when she lured me in with ready and logical answers to my queries.

Maria Konnikova, a contributing writer for the New Yorker, breaks down the psychology of schemes, scams, tricks and frauds across the centuries in “The Confidence Game,” an unnerving manual for conning and getting conned. “The confidence game — the con — is an exercise in soft skills,” she explains. “Trust, sympathy, persuasion. The true con doesn’t force us to do anything; he makes us complicit in our own undoing. He doesn’t steal. We give.”

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The book’s chapters each center on a particular step in a con. After the put-up,the play and the rope, there comes the tale, which appeals to the victim’s self-esteem; the convincer, when the mark believes all is proceeding normally; the breakdown, when things start to go wrong and the con artist sees how much of a beating the victim will take; the send, when the mark recommits; the touch, when the con is complete and the victim is fleeced; and the blow-off, when the con artist skillfully disappears. For each step, Konnikova begins with a story of a real-life con, detours into psychological and behavioral studies that show how people act in these settings, and then concludes with the scam’s outcome. That formula gets a bit tiresome over 300-plus pages, but fortunately, the cons are usually entertaining and the studies revealing.

There are the well-known cons — say, psychics or three-card-monte hustlers — that you can find on most any big-city street corner. But there’s also Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr.,  one of the most successful con artists of all time, who made a career masquerading as a monk, a professor, even a military surgeon on the high seas. Or Samantha Azzopardi, who in 25 years accumulated more than 40 aliases and won sympathy as a (fake) victim of sex trafficking. Or musician Mamoru Samuragochi, acclaimed for composing great works after losing his hearing at age 35. Except, the world later learned, he relied on a ghostwriter. And he wasn’t deaf.

Con artists may have certain qualities in common, Konnikova explains, such as psychopathy (the absence of empathy), narcissism and ruthlessness. But many people possess such tendencies and don’t turn to crime or deceit. “Grifters are made when predisposition and opportunity meet,” Konnikova writes.“And once you do it, and successfully at that, the temptation to do it again, do it more, do it differently, grows.”

We think we can spot the liars and cheaters: shifty eyes, averted gazes, touching their faces while speaking, right? Not really, the author argues. We misread the signs of the con because we’re predisposed to trust, because society runs on trust. “And those who trust more become the ideal, albeit unwitting, player of the confidence game: the perfect mark,” Konnikova writes.

It’s easy to look at the victims of cons — the lovelorn woman who turns over tens of thousands of dollars to a fortune teller, the aging academic who’s arrested after transporting drugs for a supposed supermodel he met online — and think we’d never fall for it. “Despite our deep certainty in our own immunity,” Konnikova explains, “we all fall for it.” It’s not about an intrinsic susceptibility but about where we happen to be in life. Depressed or isolated? Dealing with a breakup? Just got fired or sick? Those are all moments of intense vulnerability for scams. “Con artists love funerals and obituaries, divorces or scandals, company layoffs and general loneliness,” Konnikova writes.

And they come to the rescue with lovely, perfect, credible stories. Stories, Konnikova writes, “are powerful tools of deception. . . . When we’re immersed in a story, we let our guard down.” The stories she recounts include the quest for Sir Francis Drake’s lost fortune (nonexistent), the discovery of a new batch of works by abstract expressionist masters (fraudulent) and donations to overseas religious charities (fake). All of them led unsuspecting people to sacrifice money, reputations or careers.

“Cons aren’t about money or about love,” Konnikova cautions. “They are about our beliefs. We are savvy investors. We are discerning with love interests. We have a stellar reputation. We are, fundamentally, people to whom good things happen with good reason.” We believe those things, so we believe the people, the con artists, who affirm them.

Once we believe, once we’re emotionally or financially invested in an idea, we have a hard time letting go. If contrary evidence pops up, Konnikova notes, we often find ways to explain it away, to minimize the cognitive dissonance. “Our personal attachment overshadows our objective knowledge,” the author writes. “We focus on the rationale that retroactively justifies our choice rather than actually base our choice in the moment on the most pertinent rationale.” And the longer we’re invested (whether emotionally or financially) in an idea, a story, a pitch, the harder it is to stop. These are “sunk costs” that we’re unwilling to forget. And even when we see we’ve been duped, fear for our reputations often keeps us from denouncing the con artist or admitting to ourselves that we’ve been had.

I wish Konnikova had spent more time on large-scale, institutional cons. The tales of brazen crooks cheating people face-to-face make for good reading, but I imagine more of us fall prey to faceless, distant cons. I may be getting fleeced every day — a hidden fee here, a lazy investment manager — and not because I’m going through a particularly vulnerable or troubling phase in my life, but simply because I’m living, and I’m busy.

Konnikova does offer some suggestions on avoiding the con: Maintain objectivity, recognize your emotions, set limits. Fine advice but not always actionable when you’re in the moment, when you feel you’re already doing the right thing — even if it turns out it’s the stupid thing.

I like to think of myself as a nice, helpful person, a “good guy.” The young woman at Penn Station wasn’t just asking for money; she was validating that self-perception. As drawn in as I was by her plight, I was more enticed by her story about me. Others had turned her down, but I was different. “Therein lies the power of the tale: it is a story of your exceptionalism,” Konnikova writes. “Grifters appeal to our vanity.”

I remember looking into her eyes — those sad, brown eyes — before making my choice. “I’m sorry,” I said finally. “I can’t help you out.”

Her reaction almost convinced me that I’d misjudged her. She didn’t look exasperated or angry, just crestfallen. Worse, she looked disappointed in me. I felt awful as she walked away. What if her story was true and no one helped her? How much of a cynic and jerk was I that I couldn’t assist a fellow human being in distress?

Then a guy in a business suit who had been standing nearby walked over to me. “If you’d pulled out your wallet,” he said, “I would have stopped you.” He explained that just a few days earlier, the woman had told him the same story at this very station. “She’s really good, isn’t she?”

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