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Nutshell: The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova

By Maria Konnikova

Reviewed by Daniel Farber Huang

“Trust me.”

Probably the two least trustworthy words that can be uttered by anyone. When someone asks you to trust them, it’s probably best to run in the opposite direction.

In her eye-opening, engaging book The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It...Every Time, journalist and professional poker player Maria Konnikova sheds much needed light on the ways people can be manipulated, not just by sinister crime syndicates like in the movies, but even by anyone with an agenda that stands to gain from someone else’s gullibility.

One important thing to recognize is that there’s no singular profile for a victim. While perhaps someone’s grandparent might seem a likely target, so is most anybody else if they happen to be targeted at a moment in time when they’re emotionally vulnerable.

Konnikova writes, "When we're feeling low, we want to get out of the slump. So, schemes or propositions that would look absurd in another light suddenly seem more attractive... Suddenly, something that once seemed like a gamble looks awfully appealing. A victim isn't necessarily foolish or greedy. A victim is simply more emotionally vulnerable at the exact moment the confidence artist approaches. Risk taking and impulsivity need not be stable aspects of our personalities; they are intimately tied to where we find ourselves emotionally at any given point."

The best confidence artist makes us feel not like we're being taken for a ride but like we are genuinely wonderful human beings, Konnikova explains.

The Con in 10 Steps

Konnikova breaks down the key steps in a well-crafted con. Just like any sales process, the con Konnikova describes can be targeted in endless variations, by changing either the type of target, the storyline, the pain points and the ultimate goal: the bounty.

Many companies, from clothing retailers to ship builders, have standardized processes, including a typical sales funnel that may start with building lists of leads, qualifying those leads into prospective customers, and then bringing them through the entire process to make a sale, whether it’s for yoga pants or an oil tanker. The con has its own sales funnel, which Konnova breaks down into 10 (terrifyingly effective) steps:

1. The Put-Up. The Put-Up is all about the confidence man (known as the Grifter) selecting us as a victim (known as the Mark): learning what makes us who we are, what we hold dear, what moves us, and what leaves us cold.

2. The Play. The Play is the moment a grifter first hooks us and begins to gain our trust. And that is accomplished, first and foremost, through emotion. Once our emotions have been captured, once the con artist has cased us closely enough to identify what we want, feeling takes over from thinking, at least for the moment.

3. The Rope. The Rope is the alpha and omega of the confidence game: after targeting us as a mark and lowering our defenses through a “bit of fancy emotional footwork,” Konnikova writes, it's time for the actual persuasive pitch. An alpha proposal, increasing the appeal of something, is the more frequent con. The omega proposal decreases resistance from another angle. In the alpha, the grifter does what he or she can to make their proposition, whatever it may be, more attractive. They rev up the fictitious opportunity’s backstory — why something is such a wonderful opportunity, why you (the mark) are the perfect person to do it, how much everyone will gain, and the like. In the omega, you (yes, You, not the grifter) make a request or offer seem so easy as to be a no-brainer — why wouldn't I do this? What do I have to lose? This juxtaposition is called the approach-avoidance model of persuasion: you can convince me of something by making me want to approach it and decreasing any reasons I might have to avoid it.

4. The Tale. When the Tale is told — that is, we're told how we, personally, will benefit — it's no longer really being told to us. We are the ones who are now doing the telling. A good confidence man has been working his way up to this very moment, the moment when "Too good to be true" turns into "Actually, it makes perfect sense": He convinces the mark to believe “I am exceptional, and I deserve it. It's not too good to be true; it is exactly what I had coming to me. The changes may be less than 1%, but then again, I'm a less than 1% kind of person.”

5. The Convincer. The Convincer makes it seem like you're winning and everything is going according to plan. You're getting money on your investment. Your wrinkles are disappearing and your weight is dropping. The horse you bet on, both literal and figurative, is coming in a winner. The Tale made us fully aware of our own exceptional nature, and precisely what now seems to transpire: we are indeed justified in putting our initial trust in the game. No self-respecting con artist is complete fluff. There needs to be something real to anchor the whole thing. Just for a moment, the grifter needs his mark to feel as if he is holding a winning ticket.

6. The Breakdown. From the con man's perspective, this is the ideal moment to make a killing: pull the plug just when your mark is at his most convinced. The mark has already tasted victory and lauded himself on his discernment and prowess. He is already hooked. If the grifter lets him keep winning, it doesn't do him any additional good. Everything that goes to the mark, after all, is less for the con man. Instead, what if the grifter now makes the mark lose? At least a bit? In other words, what do we do when reality suddenly doesn't match the expectancy we've built?

7. The Send. This is the part of the con where the victim is recommitted, asked to invest increasingly greater money, time and resources into the con artist's scheme.

8. The Touch. The con finally comes to its fruition and the mark is completely, irrevocably fleeced. The mark has been taken for all she has. The grifter has gotten all that he is after and is ready to disappear from our lives.

9. The Blow-Off. According to Konnikova, once the con man grabs the prize, the mark has to be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible. The Blow-Off is often the final step of the con, the grifter's smooth disappearance after the game has been played out.

10. The Fix. If the mark is not complacent, there's one more step the con man may take: the Fix, when the grifters put off the involvement of law enforcement to prevent marks from making their complaints official.

Picture This...

Konnikova writes, consider a turn of phrase the con artist often uses: “Picture this…” or “Imagine that…” Imagine you've actually gone to claim the lottery winnings that you already have, if you just make the effort. What will you do with the money? How will you spend it? Where will you go? Suddenly you're on a warm beach or strolling the streets of Paris. What are you waiting for?

Simple case in point: The Confidence Game describes a study by psychology professor Robert B.Cialdini's on persuasion. Cialdini had people watch an ad about cable television. Those who were told to "imagine the benefits" were much more likely to actually subscribe to it a month later than those who were simply told about "the benefits of cable TV." The call to "imagine the benefits" can come even before any concrete proposal. Just a seemingly throwaway remark, a casting of the rope, so to speak, before you even realize that anything is on offer. You've planted the suggestion and, when the real proposal comes along, the mark is more likely to see it coming from her own initiative. (Konnikova notes that apart from being a favorite gambit of the con, it's a famous marital trick too.)

Suspension of Disbelief

In The Avengers: Infinity War movie, at one point Iron Man/Tony Stark, Spider-Man and assorted aliens land on Thanos’s home planet, fight a huge fight, and then (spoiler alert) something cinematically dramatic happens that requires a sequel. Objectively speaking, there are so many elements of what I just described that defy logic and reality. That there was an Iron Man or Spider-Man, breathing on a distant planet and not exploding from the lack of atmosphere, battling aliens, and so on.

To rationalize the price of their movie ticket and incredibly overpriced popcorn (which will likely be the subject of a future article) the theater audience is willing to accept what they are watching as plausible at some level. They believe it can happen or, rather, they are willing to pause on not believing it could happen. In other words, the audience is willing to suspend their disbelief for two and a half hours in exchange for the pleasures of an action movie.

Think about how often Hollywood trusts our, the audience’s, willingness to suspend our disbelief. James Bond’s invisible car in Die Another Day. The flesh-eating Londoners in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Jedis, Wizards, Spy Kids, and more. That’s okay, however. We know we’re going on a ride, just like a roller coaster isn’t supposed to actually plummet you into the earth, just close to it and get you to the finish safely.

Con men, con women, con persons need you to suspend disbelief, but unlike Six Flags or Disneyland, they intend for you to meet with a painful conclusion, because your pain is their gain, whether it be monetary, political, social, even emotional.

The Cult of, well, Anything

Konnikova sheds light on the dynamics behind cults and the work of professional cult infiltrator (someone who helps extract people from cults) David Sullivan. According to Sullivan, nobody joins a cult. Rather, people join something that will give them meaning.

"They join a group that's going to promote peace and freedom throughout the world or that's going to save animals, or they're going to help orphans or something. But nobody joins a cult," Sullivan said.

“When people want to believe what they want to believe, they are very hard to dissuade," Sullivan explained.

Konnikova points out that nobody embraces false beliefs. Instead, we embrace something we think is as true as it gets. Similarly, nobody sets out to be conned: we set out to become, in some way, better than we were before.

Cults are sometimes equated to, say, Jim Jones’s Jonestown massacre in 1978 (where his victims literally drank the Kool Aid) or “fringe” religious communities that don’t fall in line with someone’s personal beliefs. But the word “cult” can be applied to any number of beliefs. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “cult” first as “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious” but also as “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (such as a film or book).”

Some politicians, for example, build a base of supporters leveraging their cult of personality. Some do it better than others, both those considered good leaders as well as despots.

So how can a person avoid getting pulled into a manipulative situation, whether sucked in and manipulated.

According to Sullivan, the key to resisting persuasion and manipulation is to have a strong, unshakeable, even, sense of self. Know who you are no matter what, and hold on to that no matter what. That isn't easy, however. It took years before Sullivan was able to find a suitable female infiltrator to help in his work.

"It is very rare to find someone to put into a cult. You have to have a very strong sense of your own identity. And it's not easy to do this. The psychological techniques that are employed to coerce you are phenomenal," he said.

By Maria Konnikova

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