Maria Konnikova: The Art Of The Con

In the early 1950’s Ferdinand Waldo Demara posed as a military surgeon and tricked his way into the Canadian Navy. There he performed multiple surgeries and gained considerable notoriety for his success. In fact it was this very success that eventually led to his downfall, when media coverage reached the real doctor whose identity he had stolen. Demara was revealed to be a fraud and a serial con-man, having previously masqueraded as a psychologist, a professor and a monk.

This is the first of many unbelievable tales found in Maria Konnikova’s latest book, The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It. . .  Every Time. The book is an investigation into the minds and motivations of con-artists, and the people who fall prey to them. We caught up with Konnikova to find out more.

As a society we have this strange fascination with con-artists. They’re often portrayed on screen as very likeable characters living glamorous lifestyles, I’m thinking of films like Catch Me If You Can, The Sting, American Hustle. Is that what first attracted you to writing the book?

What drove me to write the book has more to do with the victims than the con-artists. I wanted to explore what made incredibly intelligent people fall for something that from the outside looks absurd. Over and over this happens and so you realise these aren’t people who’re stupid, there must be something else going on.

When I met con-artists I immediately understood why it worked. They are charming and charismatic. They listen to what you say and they flatter you. That’s their gift and that’s also the thing that makes them absolutely terrifying.

You write about the traits sometimes shared by con-artists and psychopaths, most notably a lack of emotion. But you also say that con-artists can actually be very good at empathising with their victims. That seems a very contradictory notion, someone who is lacking emotion being able to identify so much with someone else.

Actually it’s totally not contradictory. Empathy actually has two parts, there’s emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. The end result of both is that you see the world from someone else perspective but you can do that without the emotional component, without actually feeling the world from their perspective. So you can have that cold rational cognitive empathy, and in fact not experiencing emotion can help it along because nothing clouds your judgement. You can remove yourself from where you are and put yourself in their situation and think exactly what they’re thinking, and logically what they’re feeling. You don’t need to actually experience those emotions yourself in order to empathise in a cold way.

The subtitle of the book is, “why we fall for it every time.” But not actually every time right?

No, the “every time” is an exaggeration. But certainly every time it’s a good con-artist who knows exactly what he’s doing. There’s a con to which we are all susceptible.

Your mentor at Harvard, Steven Pinker, said, “Morality is not just any old topic in psychology but close to our conception of the meaning of life. Moral goodness is what gives each of us the sense that we are worthy human beings.” Does this apply to the subjects in your book or are they just an anomaly?

Oh no, they fit that description to a tee. You should see some of the mental hoops they jump through to justify what they do. They convince themselves that they’re really decent individuals and that their crimes are victimless, even though in reality there are lots of victims. If you think about the great imposter who I write about in the book, Ferdinand Waldo Demara, he convinces himself that he’s a wonderful human being and also convinces everyone else.

Yeah, but in that case you have to agree that he does do quite a brilliant job. When he’s posing as a Navy doctor it’s not as if he’s botching all of his surgeries, he’s actually saving lives.

Well as far as we know he didn’t kill anyone. But there’s one thing I didn’t write about in the book. At first he was almost fired from the Navy because his success rates were so low. Much lower than they should have been. So he decided to hide the patients that were the most sick in a part of the ship where nobody went to until they got better.

You write, “Cons thrive in times of transition and fast change, when new things are happening and old ways of looking at the world no longer suffice.” What has been the effect of the rise of technology on scams?

What technology is doing is making fraud more prevalent and easier. With the introduction of any new technology you suddenly have a new method of scamming people, so of course people will use that method. The second the electrical telegraph was invented someone figured out how to use it to take advantage of people. And that’s exactly what has happened with the internet.

We give up so much of ourselves online every single day, so it becomes much easier for con-artists to go through that first stage of the con, the put-up. They will psychologically profile us and try to figure out what are our likes and our dislikes, what makes us tick. We’re putting all of that out there for them to see and steal.

One of the guys I write about in the book had a remarkable social network presence. He even ended up adding himself to Wikipedia entries so that his fake aristocratic lineage checked out. So yeah, I do think technology has changed the game and keeps changing the game, and always will.

As a psychologist, what do you make of the U.S presidential race going on right now? Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in particular are succeeding where others aren’t because of their “honesty.” Do you think this a new kind of politics we’re witnessing, based on truth instead of deception, or is just another level of Machiavellianism?                    

That’s hilarious. I thought you were going to go in a completely different direction with that question. Everyone is calling Donald Trump a con-artist. Everyone thinks he’s completely dishonest.

Yes but that’s not how his supporters see it. They’re praising his honesty.

But that’s the thing, victims of con-artists will deny to the end that they were victims of con-artists. To an extent all politicians are con-artists. But it’s all about intention. Does the politician have malicious intent? Is it a means to a personal end? Or do they believe they will make the world a better place? I think Sanders is the latter. Sanders seems pretty genuinely to believe in the things he says, even when they’re crazy. So I wouldn’t call him a con-artist. Donald Trump is trickier.

What is Trump’s intention?

No idea. We really don’t know. It’s so easy if you like him to say he’s honest, and if you dislike him to say he’s a con-man. We need to watch it play out.

What are you hoping people will take away from this book?

I’m honestly hoping that it will give people permission to be victims. Often people won’t even acknowledge that they’ve been a victim because it’s a blow to their reputation and their ego. So I want to break through some of that and give people hope. I want the book to be optimistic. Yes, everyone can be fooled but that’s okay. Being a victim does not say anything bad about you. It just means that you’re human and you trust, because human beings are trusting. Ultimately I want the message to be one of hope, because there aren’t many bad people out there. The book is about the bad people, but they’re a minority.

Maria Konnikova is a psychologist, a regular contributor to the New York Times, and bestselling author of Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes.

The Confidence Game: The Psychology of the Con and Why We Fall for It Every Time is available now (Viking Press).