Homo Sapiens: An Easy Mark

Maria Konnikova’s new book arrives just as the idea of “the confidence man” is back in the news. “Con man” and “con artist” are terms that have been bestowed by Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio on their party’s nominee for the presidency. But Konnikova, in The Confidence Game, is not interested in politics per se. Instead, in certain respects, she seeks to follow in the path of David Maurer, citing his research several times in her widely publicized work.

Back in 1940, Maurer, a linguistics professor, published a close and candid study of a certain, and certainly fascinating, aspect of criminal behavior. His legendary The Big Con was partly a survey of the lingo employed by the large and largely invisible legions of confidence men who, in the early decades of the 20th century, deftly relieved many gullible citizens, or “marks,” of sizable portions of cash.

Maurer was not especially interested in practitioners of the “short con”—those skilled at three-card monte, or at cheating dupes with loaded dice. He focused instead on those at “the top of the grift,” the smart and often theatrical confidence men who angled for large yields of $20,000 or more, a real fortune in those days. With its wry tone and Damon Runyon-esque characters, The Big Con was beloved by Hollywood scriptwriters, providing the basis, for example, of the Oscar-winning 1972 film, The Sting.

The considerable field work Maurer did shows up in his books. For one, he spoke with commercial fishermen; for another, it was Kentucky moonshiners. For The Big Con he interviewed some of the country’s top swindlers, not only taking note of their specialized and colorful language, but gaining remarkable insight into the ways and means of their crooked art.

Put simply, the big con began with an “outsideman” or “roper” who hunted for marks in railway dining cars, say, or in hotel bars, his eyes peeled for a prosperous-looking fellow who appeared to be on vacation or passing through town on business, looking a bit lonely and eager to chat. A good roper, Maurer learned, was a good listener, able to discern from a seemingly casual conversation if the mark was likely to be ripe for the plucking or a hard nut to crack. From there, “carefully and expertly,” the roper stoked the victim’s curiosity and “latent dishonesty” into “an all-consuming lust” that quite frequently drove him to “secure funds for speculation by any means at his command.”

Eventually the roper delivered this mark, now nicely vetted, to an “insideman” who presented himself as a skilled executive in his own right, complete with an office, phone lines, and the agreeable manner of someone you’d trust with your cash. The mark assumed he was being given a chance at a rare financial opportunity. It might be a surefire “investment” or a bit of sports betting that simply couldn’t lose. The mark would be aware that it was all a bit dodgy, but would nonetheless believe that his odds of getting caught were as low as the payoff was high. What he didn’t know, of course, was that his would-be business partner had employed a small retinue of accomplices—including bit actors, telegraph operators, corrupt politicians, and even cops—who all expected their cut of the mark’s dough. The mark himself wouldn’t collect a dime. And of course his investment had disappeared—along with the roper and his crooked colleagues.

According to Maurer, conmen knew from experience that some groups of “professional men” were more snooker-able than others. They steered clear of lawyers, for example, and assumed professors to be too poor to be worth the bother. Dentists were widely considered good marks. So were bankers and trust fund managers, who had access to particularly large sums from which they could illicitly “borrow.” Boastful men, Maurer learned, were highly prized, especially those who hinted proudly of their secret sexual affairs or the profitable deals they pulled off by skirting the rules.

To be sure, some of the individuals approached for the con refused to consider any shady deal, however big the promised jackpot. But such honesty, Maurer learned, was surprisingly rare. “Larceny,” he concluded, “or thieves’ blood, was not only in the veins of professional thieves; it would appear that humanity at large has just a dash of it—and sometimes more.”

Maurer, who also contributed entries to H.L. Mencken’s The American Language and wrote about “slang” for the Encyclopedia Britannica, clearly admired the “creative imagination” of some of the men he interviewed, as well as their “professional pride in the fluent command of the lingo.” Confidence men, among all criminals, had “the most extensive and colorful argot,” which is displayed in the extensive glossary contained in The Big Con.

To bilk, to beef, to chill, to pass a c-note or take a bum rap—over the decades, many of these words and phrases came into wide colloquial use. Still, Maurer stopped short of romanticizing these suave robbers, noting that very few of them ended up living serenely on their earnings. With little experience in legitimate forms of investing, most wound up broke, sometimes degenerating into pimping and other less charming forms of illegal activity. Some “spent their substance trying to beat the rap” but ended up “in Atlanta or Leavenworth.”

Konnikova, a journalist who holds a doctorate in psychology, also describes some highly elaborate forms of trickery as practiced by con artists with a shrewd understanding of human nature. In The Confidence Game, she explores some of the “psychological principles” that are generally at play in successful swindles. In Konnikova’s examples, most victims of con artistry aren’t necessarily themselves larcenous, but they are prone to self-deceit and are, despite themselves, complicit in their own fleecing. The best tricksters, Konnikova suggests, draw from “a seemingly endless toolbox of ways to manipulate our belief.”

Criminals like those Maurer described—men with nicknames like “Gloucester Jack” and “Dan the Dude” who smooth-talked businessmen in the club cars of crowded passenger trains—have long since left the scene. But in the era of jet travel and the Internet, where strangers meet and exchange personal information with unprecedented casualness and ease, confidence games of all kinds are flourishing. Several massive Ponzi schemes, like the one Bernie Madoff ran, have been widely covered in the press, and nearly everyone with an email account is on guard against spammers ostensibly writing in from mysterious locations and offering boundless sexual prowess or chunks of unclaimed gold.

“The whirlwind advance of technology,” Konnikova writes, “heralds a new golden age of the grift.” Since 2008, she notes, “consumer fraud in the United States has gone up more than 60 per cent. Online scams have more than doubled.” But of course, as in Maurer’s day, countless frauds go unreported, since many people are simply too ashamed to admit they’ve been played for fools.

Konnikova’s more expansive examples include the recent tricking of a respected American art dealer who, in good faith, sold counterfeit modern paintings—phony Rothkos, Pollocks, and Motherwells—she acquired from a seemingly impeccable Mexican source. In another scam, an American professor, a widely published scientist in a rigorous field, began an email correspondence with a beautiful Czech model—a former Miss Bikini World, she claimed. The professor, a physicist, was looking for love and marriage, and so, supposedly, was “Denise,” his ardent correspondent. In reality, the academic was being hustled into serving as a drug mule, obliviously carting cocaine from Bolivia into the United States. Instead of a life of bliss with Miss Bikini World, he found himself arrested, imprisoned, and sacked from his university post.

Both cons illustrate widely shared tendencies that can turn otherwise intelligent people into utter saps. For starters, writes Konnikova, we as a species “are predisposed to trust,” the result, in part, of an unusually long maturation process in which children must rely on the protection and good intentions of older siblings and adults. Human beings also share a “deep-rooted need for belief,” an enduring propensity to “create meaning out of meaninglessness.” Hence our nearly universal fondness for tales, myths, narratives that help provide meaning and motivation by appealing mainly to the emotions, which determine behavior far more than most people, perhaps particularly intellectuals, would care to admit. Almost always an effective con begins with an effective story, a “dashing good yarn” that is “the quickest path to emotion.”

As Konnikova notes, “when we’re immersed in a story” we “let down our guard.” Thus the art dealer obtained and promoted all those fake paintings because their Mexican seller had concocted such an absorbing account of their history. Long story short, they supposedly belonged to a private collector who had befriended some then-young and obscure Abstract Expressionists, bought their paintings, and stored them in his homes in Switzerland and Mexico. Now, his children, who “did not like art,” were eager to sell. Naturally, the American art dealer had the work appraised by objective experts in the field. Some of these authorities were, in fact, skeptical. Others, however, were convinced of the paintings’ quality and authenticity. In any event, these works, promoted as overlooked modern masterpieces, proved highly popular with collectors, generating millions of dollars in sales.

Thus did the art dealer, and also the hoodwinked professor, hear in these spiels only what they wanted to hear: the version that best suited their own desires. And both were, as successful professionals, accustomed to trusting the accuracy of their own perceptions. In fact, along with our “self-serving bias,” we are prone to a “superiority bias”—an inclination to view ourselves through the most flattering lens. Konnikova points to research showing that people are very likely “to underestimate the extent to which they were susceptible to any bad turn in life,” and to believe that “their risks were reliably lower than the risk of the ‘average’ person.”

The psychological research she presents suggests that people also regularly overestimate what their share is of “socially desirable characteristics,” like being imaginative, decisive, or well-read. Along with that they dismiss “potentially negative tendencies” in themselves, “like aloofness and submissiveness.” We are a whole lot better at “remembering the good things we’ve done than the bad, and the positive attributes we possess rather than the negative.”

Who knows this better than conmen? Cons work so widely “because, in a sense, we want them to. We want to believe the tale.” We want to believe “we are savvy investors, and are discerning with our love interests.” Grifters, in short, are experts at appealing to human vanity. And “the more exceptional we see ourselves, the easier we may be to con.”

Although The Confidence Game is sometimes insightful, it lacks the appeal of The Big Con, a minor classic of 20th century American writing. Konnikova, who quotes plenty of other authors and academics, has clearly swotted up on the subject, and presents her findings in the rather chummy style one tends to find in similar books of popular psychology. Her myriad anecdotes and stats are accompanied by considerable repetition and some rather problematic generalizations.

The Confidence Game also reflects the sort of breezy irreligiousness that, in the time since Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great (2007) and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006) hit the bestseller lists, has become increasingly noticeable in general interest books aimed at more educated readers. Thus at one point Konnikova offhandedly reports that “humans are members of the catarrhines: the intensely social primates that make up the Old World monkeys and the apes.” She repeats the old saw that “religion began when the first scoundrel met the first fool.” According to her, religion is “the natural breeding ground of the confidence game,” and “religiosity is one of the few factors that consistently predicts susceptibility to fraud.” That last claim is not sourced, so readers are left to picture for themselves the great stack of ironclad data proving that the faith of practicing Christians, Hindus, and Jews also makes them prime chumps for the connivances of their fellow catarrhines.

She leaves something unexplored, as well, and that is the likelihood that trends in our culture—including the ever-deepening cult of celebrity and the self-obsessed pursuit of fame and today’s version of glamour—have made Americans less moored and more credulous, and thus more susceptible to manipulation and deceit, than ever before.

We do get a final chapter of Dr. Phil-like suggestions on how not to be conned (perhaps the publisher’s attempt to cross-market the book in the ever popular “self-help” category, which still accounts for about 20 percent of the industry’s yearly sales). One expert, we’re told, counsels “self-knowledge” as a hedge against “false persuasion.” Another suggests “logic to counteract feeling.” “Control your emotional reactions” is yet another piece of advice. For “once you become emotional, your reasoning can easily become short-circuited.” It’s important to “try and be aware enough of your own behavior that you won’t get swept up in it.” Who knew?

For his part, Maurer noted approvingly that the “increasing interest of federal authorities” in the operations of confidence men had, in 1940, begun to make itself felt. He on the other hand recognized that “graft and bribery” were still widely tolerated as “normal” activities, particularly in big cities where political bosses kept their powerful party machines oiled and humming. Above all he recognized that since confidence men (and women) “trade upon certain weaknesses in human nature . . . until human nature changes perceptibly there is little possibility that there will be a shortage of marks for con games.”

Maurer offered no concluding tips on how to avoid being suckered. If he had, though, one could imagine him settling for a piece of common wisdom that people everywhere, and in every era, accepted as one of the regrettable truths of the human condition: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.