• Cons often involve money being swindled, but Konnikova suggests financial gain is hardly ever the main motive. (American Hustle)Source: American Hustle
In a new book, a US psychologist and author profiles the art of the con and the mind games behind it that leave us all at risk.
Mark White

30 Mar 2016 - 11:03 AM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2016 - 11:03 AM

After Ghislaine de Védrines hired Thierry Tilly at her Paris secretarial school in 1999, she warmed to the unassuming man who talked of an aristocratic background.

Her family were just as fascinated by his stories of friends in high places, and continued listening when he told them of a secret plot on their lives.

By 2001, Tilly had convinced 11 members of the de Védrines family to barricade themselves inside their ancestral chateau in south-west France. They placed millions of euros into a bank account to pay for protection from the shadowy figures threatening them.

They had been in hiding for almost a decade before two of the adult children realised they had been conned.

“These people are patient,” says psychologist and author Maria Konnikova, who interviewed dozens of con artists for her new book, The Confidence Game: The Psychology of the Con and Why We Fall For it Every Time. “They're willing to wait years for the payoff.”

Those she met were also completely normal, she says, and despite knowing they had a history of deception, she couldn't help but like them.

“They were awesome,” said Konnikova, “which is terrible and terrifying ... they're so charismatic and empathetic, such good listeners – they really win you over. It's really hard to keep telling yourself, no, this is a con artist. It's actually quite scary.”

We believe them because we want them to be true, engineering our own downfall.

There's no profile of a con artist, apart from them being expert storytellers able to judge and craft an irresistible, personalised appeal using any information at hand. We believe them because we want them to be true, engineering our own downfall.

Research shows humans are more likely to trust a stranger if they think they have something in common, such as shared aristocratic roots for the de Védrines, or if they know personal information. “In one series of experiments,” writes Konnikova, “people were more likely to buy something from a relative stranger if that relative stranger happened to recall their name.”

People are at their most vulnerable in times of emotional turmoil, whether a negative experience like a relationship split or divorce, or a positive one like a marriage. And Konnikova says social media has made the con artist's job easier.

“Your frame of reference has been taken away,” she says, “and that's when we need that sense of certainty even more. A need for meaning and hope asserts itself. Con artists can sense that and sometimes don't even need to sense that.

“With social media, we often advertise these things quite prominently for the whole world to see. They can pounce at these moments - that's when we need to be most vigilant but unfortunately that's when we're least likely to be vigilant.”

Konnikova follows certain guidelines: never check in anywhere online (“I think Foursquare should not exist”) and never accept friend requests from anyone you don't know.

“If you look at my Facebook, I'm the most boring person in the world,” she says, “even if you're friends with me. I don't ever post anything personal, everything is personal-professional news. There's no 'I'm looking forward to going to Florida this weekend', my wedding anniversary and birthday aren't there – things like that make it as hard as possible.”

She's dumbfounded at the amount of personal information her sister posts. “I get so mad!” she says. “I yell 'take that off, don't do that, why are you doing this?' The fastest way to get me to unfriend you is if you check me into places. I have to approve all tags so I never approve them, but it's still annoying.”

If they're good, the mark won't realise they've been conned, writing off the experience as bad luck. 

In her book, Konnikova breaks the art of the con into discrete stages: the put-up (where the victim is sized up), the play (the customised approach), the rope (hooking them), the touch (fleecing them) and the blowoff, where the con artist disappears. 

If they're good, the mark won't realise they've been conned, writing off the experience as bad luck. 

“We never see something as too good to be true when it's happening to us,” says Konnikova. “Then we think we totally deserve it. It's only too good to be true when we see it happen to other people, for us it's wonderful.”

She mentions the case of fund manager Bernie Madoff, whose outlandish investment returns over decades masked a giant Ponzi scheme and an estimated $US64.8 billion fraud.

“If you look at those returns from the outside, it's insane. If you're the one who's getting them, this is awesome. 'I picked such a good fund to invest with – go me, I am great!' Your frame of reference shifts, we don't want to see ourselves in the same way.”

Cons often involve money being swindled, but Konnikova suggests financial gain is hardly ever the main motive.

“I think the reason is that they're after that power – it's almost like an addiction to them – that rush, that control over people's lives,” she says. “They're in your hands and you don't even know it. I think they find that very difficult to give up – ultimately that's what it's about, power over people.”

Just one of the case histories in her book involves Ferdinand Demara, a master hoaxer who impersonated a surgeon, psychologist, professor, monk, teacher, prison warden and civil engineer, among dozens of aliases.

“There are all sorts of cons where no money exchanges hands,” she says. “It's a matter of prestige, reputation and putting one over on people.”

Investigator David Sullivan inoculated himself from influence by expecting to be conned when he went undercover in religious cults. That meant he wouldn't fall into what's called “confirmation bias”, or rationalising out facts which don't fit the narrative being sold. 

“There are certain things we can take from that and use in any situation,” says Konnikova. “Having a strong sense of self is incredibly important and will make you less vulnerable – being more certain of who you are, what's important to you and what motivates you means you won't need other people to fulfil that need.

“The less we rely on other people for that, the better off we are in terms of our susceptibility.”

But being suspicious of everyone has its drawbacks. Konnikova was so affected by her research that she “wanted to lock myself in a room and not talk” to anyone. Eventually, though, she realised it was fine to trust people.

“Hope is a good thing,” she says. “I don't want to give up hope just because people can take advantage of me.”

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