The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova is so today. The key to the con game is “We’ve done most of the work for them; we want to believe in what they are telling us.” Politicians are the supreme con artists. Right now, Donald J Trump is the ultimate con artist. The name “con man” comes from the “confidence man.” If you had confidence in someone you gave him your trust, money, or a possession expecting a return, which rarely happened. Ponzi schemes are classic con games. It is more than three card monte. An important element of the con game is that you never knew you were conned, which meant it could happen again and again and again. Konnikova establishes the criteria for identifying a con man and his traits in her thesis and then sets out to prove it. According to her the con man is a psychopath, a narcissist, and Machiavellian. The psychopath has no empathy for his victims, no guilt, no remorse; thus the con is easy. The must be the center of activity and dominate the stage. Finally the Machiavellian must be the ultimate boss, the authoritarian. Konnikova uses these three traits, the dark triad, to define the con man and then sets out to prove it. I immediately saw Trump in this set of criteria, especially in his career in NYC as a real estate tycoon. He says whatever he wants without concern for other people’s feelings and never apologizes. He lies or simply says whatever he needs to to support his positions. “No publicity is bad publicity” was always his motto. He scorns losers and steam rolls over all competition in illegal, immoral, and heavy-handed ways, as he is the cruel authoritarian. Now he is in the White House.
The first step to a con, as we all know, is doing your homework. Before that interview, study up on the company so you can talk about it with intelligence. Once “you get your foot in the door” chat up your colleagues and superiors about their family, especially their kids. Remember names. These are the basic tools we all use in our professional and personal lives. After all most communications with others is based on what they can do for us at some point in our lives. We’ve all been told this in career counseling or from others when they willingly give us advice on advancement. We use information to ‘manipulate’ others we get from their family members, friends, colleagues and social media; if not from them directly. We ingratiate ourselves with others by sharing common ideas, experiences, and stories for our advantage in a future collaboration or endeavor. “Never burn bridges” is further advice we are given for the sole purpose of any future need on their part for our advancement. Our false compliments, phony glad-handing, and social lies begin our conning someone else. It doesn’t matter our intelligence or our financial level, we are all conned and we all con; it is just a matter of degree and outcome.
“We believe because we want to.” After “getting the foot in the door” it becomes about the good story. Facts can be checked or fudged, but a story; a good story is always the hook. Religions are built on stories, not philosophies. The more emotional a story is the better the con. Con artists prey on those who have lost a job, a lover, and a family member. If blame can be assigned to that loss all the better. Trump found this easy as he preyed on the disillusioned voter who was looking for a scapegoat, a reason for his misery and loss. The mark will believe any lie and not verify anything as long as it soothes their immediate pain, not realizing greater pain is in the future. Lies, of course, are the foundation for many a con.
As I read this book, I came to realize everything we do is a con. It is a matter of degree when we consider them to be hurtful or not. It is all about what’s in it for me, how am I going to get what I want, or how am I going to gain something?
The stories of the great cons are amazing and one can’t but appreciate the genius of many of them and yet be disgusted at them in the same moment. The gullibility of the conned also doesn’t escape us as we think “that couldn’t happen to me” and yet it probably has and you don’t know it. In England, the police discovered a list of 1600 people who were conned that was being passed around different con men. When the police made these 1600 people aware of the cons, most of the 1600 weren’t even aware they had been conned.
In trying to get a handle on our political events of late, I’ve come on what may satiate me to the cause: “What seems like sheer stupidity at best, and more likely willful ignorance, is actually quite understandable in the moment. The power of the tale isn’t the strength of its logic; it’s that at the point it’s told, we’re past being reasonable. The superiority bias doesn’t just make us more vulnerable to tales that seem rather tall to an objective eye. It colors how we then evaluate evidence and make decisions.” The key point is “willful ignorance.” This is why we get conned. Rather than fact check, rather than verify, rather than investigate the American voter simply accepted what they wanted to hear: “willful ignorance.”
We may think of con artists as shady characters lurking in back alleys, when in fact they are center stage (the narcissist). Hucksters are all around us from car salesmen to the evangelist to the teacher. They come in all degrees and professions. As I read this book I became more conscious of how much teachers, my profession are con artists. How do we make those kids do our bidding? “Con artists, at their best and worst, give us meaning. We fall for them because it would make our lives better if the reality they proposed were indeed true. They give us a sense of purpose, of value, of direction.” So many of the researchers cited by Konnikova are the same researchers I read and studied during my teaching career, the same researchers that are used in educational arguments and theories.
A curious fact is that Trump’s name doesn’t appear once in this book.