Even before 1849 when the elegant William Thompson stopped strangers on the street and asked them if they had enough confidence in him to trust him with their watches till the next day, deceit has been a part of human relationships from little tricks to elaborate scams. Are we all gullible to confidence games? Are some of us immune to cons? Are their traits common to all grifters? These are the questions that The Confidence Game sets out to answer and explore.
With a fine mixture of well-documented research, captivating anecdotes and down-right excellent storytelling, Maria Konnikova delves into the psychology behind confidence games both from the sides of a mark and a grifter. It concisely explores what makes us vulnerable to a con, the biases that make us marks and the various stages of a confidence game. All of these are explored with very interesting anecdotes. One of my favourites was the story about Ferdinand Demara, one of the most successful confidence artists of all time. A con artist who disguised as a surgeon and pretended to be a Surgeon Lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy and operated on 19 Korean soldiers onboard a naval vessel. The tricky part was that he had no medical training of any sort and did not even graduate from high school. This was one of his many elaborate scams. Another exceptional story is the story of William Miller in 1889. He started an investment scheme that is a forerunner to the modern Ponzi schemes of today. This particular anecdote has the full components of a typical confidence game – the play, the rope, the tale, the convincer, breakdown, the send and the touch and finally the blow-off and the fix. It explains why cons are often woven around stories, how our optimism biases make us hopeful for the best once the scheme is succeeding and we believe the success will gon on endlessly even in the face of opposing realities.
The major takeaways from The Confidence Game are that none of us is above falling for a con. Under the right psychological conditions, anyone can be a mark and even a grifter is not beyond being conned. Living in an environment where every confidence game is attributed to diabolical supernatural power, the stories in The Confidence Game and the thought-provoking psychological research in it prove that the success of confidence artists and the failure of their marks are clearly embedded in human psychology. I first read this book 3 years ago and it is as valid today as it was then and I am sure it will remain valid in the years to come as long as grifters and their marks meet in confidence games of all ramifications.