A Look Into Con Artists’ Traits, Origins, & Predispositions

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Confidence Game" by Maria Konnikova. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do people become con artists? What are some con artist traits you should look out for?

Con artists are among the most manipulative people you’ll ever meet. According to Maria Konnikova’s book The Confidence Game, con artists are created because of psychological tendencies and their environment.

Keep reading to learn why con artists do what they do.

Characteristics of a Con Artist

Konnikova writes that people have displayed con artist traits since the 1800s. The terms “confidence game” and “confidence man” likely date back to 1849 in the description of a legal case for a man named William Thompson. Thomspon would approach people in public in New York City, asking “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?”

(Shortform note: Konnikova doesn’t explain the specifics of this con, but it’s famous partly for its simplicity. Thompson would dress elegantly, strike up a conversation with a wealthy-looking person, and then ask to borrow their watch. The victim, assuming Thompson was an acquaintance they’d forgotten about, would hand it over and never see Thompson again.) 

The case demonstrates that Thompson’s success depended partly on the victims’ confidence in a certain kind of person (in this case, affluent people) and partly on Thompson’s ability to prey on the right person and manipulate them.

(Shortform note: One reason that perceived affluence often plays a role in cons may be because of the halo effect, in which people observe one positive quality in a person and then automatically assume other positive characteristics in them. Therefore, if someone views wealth as a good thing, they might assume a wealthy-looking person must be trustworthy.)

There are many vulnerabilities that make people susceptible to scams, but what are the characteristics of a successful con artist who’s pulling the strings? Konnikova claims that there are three traits that each make people more likely to become a con artist: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism (being manipulative to get what you want). In addition, two environmental criteria increase the likelihood of becoming a con artist: opportunity and rationale.


Konnikova contends that narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism—traits that are often grouped together in what’s called the “dark triad”—are not strictly necessary in a con artist. However, they tend to overlap and they predispose people to becoming con artists because they’re highly useful in this context.  

Narcissism is having a grandiose sense of self-importance and vanity. Konnikova writes that it’s linked to con artists because narcissists will go to great lengths to maintain the pristine self-image they hold, and they also feel entitled to attention and anything that advances themselves over others. For example, a narcissistic con artist might believe that they’re exceptionally talented and trick others into hiring them for an esteemed job that they have absolutely no qualifications for. In this case, their overinflated ego drives them to scam their way into a role that reinforces their sense of self. 

Psychopathy encompasses many traits—most notably a lack of empathy, emotional awareness, or remorse. It’s also associated with manipulativeness, deceitfulness, and insincere charm. Konnikova explains that these qualities enable con artists to skillfully trick and harm others without feeling any guilt.

Machiavellianism is defined by Konnikova as a group of traits that makes people manipulate others to get what they want, which is the underlying goal of a con artist. They tend to be ruthless in pursuit of their goals without letting emotions interfere as they might for a less Machiavellian person.

Environmental Criteria

Konnikova clarifies that although these extreme personality traits are common in successful con artists, everyone is capable of deception.

(Shortform note: Psychologists point out that people lie for a wide variety of reasons, some of which have good intentions behind them. For example, people lie to avoid negative consequences, avoid feeling embarrassed by exposing a fault, gain social approval, or protect other people’s feelings or safety. This suggests that skilled deception doesn’t necessarily lead to the harm that con artists often cause.)

People in general, regardless of their personality or morals, are more likely to become con artists when two environmental criteria are met: opportunity and rationale

An opportunity could include an environment where manipulation and aggressive persuasion tactics are part of the social norm. Rationale is what the person tells themself to justify their actions. Konnikova points to corporate America as a place where the conditions tend to favor con artists, especially when there aren’t clear ethical expectations from the leadership and there’s little accountability. 

For example, in a business environment, someone might have opportunities to become a con artist because it’s already part of the culture and it’s easy to get away with. They might also rationalize a con because they think it’s the only way they can meet their sales target or get a promotion.

Business Fraud Is Linked to the Environmental Criteria and the Dark Triad

A con is considered a type of fraud, which is a broader term for any criminal deception for unlawful gain. Research on fraud prevention in business suggests that fraud is closely linked to Konnikova’s ideas about what makes a good con artist.

Similar to Konnikova’s environmental criteria, some researchers refer to the “fraud triangle,” or the three conditions that foster a high risk of fraud in business settings. The fraud triangle includes financial or emotional pressure to commit fraud, opportunity (in this case, meaning the ability to get away with it), and rationalization—defined as a justification for dishonesty. Many fraud prevention strategies focus on the opportunity component: They make fraud harder to get away with by implementing policies such as spreading financial decision-making authority across multiple roles.

The personality of business leaders may also influence employees to become con artists or commit fraud. Some research suggests that people in corporate leadership roles are more likely to have heightened self-confidence and hubris as well as less empathy as a result of being in a powerful position. These traits overlap with the dark triad traits, and this type of leader could encourage similar values among their employees, which fosters a culture conducive to cons. 

One study also suggests that while only 2% or less of the overall male population exhibits the dark triad, 10 to 20% of people in corporate America have these traits. Although it’s unclear to what extent people with the dark triad naturally gravitate toward business professions and to what extent business leadership positions cause these traits, some researchers argue that society should reduce fraud by preventing people with the dark triad of traits from gaining powerful positions rather than focusing on reducing opportunity and rationale for fraud.

A Look Into Con Artists’ Traits, Origins, & Predispositions

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  • The social psychology behind cons, and why they work
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  • Actionable advice for spotting and avoiding cons

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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