The 2 Emotional Manipulation Tactics Con Artists Use

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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What are common emotional manipulation tactics that con artists use? How do con artists persuade you to do what they want?

In The Confidence Game, Maria Konnikova writes that con artists will persuade you to do something by making an action seem more appealing and removing any potential reasons not to take the action. They rely on two main manipulation tactics: alpha and omega tactics and superiority bias.

Find out more about these emotional manipulation tactics so you don’t fall for them.

1. Alpha and Omega Tactics

The first emotional manipulation tactic a con artist will use is the alpha and omega strategy, which we’ll talk about separately in this section. An alpha strategy a con artist might use is making an ask they know you’ll reject, then taking advantage of the subsequent guilt you feel by making another smaller ask. Konnikova cites psychologist Robert Cialdini’s claim that this appeals to your natural sense of obligation to reciprocate and increases the likelihood that you’ll accept the second request. Other alpha techniques are when the persuader poses as an authoritative or powerful person or when the persuader makes an opportunity or item seem scarce—increasing your desire to not miss out. 

Omega strategies try to convince you that there’s no good reason not to do something. For example, they might use a statement like, “What’s the harm in giving it a try?” to make it seem low-risk.

Alpha and Omega Strategies in Sales Tactics and How to Resist Them

In Exactly What to Say, Phil Jones recommends several sales strategies that combine the benefits of eliciting an emotional response as well as the alpha and omega persuasion techniques. For example, he suggests using phrases such as, “How would you feel if…” to stimulate either a positive emotion that you want the customer to feel if they were to buy the product (the alpha strategy) or a negative emotion that the customer would feel if they didn’t buy the product (the omega strategy). Because research shows that losses and negative emotions affect us more intensely than gains and positive emotions, the second phrasing is more likely to be successful. 

Jones also echoes the alpha strategy of appealing to the mark’s guilt after they reject your first offer. After an initial rejection, he recommends using the phrase, “Just one more thing…” followed by a down-sell. However, he frames this as a last resort rather than a persuasion strategy to start with. 

So how can you avoid becoming a target of alpha and omega strategies? In Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury explain that to resist these kinds of persuasion strategies—including when the persuader poses as an authoritative figure or claims that an opportunity or item is scarce—it helps to simply call attention to the tactic, which will reduce its effectiveness and potentially cause the persuader to back down.

2. Superiority Bias

Konnikova also explains that when the con artist is persuading the mark, they appeal to what’s called the superiority bias. To use the superiority bias, the con artist will make you feel worthy and exceptional, specifically appealing to things you value as an individual. This kind of flattery makes you more inclined to take someone up on an offer because you feel uniquely suited for it. For example, if the con artist knows you like to think of yourself as intelligent, they might say something like, “With your extensive knowledge on X, you know better than most people that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.” 

(Shortform note: In The Like Switch, Jack Schafer and Marvin Karlins assert that people may perceive compliments as insincere because they assume the complimenter has an ulterior motive. Therefore, in addition to using the more direct flattery described above, con artists might use more subtle tactics to deliver compliments. For example, Schafer and Karlins say one such strategy is mentioning the compliment to a third person who will then tell the targeted person the nice thing you said about them.)

Konnikova notes that, ironically, being an expert in a certain sector (like finance or art) makes you more susceptible to cons related to those areas because the superiority bias makes you vulnerable to being overconfident. 

(Shortform note: On the other hand, having a lack of knowledge can also make you more vulnerable to being conned. For example, in a con by Elizabeth Holmes, a CEO who conned investors out of billions of dollars by promoting her nonexistent medical technology, the investors were at a disadvantage because they didn’t notice red flags in her description of the technology that biomedical researchers might have picked up on.) 

Manipulation Tactics in Action

In one extreme example of an expert con artist, Konnikova describes a man named Gregor MacGregor who in 1822 convinced hundreds of Scots that he was the prince of a lush, gold-filled, fictional South American country he called Poyais. He persuaded them to board ships and settle there with extravagant promises of how great a financial opportunity it would be (an alpha strategy), appealed to their natural sense of adventure and savviness (leveraging the superiority bias), and made it seem like there was absolutely no downside (an omega strategy), all while posing as royalty (prestige which added to his persuasive power).  

Konnikova says he raised exorbitant amounts of money from investors for the project—which he used to purchase bonds for himself—and only one-third of the settlers survived after they arrived at a completely desolate and inhospitable shore in modern-day Honduras. The survivors were rescued by a nearby ship and taken to Belize. In addition, MacGregor went on the run and pulled the same con for a second time in France.

Fyre Festival: A Modern Con Propelled by Social Media

A similar con was orchestrated in 2017 by entrepreneur Billy McFarland, who earned $26 million from investors and customers for an exclusive, high-end music festival on a remote island that didn’t have any of the basic infrastructure (like food and housing) or the concerts that he’d promoted. Although McFarland’s con didn’t result in the deaths of his victims like MacGregor’s did, it left hundreds of attendees stranded and hungry on the island until they could get a flight out. McFarland was charged with multiple counts of fraud and sentenced to six years in prison.

Unlike MacGregor’s scam, in which the settlers had no evidence of the utopian destination, McFarland leveraged social media posts by models and celebrities at a picturesque island to promote the event. During and after the disaster, word also spread quickly on social media of the events unfolding. 

Despite this backlash, McFarland announced that he’s planning a Fyre Festival II—a move that echoes MacGregor’s decision to duplicate his con in a new location. McFarland has referred to Fyre Festival II as “the biggest comeback of all time,” suggesting that the festival will be legitimate this time. 
The 2 Emotional Manipulation Tactics Con Artists Use

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Confidence Game summary:

  • The social psychology behind cons, and why they work
  • How con artists swindle and manipulate their victims
  • 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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