How does someone manipulate you in a con game? How do they ensure your silence afterward?
In The Confidence Game, Maria Konnikova explains that one of the most important parts of a game is ensuring that the victim won’t rat them out. They do this by emotionally manipulating the victim to feel ashamed or embarrassed about their gullibility.
Let’s look at how easy it is to become manipulated by others.
How Con Artists Escape and Ensure Silence
How does someone manipulate you and get away with it? A con artist will complete their trick and in most cases simply escapes with the money or goods they’ve swindled you out of. However, a key part of ending the con is making sure you won’t make an official complaint or tell others about what they’ve done. At this point, Konnikova explains, the con artist relies heavily on your sense of shame and embarrassment that you were fooled and the fact that you likely don’t want to tarnish your reputation or self-image by admitting fault. She writes that these tendencies are often enough to ensure that people stay silent, thereby enabling the con artist to keep playing the trick on new marks.
(Shortform note: Some research suggests that in addition to allowing con artists to continue their tricks without facing consequences, internalizing shame is destructive to your emotional well-being. In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown asserts that shame makes you conflate your identity with the behavior you believe was bad. For example, experiencing shame over being conned might make you feel like an incompetent person. On the other hand, feeling guilt allows you to acknowledge that you made a mistake without thinking badly of yourself overall. Based on Konnikova’s assertion that people are afraid to tarnish their self-image, shifting from shame to guilt might also enable you to speak out against con artists.)
Denial and Unshakeable Beliefs
In other cases, the con artist might be so convincing that the mark denies or doesn’t realize they were conned at all. Konnikova writes that this scenario of outright denial happened to dozens of people during one of the first recorded Ponzi schemes in the 1880s. In a Ponzi scheme, the con artist essentially takes money from you, claims it’s an investment that will make you more money, and then uses money from subsequent “investors” to pay your dividends (investment earnings), all while pocketing most of the money for personal use. Ultimately, it relies on more and more people giving money, and the scheme falls apart if everyone decides they want their investment plus their dividends back.
(Shortform note: Although Ponzi schemes are illegal because they’re a type of fraud, they’re still a common con game that many people fall prey to. In 2019 alone, authorities identified 60 Ponzi schemes in the US amounting to $3.25 billion in fraudulent investment—a significant increase compared to previous years. To avoid Ponzi schemes, experts recommend being wary of anyone who promises a very high return on your investment with a low risk of losing money. Another red flag is when your investment return remains high even when the market falters overall.)
A man named William Franklin Miller acquired vast amounts of wealth with a Ponzi scheme in New York in 1889, and even after the newspapers wrote about it and he was on the run from law enforcement, many of his victims adamantly claimed that the operation was legitimate. He had been so convincing that people even continued to send him more investment money via mail.
Comparison of Miller and Bernie Madoff
One of the most famous Ponzi schemes in history is that of Bernie Madoff, who received billions of dollars in purported investments from his victims. Madoff’s sons turned him into the authorities when they learned about the scheme after the financial market crashed in 2008. However, unlike Miller, whose victims remained fervent supporters even after he was exposed, Madoff became widely reviled by his victims. One reason for the difference in attitudes might be because Miller pleaded not guilty after he was caught (and even ran the same scheme under a different name when he was released from prison), whereas Madoff pleaded guilty and admitted what he’d done in court. The scale of Madoff’s scheme may have also contributed to the animosity he received—his crimes and the resulting financial devastation caused people to lose their life savings and homes and drove some people to commit suicide.
In addition, Konnikova claims that religious or spiritual contexts are situations where people are more likely to be in denial or unaware of being conned. She explains that when people offer made-up spiritual guidance in exchange for something they want from you, it often leads to abusive situations, like cult leaders who take advantage of their followers. Konnikova says that people are inherently vulnerable to this type of con artist because people have a fundamental desire to believe in a higher power, to believe a story about how the world works, and to receive guidance about how to live from a seemingly authoritative person who appears to have their best interests at heart.
(Shortform note: Spiritual cults can be difficult to get out of not only because they take advantage of people’s vulnerability, but because cult leaders often force people to cut off ties with anyone who doesn’t support the cult—including the victim’s friends and family—or give up their money and possessions. In Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Charlie Munger explains that this exacerbates the sunk cost fallacy mentioned earlier in the guide: If someone has already shunned their previous community or given money, they feel too invested to give up the cult even when things go wrong.)
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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