How to Become a Con Artist (So You Can Outsmart Them)

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 the steps to a confidence game?

Con artists will do everything in their power to manipulate you. But the truth is, most of them follow the same five steps. You can learn these steps so you can spot when you’re being conned and avoid the consequences.

Continue reading to learn how to become a con artist to avoid being played.

The Elements of a Confidence Game and Why They Work

In The Confidence Game, Maria Konnikova claims that the con has 10 key elements (the put-up, the play, the rope, the tale, the convincer, the breakdown, the send, the touch, the blow-off, and the fix). We’ve consolidated these elements into five general steps that teach you how to become a con artist: identifying a vulnerable person (the mark) and figuring out their desire, gaining the mark’s trust, persuading the mark to do something, seeing how far they can push the mark, and finally, escaping and ensuring that the mark won’t speak out. 

Overall, Konnikova asserts that throughout the con, the con artist takes advantage of natural human instincts—ones that generally evolved to help us in some way. They also prey on our innate desire to believe in ourselves and that good things can happen to us because we deserve it. In the rest of this section, we’ll explain how each of these tactics unfolds and the human biases that make us play into the con artist’s hands.

(Shortform note: Although Konnikova says that con artists prey on human nature and thus, everyone is susceptible to cons, some research identifies types of people who are specifically vulnerable to financial investment cons. These include men who are at least 70 years old as well as people who are more comfortable taking risks, welcome sales pitches, are more likely to take unsolicited phone calls, and view wealth as a sign of success.) 

Step 1: Identify and Size Up the Mark

This first step requires the con artist to read you (the mark) accurately. Konnikova says this might include detecting your mood, making observations about how you like to be perceived (like noticing if you seem to have spent a lot of time on your appearance), or keying in on details, such as your occupation or where you’re from. 

All of these details help the con artist with the subsequent steps by revealing your unspoken desires, which the con artist can then leverage to gain your confidence. For example, if the con artist observes that you’re a low-income college student, they might infer that you’re particularly susceptible to someone offering you a quick and easy way to make cash. 

(Shortform note: In Surrounded by Idiots, Thomas Erikson describes several observations (relating to body language, vocal cues, and writing style) that you can make to identify someone’s personality type to facilitate better communication. However, these are also the kind of details that a con artist could observe and use against you by tailoring their communication style to make their pitch (and their personality) more appealing. For example, Erikson says that a person who uses sharp hand gestures and intense eye contact has an aggressive personality type. This suggests that a con artist would be more persuasive to that person if the con artist cuts to the chase when speaking with them and holds firm in their opinions.) 

Step 2: Gain the Mark’s Trust

The next step of the con, Konnikova explains, is using the information from the first step to gain your trust. The con artist uses three main tools that automatically make us more likely to trust someone: similarity, familiarity, and appeals to emotion.

When leveraging similarity, the con artist might mirror back the traits, interests, or experiences they observed in you. For example, they might pretend they graduated from the same university as you or lived in the same town. This subtly nudges you to trust the con artist because you’re so much alike—in other words, if you think of yourself as trustworthy, then you assume this other person just like you must also be trustworthy. 

To appeal to familiarity, the con artist might pretend they’re a friend of a friend. This appeals to your sense of being a good judge of character by suggesting that if they’re already linked to you through a mutual friend, then they deserve your trust. Or, they might pretend that they work at the same company as you and stage a casual run-in before introducing the con in your second encounter. Since they’re an “acquaintance” that you’ve had one positive experience with, you’re automatically more likely to trust them. 

Konnikova notes that both similarity and familiarity can be faked with very little background information. In addition, the more we trust someone, the more information we share, giving the con artist an even greater advantage in manipulating us.

Lastly, Konnikova explains that con artists gain your trust by appealing to your emotions. In particular, when someone tells you a sad story, it activates your empathy and makes you more likely to let your guard down and trust that person. 

Step 3: Persuade the Mark to Do Something

Konnikova writes that once the con artist has sized you up and gained your trust, they will persuade you to do something. They achieve this by making an action seem more appealing as well as removing any potential reasons not to take the action—tactics that psychologists refer to as alpha and omega, respectively.

Step 4: Get the Mark to Double Down

In the next part of the con, Konnikova explains, the con artist will see exactly how far they can push you and try to get you to recommit or double down. At this point, something might seem slightly off or go awry—for example, you might notice evidence that the con artist isn’t who they say they are, or you’re starting to lose money rather than earning the money you were promised. During this step, the con artist relies on your self-serving bias, your natural instinct to reduce cognitive dissonance, and the sunk cost fallacy.

Konnikova claims that when you’re influenced by the self-serving bias, you help the con artist by focusing only on rationales and evidence that justify the choices you’ve already made—trusting the con artist and taking some sort of action, like investing your money. In other words, you focus only on the good because you want to avoid thinking about loss and facing regret. 

According to Konnikova, cognitive dissonance is a similar phenomenon where you re-frame the story you tell yourself to reconcile contradictory information about reality versus what you thought was true. For example, you thought you met a great new friend and business partner, but after you gave them some money, they’re nowhere to be found and their phone’s disconnected. Instead of logically connecting the dots and realizing you’ve been conned, you might reduce cognitive dissonance by telling yourself they just had a phone mishap, and everything’s fine. 

To see how far they can push you, the con artist might even disappear for a while, reappear with a reasonable excuse (therefore reaffirming your optimism that you didn’t make a mistake), ask you for more money, and then disappear again. Lastly, Konnikova explains that the sunk cost fallacy makes you more likely to double down on your decisions when you’re in the middle of a con. The sunk cost fallacy is the tendency to keep pursuing one route once you’re already invested in it, and this investment could be time, money, effort, or a personal relationship. It’s irrational because it’s better to cut your losses once there’s evidence that you’ve made a mistake, but instead, you’ll more likely stick with it in the hope that you’ll turn out to be right after all.

Step 5: Escape and Ensure Silence

Konnikova writes that in the last part of the con, the con artist completes 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. 

How to Become a Con Artist (So You Can Outsmart Them)

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Maria Konnikova's "The Confidence Game" at Shortform.

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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