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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 is the psychology behind con artists’ behaviors? What traits are con artists predisposed to?

In The Confidence Game, Maria Konnikova says that many con artists become manipulative and vindictive because they show signs of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. Showing signs of all three together can create a master manipulator.

Below we’ll look at the psychology of con artists to dive into their minds.

Predisposition to the Art of Confidence Tricks

Konnikova contends that the psychology of con artists can be made up of three behaviors: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. These are traits that are often grouped together in what’s called the “dark triad,” but aren’t 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.  

1. 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. 

(Shortform note: Narcissism is sometimes categorized into two subtypes: grandiose narcissism, which fits Konnikova’s description above, and covert or vulnerable narcissism, which can be more subtle. In covert narcissism, people are highly sensitive to criticism and tend to make self-effacing comments in the hopes that others will give them positive affirmation. The two types can also occur together or alternately in someone, suggesting that both could be present in a con artist with the dark triad traits.)

2. 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.

(Shortform note: In The Wisdom of Psychopaths, Kevin Dutton writes that because of these qualities associated with psychopaths, they thrive in powerful positions where they can make decisions that don’t involve emotional calculus. Some of their most common professions include CEO, lawyer, surgeon, salesperson, and journalist.)

3. 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.

(Shortform note: The term Machiavellianism comes from the 16th-century Italian diplomat and historian Niccolò Machiavelli. In The Prince, he describes his philosophy on political leadership, which says that any action is justifiable if it contributes to the strength or stability of the government. Today, the term is considered a personality trait and applies to contexts outside of politics as well.) 

(Shortform note: Although Konnikova describes each trait of the dark triad separately, experts disagree on whether each trait is unique. In particular, some experts argue that Machiavellianism and psychopathy don’t have any significant differences, while others argue that each has specific nuances. For example, some experts claim that people exhibit greater impulsivity in psychopathy compared to Machiavellianism. Nonetheless, research supports the idea that the dark triad of traits as a whole, with their overlapping tendencies, is associated with a wide range of negative behaviors such as higher rates of suicidal ideation (in teenagers), criminal activity, and causing problems in the workplace.)

The Psychology of Con Artists: The 3 Most Common Behaviors

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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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