What is the book The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova about? How do con artists get away with manipulating their victims? How can you see past their games?
Psychologist Maria Konnikova claims that con artists have existed for as long as human communities have. Con artists are people with an uncanny ability to gain someone’s trust, swindle them, and disappear before the victim even grasps what’s happened—a ruse known as a confidence game, or “con.”
Read below for our The Confidence Game book overview to get the main ideas.
The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova
In The Confidence Game book, published in 2016, Maria Konnikova uses social psychology to reveal the inner workings of cons: What makes a good con artist, and what makes a person an easy target, or “mark”? Through her analysis of common human biases, Konnikova demonstrates that a con artist doesn’t just rely on their own wiles—they rely on our instinctive confidence in the stories we tell ourselves. Konnikova suggests that by understanding these manipulation tactics, we might learn to identify and extract ourselves from cons.
Konnikova is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Mastermind (2013) and The Biggest Bluff (2020). Her research for The Biggest Bluff, about balancing skill and luck, led to her becoming an international poker champion and professional poker player. She is also a contributor to The New Yorker and hosts a podcast, “The Grift,” about con artists and their stories. In The Confidence Game, she examines what makes us consistently fall prey to con artists through a wide range of real examples like the first Ponzi scheme, psychics and clairvoyants, fine art fraud, and spiritual cults.
Characteristics of a Con Artist
Konnikova writes that 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?”
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.
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.
The Elements of a Confidence Game and Why They Work
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: 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.
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.
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.
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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