Maria Konnikova Takes on Cons
Have you ever been conned? I know I have. If you’ve ever felt a little vulnerable, you’re going to enjoy this conversation with my guest Maria Konnikova. Maria’s a New York Times bestselling author. Her first book, Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes, is terrific. Her new book is called The Confidence Game. It’s an outstanding dive into the processes, the minds, the psychology of what it means to be a confidence artist, a con artist, a grifter.
In our interview, we delve into:
- The definition of the “dark triad.”
- How to use the same psychology for good — to influence and persuade.
- Why co-creating stories is so powerful.
Be sure to follow Maria on Twitter @MKonnikova
I apologize for the quality of my audio. We had a technical glitch at our end.
Or bookmark it here to listen to later.
Michael: So have you ever been conned? I mean, I know I have at least twice. I’m sure many more times than that but at least twice, what most noticeably, and I don’t have time to go into the details but I once bought sapphires allegedly in Thailand. They turned out not to be the wealth-creating sapphires that I was hoping for.
Another time I was in Prague for the first time and at the airport and somebody managed to extract money from me because they were desperate to get home and I was their only chance to get a late-night taxi back to where they needed to go. So I’ve stumbled. I’ve fallen. I’ve been conned, myself. And I’m sure all of us have got stories, maybe not quite as dramatic as sapphires but stories like that. And if that’s true for you, if you ever felt to yourself maybe there’s a way I’m a little vulnerable to things like that, you’re going to enjoy this next conversation with my guest Maria Konnikova.
Now, Maria’s a New York Times best-selling author. Her first book Mastermind: How to think like Sherlock Holmes is terrific. And her new book is called The Confidence Game. And it is an outstanding kind of dive into the processes, the minds, the psychology of what it means to be a confidence artist, a con artist, a grifter. And we dig into that not just because that’s interesting in itself, which it kind of is but, also, because there are things that we can learn in our own lives. Not just how to avoid being taken for a con but, also, how can we see some of the psychology behind that and use it for good? Use it to influence. Use it to persuade. Use it to help get what we want in our lives without necessarily resorting to the—being a psychopath or a narcissist or being Machiavellian in terms of getting what we want. So I think you’ll enjoy this conversation with Maria. It’s a nice, good, deep dive, and we’ll, however, apologize for the quality of my audio. I’ve just realized in listening back to the interview with Maria, there’s a technical snafu at our end. So the quality of the audio is not quite up to scratch like it is usually but I know you got big hearts, you’re generous people, you’ll forgive me for that.
And Maria, I’ve waved a flag, I’ve talked about your book. Everybody’s keen to hear you and I’m going to ask you the opening question that I now ask everybody which is this: What are you up against? I mean, what are you no longer tolerating?
Maria: You know, I’m up against people who take advantage of other people. And this can be, you know, con artists. It can be things like fraud but it’s also just generally exploitative people, and I learned over the last several years as I worked on this book that there are a lot of them out there, and there’s a very fine line between, you know, someone we’d call a “con artist” and someone who is a totally legitimate member of society in every respect and yet uses a lot of the same tools for not very nice purposes. And I just have no tolerance for those people anymore.
Michael: Perfect. Well, look, I want to—I mean, your opening chapter is called The Grifter and the Mark, and the grifter of course is the description of the con artist, but tell me about the mark first of all because, you know, honestly, all the people listening to this podcast, super lovely people, and they’re not going to be the grifters. They’re going to be the marks. So, and, you know, I think back on—I mean, you know, in the start(?) of your book, you go, “Well, have I ever been conned? Well, maybe. Maybe I don’t even know that I’ve been conned.” Well, I know I’ve been conned. I managed to buy sapphires and (indiscernible) when I was travelling through Thailand because it was just a fantastic deal, and I managed to give somebody, you know, at an airport in Prague because that was their only chance to get home and they definitely would send me the money back and, so I’m, like, “Oh, man, I’ve been there.”
But what can you tell—is there—are there any distinguishing characteristics of the mark, the person who gets suckered into these things?
Maria: Well, I was really hoping to find some because it would be incredibly helpful, and what I discovered instead is that it all depends. It depends on what the exact con is. So let me give you an example of different investment frauds.
So if you are someone who is going to fall for a lottery scheme, you are likely not going to be college educated, not going to be particularly sophisticated, and, yet, if you’re not college educated, not particularly sophisticated, you are less likely to fall for the big Ponzi schemes. The more educated you are, the smarter you are, the savvier the investor, the more likely you are to fall for someone like Bernie Madoff. So it’s a very interesting dichotomy and you end up finding that over and over and over: that the same characteristics that protect you against one type of fraud actually make you susceptible to another.
The only thing that I found that unites a lot of marks, and I think it makes us all vulnerable or more vulnerable than we otherwise would be isn’t so much a personality trait as it is basically where you find yourself at this particular point in your lives.
People who are emotionally vulnerable are much more susceptible: they become much better marks. And that really happens at moments of life transition. So, for instance, when you fell for your sapphire schemes you were travelling, but why were you travelling? You know, did you have any life changes going on? Or maybe you didn’t even have any life changes but you are out of your element.
Michael: Right. Exactly.
Maria: It’s very interesting that both of the ones that you mentioned you’re in point of transit. You’re either in a different country or you’re in an airport. Everything is in flux. And those sorts of situations, even the ones like the airport where it doesn’t really seem like, “Oh, I’m not vulnerable. You know, I’m not really transitioning. It’s not like I’m going through a divorce; I’m just in an airport,” but your frame of reference is shifting. (Indiscernible) you’re used to. And con artists take advantage of that and they kind of—they take you at your most emotionally raw. And that doesn’t need(?) to be negative; it could actually also be quite positive. It’s just this flux and this lack of stability, this ambiguity, that you then resolve by falling for a con.
Michael: Well, actually, I think that’s a really interesting point right at the start of your book, where you go, “Cons thrive in times of transition.” And what you’re pointing to here is both at an individual level. So if you’re in a place of, you know, uncertainty or turmoil, you know, I was travelling through Thailand the first time. I don’t really know the culture. I arrive in Prague late at night for the first time. I’m a bit anxious about—you know, the Czech language is an impossible language to figure out. So (indiscernible) what’s going on with that. So, you’re right. But you’re also talking about it kind of in historical terms.
Michael: Like, you mentioned the Gold Rush for instance being a kind of turmoil and a place where cons really flourished.
Maria: Absolutely. Well, that was kind of the first golden age of the con in the United States. That’s where all the original long con games came(?) to the US, was during the Gold Rush and kind of westward expansion. So you have the—even the original names, you know, The Big Store, you picture—you know, at least, I picture people in, you know, big hats. I picture a western movie (indiscernible).
Maria: And that’s actually kind of not terribly dissimilar from the reality because it’s a new opportunity. It’s changes where you’re not actually sure what the proper frame of reference is so you don’t know if it’s going to be more stupid of you to go for the opportunity or to ignore the opportunity. You don’t know which one is the right answer.
And actually right now we’re going through something quite similar with the internet and with all of this just, you know, influx of technological innovation. Every new technology—let me just say, this isn’t new to the internet—every new technology brings new cons with it. So, you know, there was the wire fraud the moment the telegraph was invented. The moment, I’m sure, that one of the first phone calls, after Bell’s invention, was (indiscernible due to laughing). So it just comes with the territory.
But with the internet, everything is changing. Like, the internet I think is the fastest kind of communication technological change, and so, people really aren’t sure. You know, “Am I being gypped or is this a good deal?” “Am I being totally (indiscernible)?” And “Am I an old fogey?” No one wants to be an old fogey. I don’t want to be an old fogey.
Michael: You know, I’m trending towards that these days, so, you know, I’m getting there. But you’re right. I think, generally speaking, people aren’t interested in being an old fogey.
Maria: Right. And so …
Michael: Let me ask you this, then. You’re talking about the flux of our times, that marks—it depends on the con, it depends on where you’re at, it depends on where history’s at. But we do know something about people who tend end up on the other side, the people who are willing to do the long con and who are willing to take the money or devastate the person’s life. You talk about this “dark triad.” Can you tell us a little bit about what that is?
Maria: Absolutely. Absolutely. So the dark triad is a term that psychologists came up with a number of decades ago to talk about a certain set of characteristics in people who trended towards darker behaviours. And these are a(?) Machiavellian as narcissism and psychopathy. So psychopathy I think is the one that we tend to bandy about the most in casual conversation. I mean, you say, “Oh, he’s a psychopath. You know, that’s psychopathic.” But it’s actually the most rare.
So, out of the—so the way that I look at it is basically, it’s (indiscernible) diagram where you have one circle as con artists, one circle as psychopaths, and then they do overlap, but the psychopath circle is actually quite small.
Michael: Right. It’s, like, 1% of the population, right? In jail.
Maria: Exactly. Exactly. And a lot of psychopaths don’t end up being con artists. But this is kind of this lack of empathy and a lack of effective(?) experience. Your emotions are not the same as they are in someone who’s not a psychopath and has a normal brain. And what ends up happening is it gives you the callousness that you need to take advantage of people, because if you even think about, you know, we were talking about the grifter and the mark, it’s the mark. You know, that’s not a human. A mark is a—it’s a very dehumanizing term. And that’s how con artists need to think of their victims: They can’t think of them as a victim. The moment you say “victim” is the moment that, as one con artist said, you’re dead in the water. So you can’t have any sympathy.
So that’s what psychopathy enables. But like I said, not all con artists are psychopaths. I think most con artists do have the other two characteristics, which is narcissism and Machiavellianism.
Narcissism is this ego and sense of self but also a sense of entitlement. “I’m not doing anything wrong because I deserve it.” So there’s this guy I write about in the book, Ferdinand Waldo Demara, the great imposter, who would …
Michael: Great story.
Maria: Yes. And he—one of the reasons I love it is he just—he was so many people over decades, and he always took these really wanted credentials. You know, he was a MD, he was a PhD, he founded a religious college, he (indiscernible) surgery. I mean, this guy—I don’t know what this guy didn’t do. He was an engineer who almost built a bridge in Mexico. Luckily he did not.
But his attitude wasn’t, “Oh, ha ha ha, I’m pulling one over on people.” It was, “I am entitled to these credentials. I’m smarter than the PhDs, I’m better than the doctors. So I’m just going to take them; they’re mine. I’m just—the world owes them to me.” So that’s what narcissism enables you to do.
And then the final part is Machiavellianism and I think it’s actually, probably, the most important because it’s the art of persuasion. It comes from Machiavelli’s Prince, and it’s being able to manipulate people without their realizing that they’re being manipulated. So you think that you’re doing something because you want to do it but actually you’re doing it because someone is manipulating you. But you have no idea. So like you giving money in the Prague airport. You did it because you’re a good person, right? Not because someone was conning you.
Maria: It was your own desire to be good and to help someone. And they make you think that, you know, this is your decision, not “I’m going to figure out how to get him to give me money.”
Michael: All right, here we are. The rapid-fire round. Three good questions to get you thinking, provoke it for our audience as well. So, first question is this: What’s the crossroads that you’ve come to? You’ve made a choice that’s made all the difference for you in your life.
Maria: So I’m going to actually cheat a little in answering this question and say that I don’t believe in crossroad decisions. So I don’t think that there’s one single decision that influences a person’s life. I think a lot of people in retrospect like to go back and say, “This is a moment when it all changed” when really it’s a combination of tiny decisions, tiny mind shifts along the way, and there’s so much luck that goes into it, frankly, that it’s not a decision. It’s just things—you lucked out at certain points in time. And so I hesitate to go back in my history and say, “This is what made all the difference.” I think it’s a lot of different things.
Michael: Well, let me ask you the question in a different way and you can still not answer it but what’s the moment, that combination of tiny decisions, luck and everything else that tipped you one way or the other that made the difference for you?
Maria: Well, I think that that moment was actually not my decision, but my parents’. The fact that they chose to leave the Soviet Union and come here, and that I grew up in the United States rather than in Moscow where I was born. That changed everything. I have no idea what my life would be like had they stayed and had I been raised in a country that is just totally different.
Michael: So that’s great. A good answer. I’m glad(?), and thanks for me helping me reframe(?) the question as well. That’s useful. I’ll use that again in the future.
Maria: Sorry. I wasn’t trying to evade the question.
Michael: No, no, no. It was a perfectly legitimate reframing, request for a reframe. Here’s the second question, and you can reframe this one as well if you like, but it’s this: Who’s work has influenced your work?
Maria: There are two people with whom I’ve had the distinct privilege of working over the years, who’ve really changed how I look at the world. The first was my undergraduate advisor, Steven Pinker, who was, and remains, a mentor and such an influential thinker and someone who actually showed me that it’s possible to have brilliant ideas, do brilliant work and then communicate them to people in a way that actually makes a difference.
[Talking at the same time]
Michael: And he’s written so many great books. Yeah.
Maria: I think that that—yes. Absolutely. So that is incredibly lucky. And the other is also an advisor: My graduate advisor, Walter Mischel, who’s now in his mid-80s. He did the original marshmallow studies back in the 50s and 60s.
Maria: Yeah. And he is probably the wisest person I’ve ever met. So I’ve just learned so much from him about life and about what’s important because when you get to be, you know, 80 (indiscernible), 81, 85, your perspective changes. And he’s taught me to appreciate things in a much deeper way, and to help perspective even now, to figure out, you know, what is truly important and what isn’t.
Michael: I love that. And you know, the marshmallow study has become the kind of Southwest Airlines of the new business books. It’s, like, a decade ago every business book mentioned Southwest Airlines. Now I think every business book mentions the marshmallow study. So he’s really caught something in the popular understanding of life there.
Maria: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Michael: All right, third and final question is this. You know, at Box of Crayons, we talk about doing less good work, kind of your job description, and more great work, work that has more impact and work that has more meaning. How do you think about great work for you at the moment?
Maria: I think of it as a few different things. So obviously, you know, there’s my writing but I’ve recently started mentoring students, both in writing but also just in life. There’s this great mentorship program in New York where you’re just matched with someone and you get to help them through kind of big decisions. They’re in their final year of school. And it’s really wonderful to be able to connect—this makes me sound so old—to young people. To younger people. And to—you know, to have a chance to help them and kind of be the older sibling that not everyone has. And I also learn a lot in answering their questions because I don’t know the answer. Most always I have to try to think about it. And it actually has helped me figure out a lot of decisions in my life that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to approach.
Michael: That’s perfect. Lovely, Maria. Right. Let’s get back to the original interview. Here we go. (Indiscernible) that insight about Machiavellianism. You know, in the book you actually lay out the eight stages of the con. Everything from the put-up, which is you first identify the victim, to the blow-off from the (indiscernible), which is basically where you set things up that they’re going to tell anybody because they’re too embarrassed about.
Maria: Mm-hm. Yeah.
Michael: They’re kind of trapped into their own shame and humiliation around it. But after you put-up, which is when you identify the victim, the mark, then comes the play, which is when you build this sense of empathy and rapport.
Michael: And maybe you could just talk about, you know, how do you go about doing that because I think whether you’re a con artist in the making or not, there’s something very important about how do I quickly build empathy and rapport just as a way of being influential in the work that you do? I mean, you reference Robert Giodani in your work.
Michael: And he’s all about, you know, influence.
Maria: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Michael: Talk to us about what we can learn from con artists about how to build influence through rapport and empathy.
Maria: Yeah. And I think that’s a really important point: that a lot of these tools can actually be used for good. And I also point out (indiscernible) that one of the con artist’s bibles is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie which is all—it’s a business book. It’s not a book about how to be a con artist, but these can actually be very good tools.
So, I think the most fundamental thing is what is actually the first commandment of the con artist. So there’s this con artist in the 20th Century, Victor Lustig. He sold the Eiffel Tower a few times. He’s famous for a lot of different shenanigans. But he wrote something called The Commandments of the Con Artist, and the first one is something that gets at the heart of how to build empathy. And it’s that a con artist isn’t a good talker; a con artist is a good listener. So a con artist is someone who truly listens to you, who hears you, who wants to know what you’re saying. And obviously they want this information so that they can figure out how to exploit it. But it’s absolutely crucial for building connections because what are we doing when I’m listening? I am figuring out what you’re like. I’m figuring out, you know, what kinds of things you like, what makes you tick, what motivates you, what makes you you. And these are the things that I can use to build a connection with you.
“Oh, here are our points of similarity. Look, I’m similar to you. This is what’s familiar to you. Let me use that as a base for starting to build this unfamiliar landscape for you but I’m starting from your point of view, not from my point of view.” And so we’re building this together; I’m not just suddenly kind of coming at you from nowhere.
“And let me involve you. Let me tell you a story that’s not just a random story. It’s a story in which you’re a protagonist. We’re in this together. You know, it stems from you and we are going to craft this narrative. We are going to kind of go on this journey together. Rather than here’s a journey. Like, this is my thing. Don’t you want to come along?”
Michael: (Indiscernible) we’re about how you craft a story that has me as kind of a co-creator or co-protagonist. And that’s very interesting, and I can see the difference between you telling me your story and me feeling like my own story is somehow unfolding in front me. But can you maybe give an example or just kind of bring it to life?
Maria: Absolutely. So it starts with an emotional base. So I need to figure out, you know, how do I draw you in emotionally so you—let’s go back to you as an example. In Prague, there was a sob story, right?
Maria: There was something that was very sad but it wasn’t—I’m sure that this—was it a man or a woman?
Michael: It was a man.
Maria: So I’m sure that this man didn’t just say “I need money” and didn’t just kind of cry. I’m sure it was more of an appeal to, you know, let’s figure out, you know, “I need to get home. Can you help me? Let’s figure out how to do this.”
Michael: Exactly. “I’m a fellow professional here.” He had a fake business card made up from one of the banks. So it’s, like, you know, “Look, you understand. We work together.”
Maria: You understand. Exactly. “You can sympa—you know what it’s like because I’m like you. So let’s create this story where you help me because you’re a good person and you’re—you would want someone to do this for you.” And so all of a sudden you’re both in this thing rather than him just telling you this, you know, “Oh, you know, I have a wife and kids.” He picked his victim incredibly well, and probably if he appealed to me he would do it very differently. He would talk about, “You know, my wife is exactly like you” and he would just do something that would actually draw me in in a different way. And you can do this, and it doesn’t have to be a sob story. This can be, you know, a fabulous wealth story. There are so many different angles you can take and I think the key is you really need to understand—this is why it begins with listening—you need to understand who the person you’re talking to is so that you can create something that fits with their world, with the world that they already believe in.
Maria: So I think one of the key insights that I got from con artists is that nobody actually sees the world as it is, nobody—you know, nobody sees reality. Everyone’s living in their own little world. That’s very egocentric, and that kind of is coloured by their own biases and perceptions, and my world is different from your world even though we might be in the same space, we might be having the same conversation right now but we’re experiencing it slightly differently. And the gift of the con artist is to figure out what your world looks like and then that’s the world we’re going to build on rather than any other version of it.
Michael: You know, what’s interesting about that, what it reminds me of is the work of Marshall Rosenberg, and he created a school of thought called “non-violent communication”, just helping people communicate more clearly.
Michael: And he made the distinction between people’s wants and their needs.
Michael: And the wants are—they’re kind of the superficial stuff. You know, the here and now (indiscernible), but he then says, “Look, there are nine also deeper human needs that drive all of us.” And I think they were, like, affection, creation, recreation, freedom, identity, understanding, participation, protection and subsistence.
Michael: And what I think I’m hearing from you is that part of what a con artist does well is kind of figure out that deeper need and speak to that as the thing that you may get as part of this—being part of this story together. Beyond just the immediate payoff.
Maria: That’s absolutely right. I mean, that is—I mean, that’s con artistry and empathy 101. I mean, if you think about it, that’s what (indiscernible) is also built on. You know, what does it feel like to be this person? What is it that they want? What is it that they’re missing? You know, what would make their world complete? You need to understand that in order to truly empathize with someone. And it can be really difficult to do. And I think you’ve hit the heart of it. That’s what—that is a gift that con artists have: identifying that.
Then, of course, they can press that button, because if that’s your deep need, then that’s going to be where you’re also most easy to influence because hardly any of us—I won’t say none of us—but hardly any of us think that, you know, the world is such that we’re never going to get that deep need. That it’s just never going to be met. We might be pessimistic, we might think that we’re unlucky. You know, we might have all sorts of, kind of, ways to deal with the fact that it hasn’t happened, but we’re fundamentally hopeful that at some point, you know, the future will be better and this will all work out. And I think feeding hope is what con artists do incredibly well.
Michael: Nice. Yeah. Let me flip the focus a little bit because, you know, one of the distinctions you make early on in the book is just the difference between a short con and a long con and, you know, being hit up in that airport in Prague, a short con. You know, it was, like, 20 minutes (indiscernible). Buying sapphires, a slightly longer con. It was, like, an eight-hour sting. You know, the guy, he spent a lot of time getting to ingratiate himself with me before finally kind of persuading me to come and buy sapphires. It’s a longer story, but, you know, eight hours. And some of the stories you talk about in your book are, like—they’re years in the making.
Maria: Yeah. Yeah.
Michael: And what, if anything, would you learn from con artists and from your research around the patience of the con artist? Because it’s incredibly impressive to me to keep seeding the ground for a payoff that, you know, could be a long way away.
Maria: Yeah, it’s infinite. And I think that this actually—this is one of the really good points of evidence, and I haven’t actually thought about it in this way before. So thank you for actually kind of changing my frame of reference a little bit.
Maria: I think it’s a very good piece of evidence for why con artists aren’t actually motivated by money. They’re motivated by something else. They’re motivated by power over other people, by the thrill of the game, by kind of that rush of knowing that you’re manipulating other people’s lives. And so when you have someone who is working a con for years, you might think, “Wow, he’s not getting that much money in the interim. You know, how is he doing it?” I think it’s because he’s feeding off of that feeling of power. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s laying this groundwork. He’s actually, you know, crafting a new reality. So one of the cons that I wrote about was the David Green family in France. And there was this man, Terry Tilley(?), who, over years, managed to persuade this aristocratic family that they were the targets of a Masonic plot. I mean, it’s like he took it from Dan Brown. And that they—were basically that there were these sinister forces who were out to get them. And over the course of years he stripped them—they handed over all of their money, their estate. They ended up living in England, in menial jobs, with no money whatsoever.
Michael: Forget the menial jobs. Just living in England is going to kill you (indiscernible).
Maria: Yes. And this was—and then Brexit happened.
Michael: Right. You’re right.
Maria: [Sounds of dun, dun, dun] But he did this for so long and you would think, “Wow, you know, what a patient man.” And he is, but I do think that there was something that …
Maria: (Indiscernible). That kind of—think about that ultimate control.
Michael: Because you tell quite a lot of stories and it feels like, you know, that somebody , a con artist will make a lot of money from a con and then three years later they’re back doing it again. And you know, it can’t entirely be because you’ve run out of money. It’s something about the thrill of the game that keeps pulling people in.
Maria: Absolutely. And I think one other thing that I will mention is that a lot of con artists—we talked about Ferdinand Waldo Demara—he had a lot of opportunities to go to straight. He had a lot of legitimate job opportunities. He turned them down, or he tried them and then he couldn’t stick with it and he ran away and became a con artist again. And I think the incredible rarity of the con artist who does quote-unquote go straight shows that there’s something else there. Because a lot of them, they’re so smart and they’re talented.
It’s not like being a con artist is easy; it’s actually very hard work. (Indiscernible) think about how many resources it takes to, you know, create a fictitious identity, just to maintain a complete fiction of your life. It’s actually—it’s pretty taxing. It’s like being a spy, except for yourself.
Michael: Yeah. I can barely my own life trying to be myself, let alone trying to be somebody else.
Maria: Exactly, exactly. So they—you would think that, you know, they would be very good at a lot of legitimate jobs and they probably could make more money often in legitimate jobs, but they choose not to. And I think with that, that says something.
Michael: So Maria, our time is almost done(?) and it feels like, you know, we’ve barely scratched the surface of the book. I know there will be people who want to learn more about you and about the book. The book is called The Confidence Game: Why we fall for it every time. Where can people find out more about you and the work that you do?
Maria: People can find me on Twitter. I tend to post all of my writing there. That’s mkonnikova. And I’m on Facebook, too. And I have a web page which is just mariakonnikova.com.
Michael: And would you just spell Konnikova for us? Just so …
Michael: Because I’m guessing it gets misspelled at least once a day.
Maria: Yes. I do not play tennis and there is no R in it. It’s K-O-N-N-I-K-O-V-A.
Michael: Maria, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you.
Maria: Thank you, Michael. It’s been wonderful.