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20170723 – The Confidence Game



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The main idea of this book is to review the confidence games (cons in commonly used abbreviation), their methods, and psychological foundation discovered in recent years via extensive scientific research using contemporary experimental technics and machinery. It is illustrated by a multitude of real live examples.



The introduction starts with description of adventures of some aristocrats of crime such as Joseph Cyr who successfully pretended to be a surgeon and actually did surgeries without any education and experience whatsoever. This is a good example of confidence man with no trace of self-doubt whatsoever. This follows by other examples of elegant, self-assured, and convincing con men that succeeded in the art of swindling people. This book is a psychological analysis of how it is done.


The grafter and the mark are probably two the most important parts of any con. The main characteristics are: the personality of the con man and his ability to correctly identify the mark (the person who could be conned effectively). The analysis starts with look at the very effective con man Frank Demara who serves as one of the most prominent examples in this book. The key features discussed are pretty much features of psychopath: low sympathy to people and high levels of empathy in terms of understanding other people. Two features stand out as necessary for success: Narcissism and Machiavellianism, which author discusses in detail. Obviously not all people endowed with these features become con men, but combination of predisposition and opportunity could lead to a grafter to be born. Author also discusses deception and lies everywhere including animals and then how it could be recognized via catching micro expression, specific language, and its use not only in direct, but also in written communications. As to the victim of con the most typical victims are honest people who used to and expect honesty from others, but much more important – people in urgent need of something that con artist promise to provide be it material or psychological. One example provided is a rich mother paying millions to psychic who promised transfer soul of her dead son into another boy’s body. However there is no one size fits all approach in this game. Different people are prone to different cons. Another group quite often becoming victims are conmen themselves, when they are trying to con somebody, consequently opening gates for successful counter con.

Chapter 2 THE PUT-UP

The put-up is about choice of victim. It is often based on intuitive judgment of people that everybody does instantly, but con artists are especially proficient in doing. Author discusses works of psychologist Nicolas Epley who extensively explored process of intuitive judgment. Then author moves from personal evaluation to discussion of psychology of phishing attacks and their victims. An important point here is that repetition generate familiarity, which nearly automatically converts into trust. Another point here is that successful put up includes emotional, time, or situational pressure. Finally author discusses self-selection of victims and even their persistence in believing, even if actual deceiver issues disclaimers.

Chapter 3 THE PLAY

The chapter on the play starts with the story of Australian girl who successfully pretended to be a victim of human trafficking, in process obtaining help and publicity. This brings us to review of work of Robert Zajonc who studied human emotions for decades. One of the most important findings: emotions come first, thinking – second. So the main task of con artist is to generate positive emotions in the mark even before any thinking process would occur. As usual an important part is the story. Author refers to work of Jerome Bruner who identifies two ways to frame experience: propositional and narrative. The former is based on thinking and is dry and difficult demanding logical processing that does not comes naturally, while the second produces the story, which could be easily incorporated into mark’s mind and would generate emotions helpful for con artist. Author provides a number of supporting stories and specifically discusses technic of “wishful identification” when mark tricked into believe that somebody is very successful so he identifies to the point of trusting with money and other resources. This works especially well with investors. Overall the play on emotions by using the stories, especially such emotions that are considered rewarding, but bad like lust, greed, and such helps con artist subdue any skepticism of the mark and succeed.

Chapter 4 THE ROPE

This starts with the story of political campaign when candidate was convinced by swindlers to run and invest only to see his bank account disappear. Author uses this example to define the rope: alpha and omega of confidence game where alpha is increasing appeal of something and omega is decreased resistance surrounding something. This leads to discussion of process of persuasion work of Robert Cialdini. One of the most interesting points is that somebody who agreed provides a small favor will be more likely to provide a bigger one – kind of increasing the stakes. This opens opportunity for roping technic: one person – roper asks for a small favor, and then the second player comes in with the real request. It is also called “foot in the door” approach. Author discusses various technics of roping such as “confuse and reframe” like with pennies turned into dollars, scarcity of access as in Madoff case, promising more and more starting with a small one, and others.

Chapter 5 THE TALE

This is about another tool in con artist toolbox – create a compelling tale of events that lead mark to believe that his actions would lead to achieving self-affirmation and self-actualization. As example author reviews a story of physics professor who was used for drug trafficking by a woman who successfully played his arrogance and sense of exclusivity and superiority. It is called Lake Wobegon effect when everybody considers himself or herself better then average. Author also touches here on another phenomenon when people fail to recognize their prejudices believing that they are above it.


This is about somewhat opposite technic when con artist instead of using inflated self-confidence of mark, inflates his own value overstating abilities, history, and what not, eventually becoming an idol for his marks. This works especially well with investors, art collectors, and other rich people who are looking for somebody with superior skills to entrust their wealth for enlargement. Author provides such examples with con investor overstating return and arts connoisseur who provided her patron with false art.


This chapter is about the con coming to the end when victim begins developing doubt that everything is fine, mainly due to accumulated evidence that it is not. Here author discusses cognitive dissonance between expectation and reality that victim begins to experience and how con artist uses it to delay discovery of the con. For illustration author uses a story with failed investment when con artists managed to continue con even when victim already understood its nature, but still was unwilling to believe. As usual author refer to psychological research and some well known historical events such as Mesmer and commission on mesmerism.


This starts with the story of mass sale of fake paintings and then continues to another story about engineering negligence that led to Teton Dam failure. Both cases illustrate one of the most important tools in the arsenal of con artists: human difficulty with accepting loss, also known as the problem of sunk costs. In other words the more value invested already into something, the less critical people tend to be to this something makes them to invest more and more, even when it become clear that this is a loser.


This starts with another worldwide schema: Francis Drake inheritance, which is used to illustrate a very important for many con enterprises feature: social connectivity and conformism to the groupthink. Author discusses results of research in this area and various strategies of interaction with optimum being tit for tat. From here author moves to multistep games modeling long-term interaction and importance of reputation. For con artist the reputation could be the best tool possible because it opens people to change their game strategy from cautious and reliable to trusting and vulnerable. If the con artist painstakingly built stellar reputation for honesty, the value of possible scam grows in geometrical proportion to reputation. Another important side effect is that in many cases victim’s reputation is so important that the victim decides to keep the fact of being swindled in the secret, ironically providing support to the con artist. Author also discusses value of personification either it is for the purposes of extracting more charitable donations that would go to cute poor child, but not to invisible statistical child or supporting con artist’s claims by his trustfully appearing confederate who provides assurance of schema’s previous success.


The final chapter is about religious cons one of the most effective, popular, and ancient methods of separating people with their resources. At the end author states that after all con artists are actually a necessity of live because they often give ideological meaning to it, especially in situations of some cult and its followers when “one man’s con artist is another man’s spiritual leader”. Author even stated her believe that it is not only oldest profession, but it is the superior profession to all other that it still will be around when all others known professions had faded away.


From my point of view it is a nice review of technics used in con games, which provides for better understanding of human behavior in many other areas besides swindling. Especially interesting would be a review of application of these technics in politics either written large like presidential election or small bureaucratic politics of cheating other people into supporting one’s bureaucratic career. I think that it would also be interesting to apply analysis of con artist’s methodology to giant con jobs of contemporary world such as socialism, global cooling/warming, environmentalist, racialist, and feminist movements. The huge scale of these con jobs moved hundreds of million people, transferred resources from their producers to ideologues many of which where nothing more than con artists, and actually caused tremendous amounts of pain, suffering, loss of live, and waste of resources. I think that extensive education in methods of con artist should be one of the most important part of school curriculum, teaching young generation to recognized when they are a subject to con artist’s attack, either it is with objective to sell Ponzi schema investment or obtain their support for some socialist political measure.


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