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Maria Konnikova has a Bridge to Sell Us in “The Confidence Game”

Report by Russ Dobler on January 13, 2016 event.

“No PowerPoint today,” said New York Times bestselling author and former NECSS speaker Maria Konnikova as she introduced the lecture on her latest book, The Confidence Game:  Why We Fall for It … Every Time.  “So you guys are actually going to be part of the story here,” she said. As the combined members of the New York City Skeptics and the Jolly Thirteen Club of New York and New Jersey would find out on this January 13, that’s not always something you want.

Al Capone found out the hard way. Konnikova, who has a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University and has contributed to The New Yorker and The Atlantic, among other publications, said the famous gangster fell prey to her favorite con in history, at the hands of one of the all-time great hucksters, Victor Lustig. Instead of simply taking the $50,000 Capone gave him, with the promise twice that amount would be returned in two months, Lustig stuck the cash in a safe deposit box and later gave it back, lying that the supposed investment hadn’t worked out how he expected. Capone, knowing something about shady characters, had expected Lustig to run away with his money, and was prepared to have restitution beaten out of him. Instead, stunned by his honesty, “Scarface” duked the conniver five grand to help him get back on his feet.

“Vick, satisfied with himself, left,” Konnikova said. “Because that had been the scam all along.”

“What is it about what he did that made Al Capone give him the money?” Konnikova asked. “He appealed to Capone’s vanity,” she said. And the more confident you are in being able to judge someone’s character, the more likely you are to get hustled.

“You guys are the best marks there are,” Konnikova told the audience of skeptics. “One of the strong biases that allows con artists to keep going is that we are better than everyone else at everything, including judging character,” she said. For that reason, Konnikova explained, con artists themselves also make for great patsies. I guess you can bullshit a bullshitter.

Take Oscar Hartzell, whose tale Konnikova tells in The Confidence Game. Hartzell invented what was essentially the first Nigerian prince email scam, convincing people they could grab part of deceased explorer Francis Drake’s fortune if they’d pony up some legal fees to free it from the English court system. Hartzell ended up giving a significant portion of his ill-gotten gains to a phony psychic, who, after seeing how fat the pigeon really was, went ahead and blackmailed the master con artist, threatening to expose his hustle if he didn’t pay up. 

“Which once again just goes to show every single person can be conned,” Konnikova said. “There is no amount of skepticism that can actually protect you against this.”

Ferdinand Waldo Demara even conned his own biographer! “The Great Impostor,” played by Tony Curtis in a film of the same name, fired several potential candidates before settling on Robert Crichton, who Demara got to pay for his education and buy him a ranch, on top of portraying Demara as almost a hero in the story of his life. The glowing account stands in stark contrast to the documentation of the deaths Demara caused, not to mention his less-than-pure interest in young boys. 

If it all makes you think that trying to foil conmen is a futile task, Konnikova agrees. “Ultimately, I don’t think it’s possible to arm yourself against them,” she said. “I’m sure that even though I’ve written this book, I will be conned in the future.”

But maybe that’s not such a terrible thing. Konnikova referenced studies that suggest more trusting societies are typically better off, and proposed that victims might feel better when hoaxers take advantage of their hardwired instincts if they remind themselves about the truth of falling for scams. 

“It doesn’t make me greedy, it doesn’t make me stupid, it doesn’t make me dishonest,” she said. “It just makes me human.”

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