What makes a con artist, and why are we duped by them? New Yorker columnist Konnikova (Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, 2013) takes us deeply into the art and psychology of the con game.
They are known as "confidence artists," a term first applied in 1849 to William Thompson, who befriended New York passers-by before asking them, "Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?" The con game existed long before Thompson (or Manhattan, for that matter), and it continues today in Ponzi schemes, e-ticket scams, and missives from Nigerian princes. Konnikova dissects the con into its component stages, illustrating each with accounts of con artists whose mastery made them legend and sent their victims to the poorhouse: Cassie Chadwick, who for years posed as the illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie; Greenwich Village psychic Sylvia Mitchell, who cleaned out customers' bank accounts as "Zena the Clairvoyant"; Victor Lustig, the man who twice sold the Eiffel Tower; and many more. She reveals the inner workings of well-known cons and provides insight into techniques such as information priming and the Marc Antony gambit. Konnikova studies the psychology of both the grifter and the mark, laying bare what makes each well-suited for the roles they play in the confidence game. In uncovering the characteristics of a con artist, the author points to a "dark triad" of traits: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. She examines the roots of both deception and trust, and she explores a range of behaviors and attributes that include the chameleon effect (why Dale Carnegie's treatise on winning friends and influencing people is "a sort of unwitting bible for cons in training"), the inherent human belief in positive outcomes, and the sunk-cost fallacy, a tendency that keeps us clinging to an investment despite glaring signs that we should walk away.
With meticulous research and a facility for storytelling, Konnikova makes this intriguing topic absolutely riveting.