Do we always fall for cons?

Maria Konnikova goes through an exciting review of a lot of psychological findings in her book — The Confidence Game. She is an engaging writer and it is well informed by academic research. She has the fascinating story of a con man who passed himself off as a Navy surgeon — extremely effectively. With a combination of supreme confidence and a field guide to medicine he operated on a bunch of patients. (It all went well thankfully).

Konnikova discussed the science behind why we believe con-artists and there is certainly a lot of backing for her ideas. (I was thinking I should play a game of academic bingo with her references, if you get Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman and  Robert Cialdini in a row you get a bonus). The application of research is mostly effective and very well done.

Of course, she says we always fall for cons — which is clearly hyperbole designed to sell books but she was pretty convincing in explaining that we can all fall prey to cons — those who are the most confident of their BS detection may be the most vulnerable. What is also interesting was seeing how people doubled down when the con started to be exposed. Rather than accept we have made a mistake people often further commit to investing in the con — making what might have been merely a painful lesson into a full blown crisis.

I got a little confused with the discussion of the trait based view of con artists. (Although to be fair trait based analysis often fails to resonate with me — it often seems to come down to noting that people who don’t care about others aren’t always super nice but maybe I’m being a bit dismissive). At points Konnikova clearly has some sympathy with the con-artists but at other times she seemed completely unsympathetic. I just wasn’t entirely sure what we should do with con-artists and how much we could all con others in the right (wrong) circumstances.

A key thing we know but can’t ever hurt to be emphasized is just how important the communication of norms is. “the behavioral norms of a company, culture or setting — how it is and isn’t acceptable to act — must be communicated clearly and unequivocally. When they aren’t, it becomes too easy for those on the cusp of fraud to take the next step.” (Konnikova, 2016, page 29). An important warning — people go along with norms and when those norms are bad we are all in trouble.

Read: Maria Konnikova (2016)  The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time Viking