The Edge of Belief: Maria Konnikova on the Art of the Con

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

Dr. Joseph Cyr, a surgeon in the Royal Canadian Navy is about to perform surgery on 19 wounded people. Except he’s neither a surgeon, nor a soldier, and Joseph Cyr is not his real name.

How could a well-known con artist pass as a surgeon in the Royal Canadian Navy? How could another con man, C. Thomas Patten, convince his church congregation time and again to give him money, when it went to feed, not the hungry, but his gambling habit? How did Glarfia Rosales fool the art world out of millions of dollars with fraudulent works by the most famous abstract expressionists? These are the questions Maria Konnikova, a psychologist and writer, sets out to answer in The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It…Every Time.

Her journey into the world of confidence men and women takes the reader to the edge of reality, belief, and trust. I spoke with Konnikova about her new book, whether we all have the capacity to become a con artist, and, given her new expertise, the 2016 election.

Evan Nesterak: In the book you write, “It’s the oldest story ever told. The story of belief—of the basic, irresistible, universal human need to believe in something that gives life meaning, something that reaffirms our views of ourselves, the world, and our place in it.” Can you describe the role of belief in the confidence game?


Maria Konnikova: I think that belief is absolutely central to the confidence game. I think we are hard-wired from the moment we’re born to extract meaning out of the world. We cannot accept it when something doesn’t mean something. We cannot accept it if there is no law of cause and effect. I think the most famous psychological experiment of this is the study that was done with shapes. People were asked to describe what they were seeing. All they were seeing was geometric patterns moving around, but nobody explained it that way. They gave them gender and they created stories, they crafted relationships. That is what con-artists use. They give us meaning. They realize that we all have this need and they are only too happy to supply it to us. They craft stories that will tell cause and effect, that will paint the world in black and white, when it’s shades of gray, because we don’t like shades of gray.

EN: Can you describe an example that sticks out to you, where belief in particular got someone in trouble? 

MK: I think in every single con that’s exactly what happens, but one that comes to mind because it was actually a con of belief was the Pattens [C. Thomas and BeBe], who basically created a fake congregation. They scammed their congregation for a really long time out of lots and lots of money that they thought was going to charities to schools to building important missions to all of these sorts of endeavors, when instead it was going to feed C. Thomas’ gambling habit and BeBe’s penchant for Hollywood couture. It really is a scam of belief because it’s a church and these people really trust you, you’re their preacher. You are the person they look up to more than anything else in their life. You’re their spiritual leader, and you’re a con artist. What ended up happening was, even when the they were exposed and when they were at trial, you had people who refused to believe the evidence that was placed in front of them. They were shown receipts. The weekend that he said he was helping these poor orphans, he actually used the money to go gamble in Vegas and he lost it all. They said, no we don’t believe it. He’s a man of God.

“It’s the oldest story ever told. The story of belief—of the basic, irresistible, universal human need to believe in something that gives life meaning.”

EN: How do you define whether something is a con or simply the expression of belief? After all, as you write, “One man’s confidence artist is another man’s spiritual leader.”

MK: The answer is that it’s a question of intention. Were you intentionally deceiving people for your own ends? Or were you being honest about it and they just chose to go along with you? In the case of someone like the C. Thomas Patten, I think it’s pretty clear cut there was deception involved. He wasn’t the spiritual leader that he said he was. He was a spiritual leader of sorts, but he was also somebody who just shamelessly took advantage of and stole from people. But then you have church leaders, who some people would say this guy’s a con artist how can you actually believe what he’s saying, but they didn’t actually deceive you into believing anything. They’re very open and if you buy into their agenda, great. It might not be for you, but they’re above board. I think that’s the dividing line, where is the intentionality? The exact same thing could be a con or not, depending on the beliefs, the rationale, and kind of the motivation of the person who’s doing it.

EN: You participated in a Tarot reading for the book. Can you describe your experience?

MK: It was basically your average psychic reading, where you end up in a situation where you’re throwing off cues without really meaning to. I struggled with how much I wanted to reveal. I’m married, did I want to take off my wedding ring, did I want to change my appearance at all, did I want to just forgo a purse?  Even things like the purse that you bring in can tell a lot about you. I decided to be myself because I wanted it be as legitimate an experience as possible. I know how cold reads work, I know how all of this works, so I knew what was going to be happening, but I still found myself, as the cards were being read, applying everything to myself. You see yourself taking these general statements and applying them to your own life. They make sense because they’re general enough and they’re kind of deep enough that you start kind of nodding and saying you know this actually makes sense, this explains a lot of what I’m going through. And so by the end of it I could tell what he was doing, but I liked him. I thought he was a good guy and I enjoyed the experience. Sure I wasn’t going to give him any more money for any follow-up readings, I don’t think he thought I was going to. But it’s very funny because you can see them taking advantage of you and building up rapport. You see them getting information from you, but it almost doesn’t matter, because you still find yourself nodding along and saying yeah that makes total sense, this is not a bad person.

EN: In your book there are numerous examples of people from all walks of life who fall victim to one con or another. If there’s one lesson, it’s that we’re all the mark at some point. But if anyone can be conned, can anyone become a con artist?

MK: No, absolutely not. We all have the capacity to be conned because that need for belief is a very deep, hard-wired human desire. We are absolutely not all actual con-artists because it is a very specific type of skillset. You have to be incredibly observant. You have to be a very good judge of people. You have to be good at persuasion. There are lots of things you have to be able to do to pull it off. Case in point, there are lots of people who want to be con artists who can’t. They’re just two-bit hustlers because people look at them and say sleezeball. Con artists have to be charismatic, you have to trust them. Now, we’re all con artists on a minor level in the sense that we perpetuate minor lies all the time, we con ourselves, but not a con artist in the real definition of the word.

The exact same thing could be a con or not, depending on the beliefs, the rationale, and kind of the motivation of the person who’s doing it.

EN: Much like the students who ended up believing in the merits of self-interest after they took a microeconomics course, as you researched and wrote about the art of the con, did you feel compelled to try the techniques out? Or perhaps you found the techniques insidiously working their way into your behavior?

MK: It’s a very funny question. Yes and no. I saw how they could be used in a lot of different life situations and saw how they could be really used for good purposes too. Some of the things, they’re just good tips for talking to other people, like remember people’s names. That’s a really good piece of advice. I think it made me realize that we all use some of these techniques some of the time to get what we want. I don’t think it made me want to go out and try to deceive people because what it made me understand was just how devastating these things can be. It made me actually want to do it much less. Sometimes I thought, you know something I do resembles something a con artist does [and] that makes me feel a little bit icky.

EN: After writing this book, what are you looking for as we head into the 2016 election?

MK: [Laughs]. I can’t answer that question. I think we have to realize that all politicians are on some level con artists. They have to be to be good politicians. It’s very easy for me to be overconfident and say I know all the signs of con artists, I can tell you right away which one of these people we should believe. Instead what I’ve learned is actually we’re really bad, and true con artists you can’t really tell. So in some ways the people who seem the most sincere are the ones you have to watch out for. I think you just have to relax and try to focus on the person whose policies you agree with the most and not worry about the whole con artist aspect because it’s part of politics.

EN: You also write a lot about trust. Most people aren’t trying to con us and if we can’t tell what’s a con and what’s not a con you’ve got to just go with it. Can you talk a little bit about trust and the conclusion that you came to?

MK: I think that we do have to realize that the majority of people are totally trustworthy. It would be a really sad existence and society would not function very well if we never trusted anyone, if we just spent the entire time questioning people’s motives. I finally realized that maybe reading a book like mine will help arm you against really big cons, maybe it won’t. But when a minor thing happens that you forgive yourself—that you say, you know what it’s ok. It doesn’t make me a stupid person, it makes me a good person, because trusting people are good people. So yeah I lost $20 or yeah I lost a few hours of my time or yeah I legitimized someone who probably shouldn’t have been legitimized, but at the end of the day so be it. It has made everything else worth it.