In 2008, my then husband and I went to New York for a holiday. On our second day there, we were conned. It was a simple ruse: a guy came up to us on the street, offering to sell us a copy of The Big Issue, a magazine sold by homeless people around the world to give them a leg up. I was familiar with The Big Issue – I’d bought it on many occasions from the colourful local vendors in Melbourne. Why not support those facing similar struggles in New York, the city that we were now – albeit briefly – calling home? We parted with our money easily, buoyed by the warm fuzzy of altruism. The problem, we soon realised, was that I wasn’t holding a copy of The Big Issue in my hands, but rather a copy of The Onion, a satirical newspaper that you could pick up for free at any number of venues around the city. We’d been had, and all we could do was laugh.
We’ve all come across confidence artists, whether we recognise them as such at the time, come to realise only after the fact, or remain blissfully ignorant of the nefarious nature of the encounter. In ‘The Confidence Game’, Maria Konnikova unmasks the art of the con in all its guises, from the Three-card Monte, to high-stakes art fraud and manipulating cults.
Buying a free newspaper – a satirical one, no less – is laughable. But at the other end of the spectrum lies devastation – personal, professional and financial. Konnikova deftly dissects the anatomy of confidence tricks, from the mild to the utterly calamitous. As varied as cons are, what brings them together is the psychology of why they work – why there really is one sucker born every minute, as the saying goes. The intriguing psychology behind each component of the con – the put-up, the play, the rope, to name a few – is uncovered through deep research and remarkable true stories.
The most unnerving revelation in Konnikova’s book is that there is a sucker in all of us. It is our own lapses in rationality and hardwired predilection to believe a good story that makes us putty in the hands of an expert grifter. Konnikova unmasks the techniques of the con, but likewise unmasks the charlatan within each of us – the element that is eager to play along and ignore the better judgement we would employ if it were someone else being conned.
In revealing how easily we can be swayed by the ‘too good to be true’ story, Konnikova doesn’t just tell us how to avoid being conned. She illuminates the irrationality that bleeds into every aspect of our lives, from how we invest in the stock market, to how we rationalise staying in a bad relationship after its use-by date.
The true crime stories in ‘The Confidence Game’ are unlike other true crime stories. There’s no blood and guts and gore; the victims live to tell the tale. But they are no less harrowing. Konnikova’s unrelenting message that this could indeed happen to you – and that you more than likely believe exactly the opposite – runs across every page. It’s a fascinating read, but also endlessly unsettling.
This review originally appeared on the blog Science Book a Day. If you’re in need of a good reading list, check it out!