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"It’s a startling and disconcerting read that should make you think twice every time a friend of a friend offers you the opportunity of a lifetime.”
—Erik Larson, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dead Wake and bestselling author of Devil in the White City
Think you can’t get conned? Think again. The New York Times bestselling author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes explains how to spot the con before they spot you.
“[An] excellent study of Con Artists, stories & the human need to believe” –Neil Gaiman, via Twitter
A compelling investigation into the minds, motives, and methods of con artists—and the people who fall for their cons over and over again.
While cheats and swindlers may be a dime a dozen, true conmen—the Bernie Madoffs, the Jim Bakkers, the Lance Armstrongs—are elegant, outsized personalities, artists of persuasion and exploiters of trust. How do they do it? Why are they successful? And what keeps us falling for it, over and over again? These are the questions that journalist and psychologist Maria Konnikova tackles in her mesmerizing new book.
From multimillion-dollar Ponzi schemes to small-time frauds, Konnikova pulls together a selection of fascinating stories to demonstrate what all cons share in common, drawing on scientific, dramatic, and psychological perspectives. Insightful and gripping, the book brings readers into the world of the con, examining the relationship between artist and victim. The Confidence Game asks not only why we believe con artists, but also examines the very act of believing and how our sense of truth can be manipulated by those around us.
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Maria Konnikova is the author of Mastermind and The Confidence Game. She is a regular contributing writer for The New Yorker, and has written for the Atlantic, the New York Times, Slate, the New Republic, the Paris Review, the Wall Street Journal, Salon, the Boston Globe, the Scientific American MIND, WIRED, and Smithsonian. Maria graduated from Harvard University and received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Columbia University.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The aristocrats of crime.
Dr. Joseph Cyr, a surgeon lieutenant of the Royal Canadian Navy, walked onto the deck of the HMCS Cayuga. It was September 1951, the second year of the Korean War, and the Cayuga was making her way north of the thirty-eighth parallel, just off the shore of North Korea. The morning had gone smoothly enough; no sickness, no injuries to report. But just as the afternoon was getting on, the lookouts spotted something that didn’t quite fit with the watery landscape: a small, cramped Korean junk that was waving a flag and frantically making its way toward the ship.
Within the hour, the rickety boat had pulled up alongside the Cayuga. Inside was a mess of bodies, nineteen in all, piled together in obvious filth. They looked close to death. Mangled torsos, bloody, bleeding heads, limbs that turned the wrong way or failed to turn at all. Most of them were no more than boys. They had been caught in an ambush, a Korean liaison officer soon explained to the Cayuga’s crew; the messy bullet and shrapnel wounds were the result. That’s why Dr. Cyr had been summoned from below deck: he was the only man with any medical qualification on board. He would have to operate—and soon. Without his intervention, all nineteen men would very likely die. Dr. Cyr began to prepare his kit.
There was only one problem. Dr. Cyr didn’t hold a medical degree, let alone the proper qualifications required to undertake complex surgery aboard a moving ship. In fact, he’d never even graduated high school. And his real name wasn’t Cyr. It was Ferdinand Waldo Demara, or, as he would eventually become known, the Great Impostor—one of the most successful confidence artists of all time, memorialized, in part, in Robert Crichton’s 1959 account The Great Impostor. His career would span decades, his disguises the full gamut of professional life. But nowhere was he more at home than in the guise of the master of human life, the doctor.
Over the next forty-eight hours, Demara would somehow fake his way through the surgeries, with the help of a medical textbook, a field guide he had persuaded a fellow physician back in Ontario to create “for the troops” in the event a doctor wasn’t readily available, copious antibiotics (for the patients) and alcohol (for himself), and a healthy dose of supreme confidence in his own abilities. After all, he’d been a doctor before. Not to mention a psychologist. And a professor. And a monk (many monks, in fact). And the founder of a religious college. Why couldn’t he be a surgeon?
As Demara performed his medical miracles on the high seas, makeshift operating table tied down to protect the patients from the roll of the waves, a zealous young press officer wandered the decks in search of a story. The home office was getting on his back. They needed good copy. He needed good copy. Little of note had been happening for weeks. He was, he joked to his shipmates, practically starving for news. When word of the Korean rescue spread among the crew, it was all he could do to hide his excitement. Dr. Cyr’s story was fantastic. It was, indeed, perfect. Cyr hadn’t been required to help the enemy, but his honorable nature had compelled him to do so. And with what results. Nineteen surgeries. And nineteen men departing the Cayuga in far better shape than they’d arrived. Would the good doctor agree to a profile, to commemorate the momentous events of the week?
Who was Demara to resist? He had grown so sure of his invulnerability, so confident in the borrowed skin of Joseph Cyr, MD, that no amount of media attention was too much. And he had performed some pretty masterful operations, if he might say so himself. Dispatches about the great feats of Dr. Cyr soon spread throughout Canada.
· · ·
Dr. Joseph Cyr, original version, felt his patience running out. It was October 23, and there he was, sitting quietly in Edmunston, trying his damnedest to read a book in peace. But they simply wouldn’t leave him alone. The phone was going crazy, ringing the second he replaced the receiver. Was he the doctor in Korea? the well-intentioned callers wanted to know. Was it his son? Or another relative? No, no, he told anyone who bothered to listen. No relation. There were many Cyrs out there, and many Joseph Cyrs. It was not he.
A few hours later, Cyr received another call, this time from a good friend who now read aloud the “miracle doctor’s” credentials. There may be many Joseph Cyrs, but this particular one boasted a background identical to his own. At some point, coincidence just didn’t cut it. Cyr asked his friend for a photograph.
Surely there was some mistake. He knew precisely who this was. “Wait, this is my friend, Brother John Payne of the Brothers of Christian Instruction,” he said, the surprise evident in his voice. Brother Payne had been a novice when Cyr knew him. He’d taken the name after shedding his secular life—and that life, Cyr well recalled, was a medical one much like his own. Dr. Cecil B. Hamann, he believed the man’s original name was. But why, even if he had returned once more to medicine, would he ever use Cyr’s name instead? Surely his own medical credentials were enough. Demara’s deception rapidly began to unravel.
And unravel it did. But his eventual dismissal from the navy was far from signaling the end of his career. Profoundly embarrassed—the future of the nation’s defense was on its shoulders, and it couldn’t even manage the security of its own personnel?—the navy did not press charges. Demara-alias-Cyr was quietly dismissed and asked to leave the country. He was only too happy to oblige, and despite his newfound, and short-lived, notoriety, he would go on to successfully impersonate an entire panoply of humanity, from prison warden to instructor at a school for “mentally retarded” children to humble English teacher to civil engineer who was almost awarded a contract to build a large bridge in Mexico. By the time he died, over thirty years later, Dr. Cyr would be but one of the dozens of aliases that peppered Demara’s history. Among them: that of his own biographer, Robert Crichton, an alias he assumed soon after the book’s publication, and long before the end of his career as an impostor.
Time and time again, Demara—Fred to those who knew him undisguised—found himself in positions of the highest authority, in charge of human minds in the classroom, bodies in the prison system, lives on the decks of the Cayuga. Time and time again, he would be exposed, only to go back and succeed, yet again, at inveigling those around him.
How was he so effective? Was it that he preyed on particularly soft, credulous targets? I’m not sure the Texas prison system, one of the toughest in the United States, could be described as such. Was it that he presented an especially compelling, trustworthy figure? Not likely, at six foot one and over 250 pounds, square linebacker’s jaw framed by small eyes that seemed to sit on the border between amusement and chicanery, an expression that made Crichton’s four-year-old daughter Sarah cry and shrink in fear the first time she ever saw it. Or was it something else, something deeper and more fundamental—something that says more about ourselves and how we see the world?
· · ·
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 view of ourselves, the world, and our place in it. “Religion,” Voltaire is said to have remarked, “began when the first scoundrel met the first fool.” It certainly sounds like something he would have said. Voltaire was no fan of the religious establishment. But versions of the exact same words have been attributed to Mark Twain, to Carl Sagan, to Geoffrey Chaucer. It seems so accurate that someone, somewhere, sometime, must certainly have said it.
And it seems so accurate, most of all, because it touches on a profound truth. The truth of our absolute and total need for belief from our earliest moments of consciousness, from an infant’s unwavering knowledge that she will be fed and comforted to an adult’s need to see some sort of justness and fairness in the surrounding world. In some ways, confidence artists like Demara have it easy. We’ve done most of the work for them; we want to believe in what they’re telling us. Their genius lies in figuring out what, precisely, it is we want, and how they can present themselves as the perfect vehicle for delivering on that desire.
The impostors, like Demara, showing up where they are needed, in the guise they are most needed: a qualified doctor volunteering for the navy when there is a severe shortage of physicians; a prison warden eager to take on the most difficult inmates where no one wants to step in. The Ponzi schemer who arrives with the perfect investment at a time when money is short and the markets shaky. The academic who creates just the cloning breakthrough everyone has been awaiting. The art dealer with the perfect Rothko that the collector simply hasn’t been able to locate anywhere else. The politician with the long-awaited solution to a thorny issue that’s been plaguing the town for years. The healer with just the right remedy, just the right tincture, just the right touch. The journalist with the perfect story to illustrate an important point. And, long before any of these are born, the religious leader who promises hope and salvation when everything seems to have hit a low point, who swears that, somewhere, sometime, the world will be just.
In the 1950s, the linguist David Maurer began to delve more deeply into the world of confidence men than any had before him. He called them, simply, “aristocrats of crime.” Hard crime—outright theft or burglary, violence, threats—is not what the confidence artist is about. The confidence game—the con—is an exercise in soft skills. Trust, sympathy, persuasion. The true con artist doesn’t force us to do anything; he makes us complicit in our own undoing. He doesn’t steal. We give. He doesn’t have to threaten us. We supply the story ourselves. We believe because we want to, not because anyone made us. And so we offer up whatever they want—money, reputation, trust, fame, legitimacy, support—and we don’t realize what is happening until it is too late. Our need to believe, to embrace things that explain our world, is as pervasive as it is strong. Given the right cues, we’re willing to go along with just about anything and put our confidence in just about anyone. Conspiracy theories, supernatural phenomena, psychics: we have a seemingly bottomless capacity for credulity. Or, as one psychologist put it, “Gullibility may be deeply engrained in the human behavioral repertoire.” For our minds are built for stories. We crave them, and, when there aren’t ready ones available, we create them. Stories about our origins. Our purpose. The reasons the world is the way it is. Human beings don’t like to exist in a state of uncertainty or ambiguity. When something doesn’t make sense, we want to supply the missing link. When we don’t understand what or why or how something happened, we want to find the explanation. A confidence artist is only too happy to comply—and the well-crafted narrative is his absolute forte.
There’s a likely apocryphal story about the French poet Jacques Prévert. One day he was walking past a blind man who held up a sign: “Blind man without a pension.” He stopped to chat. How was it going? Were people helpful? “Not great,” the man replied. “Some people give, but not a lot—and most just keep walking.”
“Could I borrow your sign?” Prévert asked. The blind man nodded.
The poet took the sign, flipped it over, and wrote a message.
The next day, he again walked past the blind man. “How is it going now?” he asked. “Incredible,” the man replied. “I’ve never received so much money in my life.”
On the sign, Prévert had written: “Spring is coming, but I won’t see it.”
Give us a compelling story, and we open up. Skepticism gives way to belief. The same approach that makes a blind man’s cup overflow with donations can make us more receptive to most any persuasive message, for good or for ill.
When we step into a magic show, we come in actively wanting to be fooled. We want deception to cover our eyes and make our world a tiny bit more fantastical, more awesome than it was before. And the magician, in many ways, uses the exact same approaches as the confidence man—only without the destruction of the con’s end game. “Magic is a kind of a conscious, willing con,” Michael Shermer, a science historian and writer who has devoted many decades to debunking claims about the supernatural and the pseudoscientific, told me one December afternoon. “You’re not being foolish to fall for it. If you don’t fall for it, the magician is doing something wrong.”
Shermer, the founder of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, has thought extensively about how the desire to embrace magic so often translates into susceptibility to its less savory forms. “Take the Penn and Teller cups and balls routine. They use clear plastic cups so you can see exactly what’s happening, but it still works.” At their root, magic tricks and confidence games share the same fundamental principle: a manipulation of our beliefs. Magic operates at the most basic level of visual perception, manipulating how we see and experience reality. It changes for an instant what we think possible, quite literally taking advantage of our eyes’ and brains’ foibles to create an alternative version of the world. The con does the same thing, but can go much deeper. Quick tricks like three-card monte are identical to a magician’s routine—except the intent is more nefarious. But long cons, the kind that take weeks, months, or even years to unfold, manipulate reality at a higher level, playing with our most basic beliefs about humanity and the world.
The real confidence game feeds on the desire for magic, exploiting our endless taste for an existence that is more extraordinary and somehow more meaningful. But when we’re falling for a con, we aren’t actively seeking deception—or at least we don’t think we are. As long as the desire for magic, for a reality that is somehow greater than our everyday existence, remains, the confidence game will thrive.
· · ·
The confidence game has existed long before the term itself was first used, likely in 1849, during the trial of William Thompson. The elegant Thompson, according to the New York Herald, would approach passersby on the streets of Manhattan, start up a conversation, and then come forward with a unique request. “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” Faced with such a quixotic question, and one that hinged directly on respectability, many a stranger proceeded to part with his timepiece. And so, the “confidence man” was born: the person who uses others’ trust in him for his own private purposes. Have you confidence in me? What will you give me to prove it?
Cons come in all guises. Short cons like the infamous three-card monte or shell game: feats of sleight of hand and theatrics still ...
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