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In her latest book, NewYorker.com science-and-psychology writer Maria Konnikova takes a deep (and entertaining) dive into the world of con artists — and their marks. The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It … Every Time, addresses both to our fascination with the con, and our fear of being conned. Luckily, we didn’t have to trick her into talking money with us.
You write that don’t know if you’ve ever been conned — but that’s partly because the best cons are the ones we never discover. Still, you do note that you’ve never, for example, played three-card monte or bought into a Ponzi scheme. Are you by nature a skeptical, cautious person, particularly when it comes to money?
I was born in the Soviet Union, before the fall of the Berlin Wall — and, you know, that was not an atmosphere that was congenial to trusting anyone. [Laughter.] So my parents taught me: “If it seems too good to be true, it 100% is too good to be true.” You really have to be skeptical — not to the point where you don’t trust anyone, but you have to ask questions, you can’t take anything for granted.
I became fascinated by con artists a couple of years ago — and realized I’d been thinking about the subject for a long time without realizing I was thinking about it.
So do you avoid risk at all cost?
My grandparents literally kept money under the mattress – never in a bank. I do not keep any money under the mattress. But I don’t invest in the stock market. It’s not because I don’t want to, I just really want to understand something before I do it. If I were to invest, I’d really want to learn about it.
When my family came here we had no money, no connections, and everything we had was what we earned. My mom always made it clear that credit card debt was a very bad thing. When I started trying to make it as a writer, on a laughably small income, I did things like only paying in cash: I’d give myself a budget, however many dollars a month, and that’s it.
I also think it’s important to always have money in savings, which I do. So I always know that no matter what happens I’ll be okay for a while.
You mean you always have enough saved to cover everything for some period of time?
Between six months and a year, it fluctuates. I was taught to save a little every month, no matter what. It’s a good habit. I never really thought about it till now.
You make the point that anyone can be a mark — “it’s not who you are, but where you happen to be at this particular moment in your life.”
Yes, I’m sure for example I’ve given money to someone who didn’t actually need it – who was giving me some sob story. And that’s a con: If someone is manipulating your emotions to get some cash, that is absolutely a con artist.
The book suggests a kind of built-in desire to believe, which helps the con artist. Is that an American thing, or a human thing?
That’s a good question. On some level it’s a human thing: We all see ourselves through slightly rose-colored glasses. But “I deserve this,” or the concept of “that’s not fair, someone owes me” — that’s quite American. If you uttered those ideas in Russia, people would just burst out laughing. They’d say: “That’s really cute.” [Laughter]
And you push back against the assumption that today’s technology makes us more con-proof.
Technology actually makes us more vulnerable. First of all it makes us feel we’re so sophisticated, we have all of these things that will protect us – that’s a feeling con artists can easily take advantage of.
And we’re leaving so much information out there. That adds up to so many ways to approach a victim.
You talked to some experts about how to stay objective and be less susceptible to cons — so is there hope or should we all just trust no one?
Beware. [Laughter.] No, I don’t want people to come out of this pessimistic. One thing we can do is try to think through potential situations in advance, and how we might react to them. We think we we’ll just figure it out, but what we need are specific plans: “This is my limit, no matter what.” That helps you exit those situations with grace. I think that you want to be aware, but it really is a minority – most people are not out to get you.