Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Crisis of Confidence

The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time by Maria Konnikova
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I was in my mid-teens I came home from school one day to find my father reading a letter.  He asked me to look at it, and it was a badly typed message full of misspellings that was  my first encounter with the Nigerian prince scam although I didn’t know it at the time.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“It’s a scam,” I replied.

At that point he actually got irritated with me and started pointing out a bunch of reasons why it could be legitimate.  I was beyond shocked that the man who had constantly told me things like “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” and “If it’s too good to be true then it probably is.” would seriously be considering answering this letter.  If I, an idiot teenager, could see it was a fraud then why wouldn’t a pragmatic adult recognize that?  Eventually the letter got tossed in the trash without Dad sending the Nigerian prince any money.

Years later, when I was about twenty, I had a coworker approach me with a no-risk way to make some money.  He laid out a deal he’d gotten into where you kicked in cash and then convinced others to contribute which moved you up a ladder where you would eventually make like 10 times your original investment.

“That’s a pyramid scheme,” I said.  “It’s illegal, and it’ll blow up in someone’s face eventually.”

He got extremely angry, told me that I was turning down free money and went on to recruit a bunch of other people we worked with.  It was part of a trend that had swept the area, and inevitably a whole lot of people I worked with lost a bunch of cash.

I’ve puzzled over those two incidents a lot since then because I could never understand how I could see that these things were scams while others seemed eager and willing to throw their money into them.  I chalked it up to my inherent cynicism and being a fan of crime novels.  After reading this I have a much better understanding of why people fall for cons, and why they refuse to admit that they even are cons.  To be honest I’ve often patted myself on the back when reflecting about them.  See, I told myself, you’re much too smart to fall for that.

However, thanks to this book I now realize that I’ve also at least twice over the years fallen for a classic when I was approached on the street by women with small children who needed some help.  (“I’m so sorry to ask this, but I forgot my purse and I’m almost out of gas.  Is there any way you could possibly loan me….”)  And even though I had some slight misgivings at the time it was only while reading this that I realized that I had for sure been taken, and that like a lot of people I hadn’t learned my lesson after the first one.  Oops.  Well, at least my stupidity only amounts to about $20 while some suckers have lost much more than that and then went back for more.

That’s part of what makes this an interesting read.  When most of us hear about people getting swindled we usually think it’s just greed and stupidity on the part of the marks, and we have the smug satisfaction of knowing that we would surely never fall for such a thing. Maria Konnikova uses a variety of psychological studies to illustrate how that’s exactly what the victims thought, too.

She highlights how people are essentially hard wired to trust others, otherwise society would just be every person with their back against a wall with a knife in hand.  We also have the deep seated belief that each of us is special, we're surely owed a break and that we’re shrewd enough to make the most of it when it happens.  Combine that with the human tendency to refuse to admit mistakes, and it makes all of us potential rubes.

What makes this entertaining and not just informative is the deft way that Konnikova mixes fascinating true stories of cons to highlight the behaviors she’s discussing, and then she backs that up with the scientific research of the studies which often show startling tendencies.

For example, people usually decide that they're right about something and then cherry pick facts to support their beliefs.  This often leads to people digging in their heels in the face of overwhelming evidence so that they won’t even admit to being scammed.  The book highlights one man in New York around 1900 who ran a forerunner to the Ponzi scheme and was so successful that people were still lining up outside his office to give him money even after he had been exposed in the papers and had fled with the money.  In fact, even after he was arrested and convicted many remained convinced that he was legitimate and it was the newspapers who ruined the whole thing.  (Which also shows that blaming the media for bad news is a very old trick.)

All in all this is a fascinating account of not just the psychology of what makes people susceptible to cons, it’s also an excellent window into the weird ways our minds make us idiots.

Now, I’ve got a nice bridge in Brooklyn for sale if anyone is interested….

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