Staff Picks

The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It...Every Time

Sally Haldorson

January 22, 2016


The author of Mastermind, a book that instructed us to think with deduction and precision in the vein of Sherlock Holmes, brings us The Confidence Game, a look at some of the most skillful cons every executed, how the grifters performed them, why people were often willing participants to the bitter end, and how we can be more aware and less likely to be taken for a ride.

Finding myself reading Maria Konnikova's new book, The Confidence Game, as a report broke from the BBC and Buzzfeed this week regarding match fixing in tennis, was an interesting convergence of reading and current events.

Tennis is the only sport I play, and one of the only I’ll wake up at 2 a.m. to watch when streamed from halfway across the world. It was impossible to miss the release of this news. The report invaded the consciousness of even non-tennis fans, and I was asked about it a lot in the first two days following the splash. Because I nerd-out on tennis insider podcasts on occasion, the news didn’t surprise me as much as others. I was aware of match-fixing at the lower levels of the sport, and aware of the few sanctions that had been handed out as a result.

This new report pointed to players in the top 50, players who, one assumes, the casual fan recognizes. But that’s the funny thing about tennis. If you don’t watch the opening week of a Grand Slam, or tune in to top tournaments streamed from places like Acapulco, Kuala Lumpur, Istanbul, and ‘s-Hertogembosch, then you are unlikely to be aware of the next levels of the sport which include the Challenger Tour and the ITF Futures. Much like baseball, there are plenty of professional tennis players who are traveling the country or the world, trying to make a living from a sport that barely pays their expenses.

Despite the million dollar payouts to the very top players who are taking home trophies—if Serena Williams wins this year’s Australian Open, she will take home another $3 million, on top of the monies she has collected from winning over 20 Grand Slams in her career—but someone who traveled to Australia and lost in the first round of qualifying? $4000. And even if you made the main draw and didn’t have to play through the qualifying rounds, and won your match before losing in your next, you’d leave with $35,000. Considering the cost of travel, lodging, food, clothing, equipment, coaching, and, if you can afford it over time, a fitness trainer and a hitting partner, you can imagine that $4,000-$35,000 isn’t going to last very long. The investment, both in yourself and in your team, in order to improve to the levels of the sport that will actually make you money, is incredibly large, and often disheartening.

(The always-excellent Jon Wertheim from Sports Illustrated explains how the economics of tennis make match-fixing possible, if you’re interested in more.)

So when people are outraged by the idea that gambling on the sport has opened it up to corruption in regards to match fixing, offering deals to players to bail on a match, or even a set, or even a number of games, it’s not terribly surprising that some players take the deal. The men’s tour’s top player, Novak Djokovic, now worth something like $50 million dollars says he was offered $200,000 to throw a match a decade ago. We scoff at that in light of the successes of his career, but think what that $200,000 would mean to a player who can’t hope to make that much in one year of traveling the world.

(Wertheim writes more succinctly than I: “You can place a wager on the Tampa Challenger, to pick an event at random. At this tournament, a first round loser earns $104. Someone offers him $200,000 to dump a match and it’s easy to see how temptation could trump morality.”)

There are any numbers of motivations for people to do bad things, things that are considered unethical to the majority. One can understand, to some degree, those tennis players who make somewhat shady choices in trying to boost or elongate their careers, even if you don't empathize with them. (And no doubt there are players who also take these offers to afford less noble pursuits.) But ultimately, when we choose to compromise our values, we do it because we believe that what we are doing is either essential in the short term or will somehow benefit us in the long term. When we want something badly enough, that desire compels us to take a short cut or balance the risk versus the reward. And that’s what Maria Konnikova is intrigued by in her new book, The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It… Every Time. Why do people con other people? And why do people believe the cons? Of course Konnikova’s other agenda is to give us instruction in how not to be suckered in.

This book is not a history of the con. Nor is it an exhaustive look at every con there ever was. It is, rather, an exploration of the psychological principles that underlie each and every game….


I’m not sure how many tennis players (or other athletes) make questionable decisions about their career via scheming managers or questionable advice or skillful cons, but I do think that we all can stand to reflect on how and when there is a risk we get “taken.”

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.


Konnikova goes so far as to assert that it’s actually easier to be conned than to resist a con. Because belief is so essential to us from birth: “it’s better for us to be more trusting. Trust, and not adeptness at spotting deception, is the more evolutionarily beneficial path.” So con artists only have to figure out what it is we most want, how to deliver that thing with some kind of assurance of reward, and then take the money and run, as it were. Do any of the people who approach tennis players first warn the player of the risks they are taking? Do they warn the player that they could get caught, sanctioned, or dependent on a questionable source of income? Likely not. Instead, I would imagine they offer a rosy picture of what that money will make possible. Another year of coaching. A car. A chunk of money to send home to parents who sacrificed for the development of your skills.

I know, I know. I’m totally letting the players off the hook, but is putting the responsibility squarely on their shoulders to blame the victim, and let the perpetrator off the hook? “The confidence game—the con—is an exercise in soft skills”, Konnikova says. “Trust, sympathy, persuasion. The true con artist doesn’t force us to do anything; he makes us complicit in our own undoing.” We aren’t innocent when we don’t do our due diligence of a situation that is unethical or dangerous, and certainly in some situations we are complicit, but the temptation wouldn’t be there if the con wasn’t offered up to us on a silver platter in the guise of our heart’s desire.

Give us a compelling story, and we open up. Skepticism gives way to belief.


Certainly we don’t want to live in a constant state of distrust. There will always be ways in which the vulnerable are hurt, and there will always be people whose self-interest makes them behave in unreasonable or inconsiderate ways. So there is only so much we can do to protect ourselves because con artists are labeled “artists” for a reason: they are very good at crafting situations to which we are defenseless. And our own psychology does us no good:

If it seems too good to be true, it is—unless it’s happening to me. We deserve our good fortune. I deserve the big art break; I’ve worked in galleries all my life and I had this coming. I deserve true love; I’ve been in bad relationships long enough. I deserve good returns on my money, at long last; I’ve gotten quite the experience over the years.


So, we are wired to trust, and we are adept at convincing ourselves that positive things were earned. And the victim is rarely weak; instead, the victim is usually in a situation of particular vulnerability. Mediums, for example, have a population coming to them who have lost someone important in their lives, who are looking for some kind of reassurance that that person either still exists in the universe or that there is life after death. The victim may be singularly tough in every other aspect of their lives, but open to a con in that one.

All cons, Konnikova tells us, proceed in similar fashion:

The put-up is all about choice of victim: learning what makes someone who she is, what she holds dear, what moves her, and what leaves her cold. After the mark is chosen, it is time to set the actual con in motion: the play, the moment when you first hook your victim and begin to gain her trust.


Konnikova is an engaging storyteller, beginning each chapter with a compelling con and breaking up the retelling with examples of smaller grifts and scientific findings. Like the best con and grifter movies, Konnikova’s book spans the globe and is often about the pursuit of the most valuable things: money, love, art, power. But, even as she herself spins wonderful tales, she warns us to be wary of storytelling.

Stories are meant to entertain and educate, to pass the time and record it. They are so natural that we don’t notice how much they permeate our lives.


That’s precisely why they are such a powerful tool of deception, and so vital when it comes to the play. When we’re immersed in a story, we let down our guard.


And there is no more effective story than one that employs emotions. If we have a visceral reaction to the tale being told, we are far less likely to use reason when judging the situation. Con artists use narratives to entrance their prey, making it difficult to unhook from their part in the story. That’s the Play.

That point from Konnikova reminds me of a decision I made a couple of weeks ago. I don’t often stop to give folks who are begging on the side of the road money. I suppose I am somewhat cynical of their true need to be there, asking for help, and hesitant to ‘buy’ their story, whether that story is written on a sheet of cardboard or through the person’s presence. I don’t want to be caught out as gullible. But it’s also true that I rarely carry change or small cash, so even if I were so moved, I would have nothing to give. I make exceptions occasionally. I’m more inclined to stop for someone with an apparent disability if I have the money at hand. And when the weather is terrible, I am far more likely to give out. It seems to me that the panhandler is telling me a story through his or her willingness to stand out in the pouring rain or the frigid cold. And I believe that this is the only work they can get or do. They certainly are working far harder than I am, sitting in my warm and dry car and driving to my warm and dry house or office.

Most recently, on a deadly cold night, I was driving home from the mall, where I’d done some shopping (and perhaps feeling some amount of guilt?) and I drove past a woman asking for change, and it was evident that she was absolutely freezing, and not dressed to be out for long in the snow and sub-zero windchill in what she was wearing. I passed her by, once again, knowing I had no cash, but then I turned around, pulled beside her and asked her if, sans cash, I could buy her a coffee from the Starbucks down the road. She assented gratefully and requested a white chocolate mocha (which, of course, stood out as being a bit fancier than a coffee, but still… she deserved it for her willingness to stand in the cold) which I bought—venti—and she accepted it gratefully.

Sure, I can look back and wonder if she choose that place in the city to stand particularly because there is a Starbucks. Or if she knows she will make more money if people feel bad for her standing in the cold. But that’s okay. For me, there is little that gives me more of a visceral reaction than the idea of animals, children, or the homeless in the freezing cold. I’m okay with being rooked, if I was, because the weather was unquestionably bad, and if I had been standing there, I’d have been cold. What her designs were doesn’t matter, because the story I’m telling myself I’m sticking with.

And that’s the next stage of the con, Konnikova explains: The Rope.

The rope, then, is the alpha and omega of the confidence game: after finding a victim and lowering his defenses through a bit of fancy emotional footwork, it’s time for the actual persuasive pitch.


The story of the Tale is different from the story of the Play: the Tale is that which we tell ourselves. It’s the moment when the con stops being exterior and starts to grow interiorly.

One of our fundamental drives is the need for self-affirmation: we need to feel worthy, to feel needed, to feel like we matter.


And because of that need to be right, or, rather, to not be wrong, we tell ourselves all sorts of things. Another way to put it might be “in for a penny, in for a pound.” So when we find ourselves in the middle of a situation, we often would rather plow forward rather than write off our investment. Especially if what we bought into was some sort of grandiose understanding of ourselves.

Whatever you call it, it means the same thing: we believe we are singular, whatever the circumstances … Regardless of the specifics, we hold an unwavering commitment to the notion that we are special—and not just special, but more special than most anyone else.


We believe what we want to be true. And that’s why so many Ponzi schemes and other examples of financial fraud happen. The victims wanted to believe that they were clever enough to get in on the ground floor, that they were the few to suss out the special case/great tip/secret sauce. Again, it’s our natural tendency to be positive, to believe everything will work out that makes us gamble even on the unreasonable. Why do most parents believe their children have the makings of greatness?

The confidence artist will do everything in his power to bring our better-than-averageness front and center. Grifters appeal to our vanity not about just anything, but about the things that are most central for us—after all, they’ve spent the entire put-up casing our psychology.


Optimistic biases are among the strongest we experience. And so, just as the convincer is irresistible to the mark, so too, can it prove the downfall of the confidence artist.


We’ve established a bond of trust with our deceiver—he’s been good to his word so far.


 Even after we start to experience the signs that things are not what they seemed to me, we do everything in our power to rationalize or even ignore those obvious indications that we are being conned. Most of the time, this is a helpful tendency. You know of any number of people who have suffered through traumatic events and been able to get through them “being selective in our perceptions.” But that also happens when someone gets conned.

Once we suspect we’ve been taken advantage of is exactly the moment when we are the most inclined to double down. Konnikova explains in chapters “The Send and the Touch” and “The Blow-Off and the Fix” that, again, our internal defense mechanisms are set to protect us from being duped, and, in fact, we aren’t aware even how little we can do in the net of a skillful con man who robs us of our control.

That certainty, alas, is an illusory one. It’s the belief that you can always control your exit, a subset of a broader category of beliefs in your ability to control events even when they’ve gone beyond your reach—the illusion of control. We recommit and are taken for all we’re worth, visions of send and touch at once, because we never get out of any situation in time.


And even after our injury has been revealed, the reason we often allow cons to get away their machinations and affront, and to take our losses painfully but quietly is because we simply don’t want people to think we were suckers.

            We are ourselves are the grifter’s best chance of a successful blow-off: we don’t want anyone to know we’ve been duped.


Perhaps the con that intrigues observers the most intently is the religious or spiritual cult. While your mileage may vary in regard to which religious orders out there are cults, why people invest their savings and their souls in certain leaders or groups has certainly been the stuff of movies and books. And with “The (Real) Oldest Profession,” Konnikova circles back to the key ingredient to why we all are vulnerable to the con: belief.

Con artists, at their best and worst, give us meaning. We fall for them because it would make our lives better if the reality they proposed were indeed true. They give us a sense of purpose, of value, of direction. […] That, in the end, is the true power of belief. It gives us hope.


Some might say that professional sports are the greatest con of all. The NFL touts itself as America’s Game, but hides and ignores the damage done to those who sacrifice their bodies in the name of that game. Baseball is called our National Pastime, but its players got caught up in a game of doping for better endurance and explosive hitting in order to gain more fans. FIFA has Blatter; cycling has Armstrong; boxing had Mayweather and Pacquiao. And now tennis has match-fixing. We believe in the integrity and more important ‘best efforts’ of those who entertain us with their sporting prowess. We want to believe what we see. And we cannot look away. Instead we spend billions of dollars and millions of hours falling for some great con every time.

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