Two on Cons: The Confidence Game and Confident Women

The Confidence Game, by Maria Konnikova (Viking, 2016)

Psychologist Konnikova takes a pop psych look at a subject so many of us find magnetically fascinating – con artists and why their manipulations work. She breaks down some of the psychology behind cons and the beliefs and tendencies in the average person that these play to, exploring things like judgment biases, concepts around truth and belief, and willingness to trust.

She begins with the story of Dr. Joseph Cyr (real name Ferdinand Waldo Demara), who held no medical qualifications but conned right into the Canadian Navy and operated on 19 soldiers during the Korean War, an undeniaby gripping intro to this topic.

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?

I found parts of this totally fascinating and unputdownable, and others stretched a bit thin. Not because they were inaccurate, but the studies didn’t feel so wide-reaching, and the explanations wore on me. They were either overly simplistic or lacked deeper insight.

One fascinating concept that did stick is that we’re purposely pretty bad at reading others. Konnikova interprets some data from a study of married couples addressing problems and identifying their partners’ feelings thusly: “We never learn to be accurate people-readers because that expertise can backfire spectacularly.” Our lives are “more pleasant and easy” when we judge inaccurately.

This makes sense to me — if I knew my partner’s every thought or he knew mine we may have significant issues– but at the same time, we do have highly honed, subconscious judgment skills (see: The Gift of Fear). There are a couple of things happening here, I think. But the biggest issue is how the con artist evades our natural detection systems for threat or danger. This is at its strongest when we see examples of that and the psychology behind it.

Psychics are one of my favorite examples, albeit truly one of the saddest. The story Konnikova tells in detail here, of Manhattan storefront psychic Sylvia Mitchell, illustrates this extensively. No one goes to a psychic when things are going splendidly, they go because their lives are falling apart entirely, or at least some traumatic or emotional upheaval: breakup, job loss, death, including that of a child who they’re desperate to get back. Preying on that is sick, especially considering the life-ruining amounts psychics have managed to bilk. I have a weird obsession with reading as much as possible around this topic, maybe because my own relatives, despite many working in science and medicine, believe this shit wholeheartedly.

So as a whole it’s very entertaining, especially the first third, but it can feel directionless, maybe because it switches directions so much.

But then there’s this, in reference to the many impostors who cropped up over the years pretending to be Anastasia Romanov, “the Russian princess whose body was never discovered when the rest of the Romanov family perished.” Record scratch!

Anastasia is originally who they thought was missing from the Romanov remains, along with a male body that had to be her brother Alexei, but we’ve known since 2009 that it was most likely Maria’s body that was found later and separate from the rest of the family. That doesn’t negate anything about the false Anastasias, who all appeared well before anyone knew definitively who was missing, and before Maria’s and Alexei’s bodies were found, but it’s not at all true to say that one of them was “never discovered.” This book was published in 2016. There’s no reason to make a patently false statement that could be fixed with the minorest of rewordings.

So why does this bother me so much? Because there’s been an issue with fact checking in nonfiction that’s been coming more and more to the fore lately, with attention paid to the reality that authors themselves are often on the hook financially for taking care of fact checking, which means it doesn’t happen as it should, among other issues. It’s a bad mess. So when I read one little seemingly throwaway detail like this, that I know already isn’t true, I’m immediately suspicious of what else might not be true and I just have no outside knowledge with which to interrogate it.

There are plenty of sources and cited studies, but I took everything grain-of-salty after reading that.

(On a side note, does anyone know what recent nonfiction book referenced this one? I found this book because an author cited it in another one, and I can’t remember the context and I’m curious. (I think it might be Humankind?) If anyone remembers it being referenced in another science/psychology text, do tell!)

Confident Women: Swindlers, Grifters, and Shapeshifters of the Feminine Persuasion, by Tori Telfer (Harper Perennial, 2021)

Author Tori Telfer tells bite-sized stories of 13 female con artists across history, grouping them into categories of glitterati, seers, fabulists, and drifters (keywords I love). There are women who conned for money, attention, roped their kids into it (the Sante Kimes story is a world of WTF) and to fight in the army before women were allowed, although in true con artist fashion, it wasn’t so altruistic, if it was true at all. Although there were some I wanted a lot more on, Telfer impressively packs the most salient bits into fairly quick ‘n dirty stories.

One of my favorite chapters, and one where Telfer does masterful work in telling full historical context, was (obviously) on The Anastasias, con genre favorites (see: above). Not every story here is given its proper historical context, but when Telfer does it, it’s brilliant. The Anastasias were the best example. The world post-World War I was a tough and often bleak, illusion-shattered place, and everyday life was grim in many places. To quote the scene-setting song “A Rumor in St. Petersburg” from the 1997 animated Anastasia: “Since the revolution, our lives have been so gray / Thank goodness for the gossip that gets us through the day.” (Yes, I know it’s wildly inaccurate in every possible way but I love it nonetheless!) Telfer posits that the possibility of Anastasia surviving was a fairytale happy ending to what was actually a completely horrific story, and people wanted to believe it.

That’s something Konnikova examined as well, our desire or need to believe, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Again, the saddest example here are the psychics. Novelist Jude Deveraux was the victim of a long con by one of these, a gambling addict named Rose Marks. I’d heard of this story but the details of it are beyond-wildest-nightmare territory.

As utterly funny and delightful as this was to read — and I can’t emphasize enough how much it was — it generally doesn’t examine enough about the context of the women’s eras or specificities of their lives and psychology that may have led to their actions. In some cases this just might not be known — their personal details, that is — but elsewhere it was surely sacrificed for the sake of length and the snappy, often hilarious narrative of each chapter. It’s not a terrible omission, as this never had a dull moment, but just worth knowing it’s not an exhaustive history or even close.

Despite the stories’ brevity, it’s surprisingly satisfying, as Telfer seems to know which questions we really need answered, it’s just ultimately thin in that short-attention-span, podcasty kind of way.

These make a good pairing if you’re interested in the subject of cons (WHO ISN’T) as Konnikova covers much more of the general psychology at play.

Any other con artist books that are worth a read?

28 thoughts on “Two on Cons: The Confidence Game and Confident Women

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    1. Yes, the money factor complicates things considerably. But also makes it strange that people are so often willing to part with significant sums despite plenty of red flags.

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  1. Just put Confident Women on my Goodreads TBR. When I was a kid I was very interested in the Anastasia story. There was a made for TV miniseries that got me hooked so I read a book about it. I think we do want to believe that something good could come out of such a sad tale.

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    1. Ooh what was the book? I’d love to read more about it. One of this author’s cited sources was Robert Massie’s The Romanovs – The Final Chapter which sounded good and I’ve loved his other books, but it was published before this story really got its conclusive ending. I’m not sure what’s a more comprehensive look at it! I’m with you, just so fascinated by this part of history!

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  2. Great review as always. I have known two women who did longer term cons – in one I was not involved but found out about the situation later. In the other I did have a nominal loss, but nothing compared to some others who experienced really devastating effects. The most interesting thing to me was that both con artists seemed to be unhappy. The experiences left a bad aftertaste though, and I’m not sure I’d want to read a book about the subject!

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    1. Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry you’ve had that happen to you!!! But I think it’s good to talk about these experiences too, because the reality is that so many people have had it happen in one way or another. Part of my fascination with these is that we had a con artist within a friend group I was part of years ago. Thankfully it wasn’t financial, but he was lying about his entire life and identity and had conned some things around his education, and it looked like it was going to go in a financial way at some point because he had social security numbers from some of us. While I was reading The Confidence Game, another friend was the victim of an employment scam, which makes me so sad because what kind of monster preys on the unemployed, already such a precarious and vulnerable position. But I can understand why you wouldn’t want to read too much about the topic!

      Especially in Confident Women, so many of them seemed deeply unhappy so that is a really interesting point. It’s like no matter how much they get and how far they go with it it’s never what they really wanted.

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  3. Confidence Game was decent, but at the time I was looking more for traits of confident people and how people use specific tricks to fool people into thinking they are super confident. I have hazy memories of the book, but I think it didn’t really address these issues? If you’re looking for more con books, I’ve heard Bad Blood by John Carreyrou is really good. Not sure if you’ve read it before, but really seems like a spine-chilling account of how Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes fooled millions.

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    1. Bad Blood was amazing! Such a wild story. I don’t remember that it focused as much on her personality and what specific tricks she used to project that confidence though, but it was a very compelling story and the way he wrote and structured it was outstanding.

      You’re right, Confidence Game didn’t address that kind of personality trait topic, it was more about the psychology of how people in general believe or can be fooled. Like you said it was decent, but I wanted something more from it, including more extensive psychological research instead of a lot of one and done studies that were used to draw conclusions.

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  4. Yes, am going to read both these books, love a con artist story. I mean, someone doing operations with no medical training, yikes! It partly appeals I think because I have a very clever, capable husband who lacks confidence and suffers from impostor syndrome feeling he is not qualified or good enough,he is the polar opposite of the not qualified but lots of confidence con artists. Have read a few con artist books, probably most of them recommended by you! There was the one about the Instagrammer who claimed to have cured her cancer, Belle ?? In Australia. On another note, it’s dangerous to mention Anastasia to me, you know I always start with Boney M Ra Ra Rasputin – and have you seen the divine Cale brown doing dance to that song on Insta? Oh my poor menopausal hormones….

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    1. Oh that’s so sad, that he feels that way! And having accomplished so much! But yes, it is really interesting psychology at play, how many people SHOULD be more confident and aren’t and vice versa. Like that Yeats line – the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity, I think it is?

      Yes, the Belle Gibson book was a favorite of mine! Such a crazy story and validates my suspicions of the influencer types. They just spout such utter bullshit with nothing to back it up! Granted not usually as egregious as what she did, but she still.

      And you know I can’t resist the Rasputin song in any iteration, that video was art!

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  5. Thanks so much for these reviews. I highly value your take on things. I’m also an unwavering skeptic and have no tolerance for psychics, but cons are another story. I basically trust people so, in that light, I feel like I’m sometimes an easy mark. After reading your reviews, I may pursue these titles and read or listen to them because they do sound entertaining, but now I’ll know to take them “grain-of-salty”. Love your blog!!!

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    1. Oh that makes me so happy to hear, thank you!!!

      The psychics drive me absolutely crazy, I just don’t understand how people can buy into that bunk. And then dump sooooo much money into it! The story of the novelist who did it is really one of the saddest ones I’ve heard, but they prey on anyone going through a hard time.

      I think you’d like both of these…The Confidence Game looks more at what you’re describing, and that’s how most of us are, we tend to trust people as a default. She looks at some of the ways that’s able to be twisted, it just wasn’t quite as deep as I’d have liked. But both are very entertaining, and the type of books that you pick up all kinds of fascinating random facts and stories from!

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  6. Sorry to hear there wasn’t a little more depth to Konnikova’s book! Her book, Mastermind, on thinking like Sherlock Holmes was the first review copy I was ever sent. Although I don’t mention it in my review at the time, my memory is that it was a little bit shallow as well. It’s too bad, because I’m always interested in the topics she covers.

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    1. I felt the same reading the descriptions of her other books — the topics always sound so interesting! That’s disappointing to hear Mastermind was a bit shallow as well…it just felt like the ideas were there, but maybe all the research to support the points being made isn’t done yet.

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