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?