How con artists get the better of you

Posted 26 February 2016

This article, titled Mind games: How con artists get the better of you, was published in the New Scientist magazine on 20 January 2016. Subtitled, What drives cheats and fraudsters to lie at the expense of others – and why do people fall for their stories?, it is written by Maria Konnikova. This piece was adapted from her new book, The Confidence Game: Why we fall for it… every time.

She makes a number of salient points which apply to many of those featured in CamCheck.

A few extracts:

The snake oil salesman – the peddler of false cures to the masses – is at least several centuries old. In the late 19th century, an actual seller of “snake oil”, Clark Stanley, plied his trade through dramatic demonstrations with rattlesnakes, promising an end to everything from headaches to paralysis. The public flocked to see him, sales rose, his fame grew. His concoction turned out to be 99 per cent liquid paraffin. Not only did it cure nothing, it didn’t even come from snakes. Or take John Brinkley who, in the early 20th century, preyed on the male fear of impotence to peddle the cure to beat all cures, a transplant of goat testicles. And today, of course, there are detox diets, and the pills and supplements that claim to do anything from enabling you to lose weight effortlessly to curing cancer. Fearmongering has no expiration date.


Unlike truly pathological liars, who lie for no reason at all, con artists lie for a very specific reason: personal gain. And their lies are believable – they are meticulous and well planned – whereas a pathological liar’s are often too big and elaborate, or too disjointed, to be taken seriously.


If not simply a pathological liar, who then is the con artist? Con artists often possess some or all of the so-called dark triad of personality traits: psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism. One review of about 600 cases of company fraud in 78 countries between 2011 and 2013 captured the personalities of the perpetrators – and a number of them fitted the dark triad mould quite closely. A fifth admitted to having committed fraud “just because I can” – a typical dark-triad response if ever there were one. But a good portion of the perpetrators seemed both less sinister and less coldly rational in pursuit of personal gain: 35 per cent were seen as quite friendly by their colleagues, 40 per cent were highly respected.


But the truth is that we are far worse at spotting shaky evidence than we might wish, for one simple reason: trust is a more evolutionarily beneficial path than adeptness at spotting deception. On top of which, con artists use an arsenal of tricks to tap into our emotions, engaging our trusting side even at the expense of our more sceptical impulses.

The article, available on the New Scientist website, may require a subscription fee.

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