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RS 151 - Maria Konnikova on "Why everyone falls for con artists"

Release date: January 24, 2016

Maria Konnikova

You've probably heard about victims of con artists -- like the people who hand over their life savings to sketchy gurus or psychics, or the people who wire thousands of dollars to a "Nigerian prince" who just needs some help getting his far bigger fortune to you. And you've probably thought to yourself, "What a sucker. I'd never fall for something like that." But are you sure? 

In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia interviews Maria Konnikova, science journalist and author of "The Confidence Game: Why we fall for it... Every time," who explains why con artists are so effective that even the best of us are vulnerable. Along the way, they explore questions like: Why do people refuse to believe they've been conned? Are con artists getting more sophisticated over time? And how do con artists view themselves -- do they rationalize their actions, or are they impassive sociopaths?

Maria's Pick: "The Big Con" by David Maurer

Podcast edited by Brent Silk


Full Transcripts 


Reader Comments (10)

Great show. I thought there could have been a clearer long con story (god knows we want to defend ourselves against them) because it wasn't obvious that the cited sex trafficking con was actually a con (although it probably was). It could have just been policy, as Julia mentioned, not to disbelieve allegations of sex trafficking from an apparent victim. Also, how do we know people are being conned by the better con artists, other than via common sense, if the people conned themselves don't know they've been conned? There was some suggestion in the middle of the show that there are no stats on good cons because the good cons aren't found out. How then do we know they exist? Musing. Again good show. I will put the book on my list, and the one from 1940. It also makes me want to go back and read Melville's Confidence Man.
January 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBilly Budman
Wow, the vocal fry on this woman was so bad that I had to quit just a few minutes in. Is this woman okay?? She almost sounds sick, but I think it's an affectation. How did she get like this? I hope she'll be able to get the help she needs.
January 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSarah
You know who is most immune to salesman liars and conmen? Salesman, liars and con-men.
January 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDavid
I am the poster above and I want to apologize that was posted before you addressed it in the podcast also it didn't actually contribute to the discussion or added anything new.

I may have a slightly different view...
this seems like another facet of the Rational Dark Arts,against cons in particular one defense against such manipulations is to cultivate an inner sense of tranquility, because that stillness allows a person to be hyper aware of their own inner monologue and those nagging doubts. I think the reason a con get easier over time is that the victim feels a need to quell cognitive dissonance at the situation they are in and by constantly reaffirming the con with money, time or emotional investment they try to drown out that voice getting louder and louder. I enjoy the analogy in taoism that the mind should be like a slow river that has a calm surface. When the surface of the water is clear the disturbance of even a small rock is noticed from a distance, but on choppy water ( choppy water here being those moment in your life when things are up in the air as you mentioned earlier) a rock my fall right next to you on the river and you cant notice.

Another side of this is to learn the art of the con yourself. Not to become a con artist (though to really know what it means would require doing one all the way through, you could mail the money back) but because while certain cons may target other con artist I cant imagine they are common especially if you are not going to be known in the community. You have made yourself immune to a large subset of all cons while becoming more vulnerable to a different significantly smaller subset of cons you can more easily avoid.

Is it ethical to do the what I outlined above? I can see an argument either way.
January 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDavid
What's the story with Derren Brown in England? He's a mentalist and he bills himself as someone who exposes this kind of thing (cons, and mentalist scams etc), but at the same time, I can't shake the feeling that he's also actively conning his audience. He's got a lot of videos on youtube.

For example, he makes the same kind of statements: that what he's doing is a trick, etc. But then he presents as real him convincing people to become an assassin or to believe in God for a day or to hypnotize them. It's such a strange mixture ... I can't keep track of what's real and what's a trick. I suspect it's all a trick, but it's not all presented that way.
January 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTom Brown

I was hoping you could clarify something. You often use the term "net," like "net harm," "net happiness" - while these are very clear in a business since, I'm sometimes confused by how this applies on the (fascinating) subjects in various podcasts. I wonder if you could give a few examples and show just what it is in certain cases you are subtracting from the gross to get the net (e.g., examples of whatever is analogous to costs or expenses).

February 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDarren
And if Julia's not available I'm keen to hear anyone else weigh in on the question
February 13, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDarren
@Darren: I think "net harm" just means "more harm than good".
February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Reeves
So we need optimism and trust in order to function socially, but sociopathic con artists exploit this. The self delusion in the long con almost seems surreal.
December 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
I guess it sort of becomes like an 'Ego trip' interestingly enough from both sides? The Conned are on the defensive while the Con-Artist are on the attack. So it's like we are defending our Ego, our self-importance while the Con-Artist are sort of attacking us so they can build-up and strengthen theirs. hmm ...
March 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto

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