Born to Be Conned

Maria Konnikova in The New York Times:

ConmanTHERE’S an adage you hear most any time you mention con artists: You can’t cheat an honest man. It’s a comforting defense against vulnerability, but is it actually true? No, as it turns out; honesty has precious little to do with it. Equally blameless is greed, at least in the traditional sense. What matters instead is greed of a different sort: a deep need to believe in a version of the world where everything really is for the best — at least when it comes to us.

…Take love. Joan (not her actual name; why will be clear soon enough), a savvy New Yorker, found out after not only dating but living with her boyfriend, Greg (also not his real name), that she had fallen for an impostor. “He was wonderful, funny, kind and generous,” she recalled. “He was kind of improbable, like where you would mention almost anything, like deep-sea diving, he’d be like, ‘Oh, here’s how to do this.’ And then it would turn out that he’s either done it or manufactured a suit for someone else who did,” she says. “He knew how to set bones — he’d been a paramedic. He built me a kitchen — he knew how to make stuff. He knew how to cure things and take care of sick people.” That, and he had created an entire persona for her benefit, complete with a false background, a fake position at a lab at a prestigious research university and an apocryphal family history. Everything he’d ever told her about himself was a lie.

…Stories are one of the most powerful forces of persuasion available to us, especially stories that fit in with our view of what the world should be like. Facts can be contested. Stories are far trickier. I can dismiss someone’s logic, but dismissing how I feel is harder. And the stories the grifter tells aren’t real-world narratives — reality-as-is is dispiriting and boring. They are tales that seem true, but are actually a manipulation of reality. The best confidence artist makes us feel not as if we’re being taken for a ride but as if we are genuinely wonderful human beings who are acting the way wonderful human beings act and getting what we deserve. We like to feel that we are exceptional, and exceptional individuals are not chumps.

More here.