Con artists are artists. It’s all about the soft skills—there are no hard skills here. They are unlike a sleazy salesperson was trying to sell you something. As a con artist, you often don’t see them coming, you even don’t realize quickly that you have been conned because they are all about the soft touch. We’re all subject to credulity, how others exploit this, what we can do to spot would-be manipulators and guard ourselves, and how we can use the same principles of coaxing for good rather than evil.
The commerce between discourses of authenticity and the confidence games played by counterfeiters, both literal and literary, is the subject of two recent studies. Conning people is an art, conning is an artistic skill. Con artists never had to ask for anything—people give it to them—their conference, their trust, their money, their respect—to the con artists willingly. People don’t really understand, a lot of times, that they’re victims of a con because they believe it so much they want to keep believing. That is why it is often really difficult to prosecute con artists because it is often difficult to pinpoint what crimes they have committed. The psychopath and the con artist have at least two traits in common: lack of empathy and enough perception to isolate someone’s vulnerabilities or desires and take advantage of them.
New Yorker columnist and science journalist Maria Konnikova explores in The Confidence Game how con artists prey on our susceptibility for believing what we wish were true and how this explains the inner workings of confidence and duplicity in our everyday lives.
There is a con or two that people use at work—that people fall for at work. People at work often end up conning others without realizing what they’re doing or without it initially. A lot of people will start cutting corners—not only the accountants but anyone who has to deal with money—let’s say a trader who had a bad quarter or bad portfolio performance or anyone where the numbers are not quite right. It’s common not to see this only in finance, but also in academia, scientists where the data has not come out quite as expected. In an increasingly over-populated planet being depleted of its precious natural resources do we need any more objects polluting our environment even if they are traditional paintings or sculptures? To change the data just a tiny bit and fudge the numbers ever so slightly saying, “the data should have come out” or, “that trade should have gone my way.” They justified that they just need a little bit of extra wiggle room or an edge just for this quarter and then everything will be better in the future quarters. And then it’s all going to work out.
What ends up happening is that it doesn’t work out because there’s a reason it didn’t work out in the first time. Usually, what ends up happening is that you give yourself a license to deceive and now what you end up as with a slippery slope. You have to keep doing it because you have already done it once. Before you know it you are entangled in being an outright con.
There is one man that I write about in a company and I had a chance to speak with his lawyer who had been originally very sympathetic with the fact that this finance person have had a bad quarter. It was for his family, it was for his company, and he had a good heart. A con artist who doesn’t have the skills to hack into your data can buy it cheaply on the black market. He did it in one quarter and was overlooked, but when he did it in subsequent quarters and investigation revealed that he had cheated the company of thousands of dollars on the corporate court for also something for his family, vacations, private jets. The sympathy quickly evaporated.
People who take that moral license are the same people who keep going. Con artists are made when opportunity meets predisposition. There are a small number of people in finance, science, who, if given an opportunity will have that side of their personality come out. he motivation for many of these peculiar constructions seems to be that people are gullible and easy to fool so why not do so? But this is simply not the case. People must place their trust in most societal interactions-with friends, colleagues, the media, and even strangers. If one should discover that someone or something is (intentionally) unreliable, their basic trusting nature will evolve into skeptical cynicism. Con artists aren’t just master manipulators; they are expert storytellers. Much as we are intrinsically inclined to trust, we are naturally drawn to a compelling story. Once they get away with it, the thrill and the knowledge that they got away with it will enable them to do it over and over again.
In academics, especially in social sciences, it’s easy to manipulate how you select your sample size, what statistical method you use, and do you use the statistical method to conform to you’re a priori hypothesis, the chances are slim that you are going to get caught.