'The Confidence Game: The Psychology of the Con and Why We Fall for It Every Time', by Maria Konnikova - Review

By Clarke, Jeremy | The Spectator, January 30, 2016 | Go to article overview

'The Confidence Game: The Psychology of the Con and Why We Fall for It Every Time', by Maria Konnikova - Review


Clarke, Jeremy, The Spectator


This book, the blurb warns us, was written by 'an established voice in popular psychology, with a regular column on the New Yorker online'. Maria Konnikova is also the 'bestselling author of Mastermind ', a book which explains how we can train our minds to see the world as Sherlock Holmes saw it. The Confidence Game identifies a template pattern of stages peculiar to every successful confidence trick, and devotes a chapter to each: the Put Up, the Play, the Rope, the Tale, the Convincer, the Breakdown, the Send, the Touch and the Fix. (The first chapter offers a psychological profile of 'the Grifter' or confidence trickster and 'the Mark' -- his prey.)

Konnikova's voice might be established in popular psychology, but it's not always easy to follow. Though most of her sentences are simple, when she sets sail for the choppy waters of two or more clauses linked together, this tends to happen:

The more you look, the more you realise that, even with certain markers, like life changes, and certain tendencies in tow, a reliably stable overarching victim profile is simply not there.

Or this:

Even when we're anonymous and the group, not particularly desirable, we'd still like to be included more than not -- and it hurts when we are excluded.

And such Americanisms as 'shill', 'ass', 'ritzy', 'morphed', 'multifold', 'mentalist', 'lucked out' and 'ramped up' might leave older British readers 'beyond surprised'. I love the American language, the slang particularly. But it's hard to love when it's arranged as complacently as this.

But hey! Let me try to convey the psychology of the confidence trick in the light of Konnikova's stages. And let's pretend that this book itself is an audacious confidence trick, then imagine a potential purchaser, in the popular psychology section of Waterstones, reading the cover.

First: 'the Put Up'. This is where the confidence trickster (the author) decides what she wants -- in this case, a bestseller of Gladwellesque proportions. Books about psychopaths are all the rage at the moment. A section of the book-buying public is mad for stories about nutters. These desperadoes, Konnikova decides, are her 'mark'. She writes a book at 100 miles an hour about confidence tricksters, and shovels in some amazing stories about the breathtaking nerve of con artists and the pitiful gullibility of their victims. On top of this she piles a great steaming heap of contemporary psychological theory, most of which explains that our thoughts are based on our feelings, rather than the other way around, and that our feelings are based on nothing more than our flibbertigibbet fantasies about ourselves. (All of which makes one mentally tip one's hat to the confidence trickster -- apparently the only objective human being out there. …

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