What I Learned From The Confidence Game By Maria Konnikova

Date Read: 05/31/2018

How strongly I recommend it: 8/10

Basically as I go through any book that I read, I underline interesting ideas/quotes/paragraphs and then later come back through the book to get the lessons gleaned from these underpinnings and try to figure out what they mean to me and apply them to my own life.

 Here were the most interesting lessons in the book for me:


In some ways confidence artists have it easy. We’ve done most of the work for them; we want to believe in what they’re telling us.


Their genius lies in figuring out what precisely it is we want, and how they can present themselves as the perfect vehicle for delivering on that desire.


Trust, sympathy, persuasion. The true con artist doesn’t force us to do anything; he makes us complicit in our own undoing.


He doesn’t steal. We give. He doesn’t have to threaten us. We supply the story ourselves. We believe because we want to, not because anyone made us. And so we offer up whatever they want—money, reputation, trust, fame, legitimiacy, support, and we don’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late.


Gullibility may be deeply engrained in the human behavioral repertoire. Our minds are built for stories. Humans don’t like to exist in a state of uncertainty.


When something doesn’t make sense, we want to supply the missing link.


When we don’t understand what or why or how something happened, we want to find the explanation.


A con artist is only too happy to comply—and the well-crafted narrative is his absolute forte.


One day a poet was talking past a blind man who held up a sign “blind man without a pension.” He stopped to chat and asked how it was going the man said “not great, most just keep walking”


He changed the man’s sign and came back the next day and asked him how it was going.


He said “incredible, I’ve never received so much money in my life.”


The poet had written “Spring is coming, but I won’t see it.”


Give us a compelling story and we open up.



Con artists thrive in times of transition and fast change, when new things are happening and old ways of looking at the world no longer suffice. That’s why they flourished in the days of the gold rush. That’s why they thrive during revolutions, wars, and political upheavels.


Transition is the con man’s great ally, because transition breeds uncertainty. There’s nothing a con artist likes better than exploiting the sense of unease we feel when it appears the world as we know it is about to change.


We may cling cautiously to the past, but we also find ourselves open to things that are new and not quite expected.


Who’s to say this new way of doing business isn’t the wave of the future?


The con game starts with basic human psychology.


From the artist’s perspective, it’s a question of identifying the victim (the put-up): who is he, what does he want, and how can I play on that desire to achieve what I want? It requires the creation of empathy and rapport (the play) an emotional foundation must be laid before any scheme is proposed, any game set in motion.


Only then does it move to logic and persuasion (the rope): the scheme (the tale), the evidence and the way it will work to your benefit (the convincer), the show of actual profits.



“There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” We tend to forget this when it’s ourselves though.


If it seems too good to be true it probably is—unless it’s me.


We deserve our good fortune. I deserve the big break. I’ve been working hard my whole life.


When see other people talking about their unbelievable deal or crazy good fortune, we realize at once that they’ve been taken for a sucker. But when it happens to us, well, I am just lucky and deserving of a good turn.


The “Machiavellian” is someone who “employs aggressive, manipulative, exploiting, and devious moves in order to achieve personal and organizational objectives.”


Each November, Santon Bridge, a small rural town in England holds a contest: the world’s biggest liar.


But there’s an exception: lawyers, salespeople, politicians, real estate agents, and journalists are not allowed to participate. Presumably, they would be at an unfair advantage. They are simply too well versed in the art of stretching the truth….


The better protected you are, and the less likely you think you’ll be a victim, the more you’re apt to lose if a con artist can find a way to earn your trust.


It ends up that the more you know about something, the more likely you are to fall for a con in that specific area.


The more similar to her own face the picture became, the more trustworthy a player judged it to be.


Look at that face, how can someone not trust and respect it?


Even more surface similarities like shared birthdays (even birth months) or names, create an effect of greater liking—and greater willingness to help and comply.


If we mimic someone else, they will feel closer and more similar to us; we can fake the natural liking process quite well without realizing it; when we mirror back someone’s words, feign a shared affinity for a sports team or mutual hatred for a brand.


In 1903, Max Meyer had played Oriental Music to his students repeatedly, from 12-15 times. The more they heard it, the more they liked it.


The effect was later replicated fo classical music, unusual combinations of colors in art, and even seats in a classroom. (Ever wonder why people keep sitting in the same seat even if there is no assigned seats.)

It’s a matter of things “growing on you.”

I use this idea a lot when I’m trying to learn something new, I just keep pushing until I get to that like stage and then I judge it from there


Zajonc called it the mere exposure effect: familiarity breeds affection.


And affection is a fount of the personal information so essential to the successful put-up.


Dale Carnegie put it “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”


The more familiar and similar someone seems, the more you like them, the more you share with them, the more information the con artist has to feed back to you. And the circle begins anew.


Commercials use puppies or babies because they release oxytocin, and research shows that builds trust in a brand and hence increase sales.


Increased oxytocin—makes us more generous, with our money, time, and trust.


A successful story does two things well:

  1. Relies on the narrative itself rather than any overt argument
  2. It makes us identify with its characters. We’re not expecting to be persuaded or asked to do something, we’re just expecting to experience something inherently pleasant, an interesting tale.



It’s always harder to argue with a story, be it sad or joyful.


I can dismiss your hard logic, but not how you feel.


Give me a list of reasons, and I can argue with it.


Give me a good story, and I can no longer quite put my finger on what, if anything, should raise my alarm bells.


The con artist often employs “wishful identification”


We want to be him. He has attained precisely what we want. And don’t we deserve that too? Now its our turn.


It is no accident that the Bible, probably the most influential Western book of all time, teaches through parables and stories, not through philosophical discourse.


Today’s pain, hunger, anger etc. are palpable, but the same sensations anticipated in the future receive little weight.

-George Loewenstein


One study showed that having to pee made people more impulsive: they were so focused on exercising control in one area that their ability to do so elsewhere faded.


Sometimes the process in play is mood congruity: we process information in a way that corresponds best to our emotional state.


When we’re upset, we tend to focus on the negative inputs that come our way, the result is a different sort of action than we’d undertake in say a happy moment.


A study showed that happy individuals relied more on heuristics—things like status of the person doing the persuasion or perceived expertise. Whereas sad people focused more on content—what the person was actually saying.


The single most persuadable type of driver: the one who had just experienced a wave of relief following anxiety. The second: the one who’d experienced only anxiety. The third: one who felt nothing


Imagine the implications for the play: create a sense of fear, and then the feeling of relief (not to worry! There’s a solution!) and your mark is all but guaranteed to fall.


6 Principles Govern Most Persuasion:

  1. Reciprocity (I rub your back, you rub mine.)
  2. Consistency (I believe the same thing today as I did yesterday)
  3. Social Validation (doing this will make me belong)
  4. Friendship
  5. Scarcity (quick! There isn’t much to go around)
  6. Authority (you seem like you know what you’re talking about)



Jonathan Freeman and Scott Fraser observed an interesting phenomenon in their experiments: someone who has already agreed to a small request—like opening the door for you, would become more, not less likely to agree to a larger request later on.

ben franklin knew this much earlier


Robert Cialdini points out that one of the elements that makes us more vulnerable to persuasion is our desire to maintain a good image of ourselves. If something is framed as to make us feel like worthy people, we are much more likely to comply with it.


We want to behave in a way that’s consistent with the image we’ve created.


The door-in-the-face technique, a near opposite of the foot-in-the-door says to ask for something larger, so when someone denies you they inevitably feel guilty, so when you ask for something smaller you end up getting it.


One of the first things a con artist does is establish trust—often by being the exact type of person he thinks you aspire it to be or at least, want to be associated with. Someone you would like to become.


It doesn’t actually matter what you say, in what order, and how. All that matter is that you say a lot, quickly, and that it sounds convoluted and has many moving parts. Simply put, we tend to make worse decisions when we have a lot on our minds.


When it comes to you, I see clearly. When it comes to myself, I see what I want.


The secret of rulership is to combine belief in one’s own infallibility with the power to learn from past mistakes.

-George Orwell


It’s easier to change what we believe about smoking than to actually quit.


Hindsight Bias: we don’t just say we should have known it, we say we did in fact, know it.


Once we are in, well and good, we are all in. (sunk-cost fallacy)


What we’ve already put into something shouldn’t matter, it’s lost anyway, whatever “it” happens to be—time, money, energy.


We should only stick with it if we were starting from scratch today with all the new experience and information we have would we still do it? If not get out…


Why throw good money after bad?


Regard your good name as the richest jewel you can possibly be possessed of.



If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.

-Mother Theresa (helpful for charities to understand) *


Our view of the world is so egocentric, so intimately tied to the notion that everyone is paying attention to the slightest thing we do, the slightest thing we say, the slightest deviation in our demeanor.


The key to resisting persuasion and manipulation was to have a strong, unshakeable sense of self. Know who you are no matter what, and hold on to that no matter what.


Set the parameters before:

How much am I willing to stake?

How much am I willing to lose?

How far am I willing to go?

And then never let anyone tell you, ‘just once more’


Of course too it’s not just knowing when, but knowing how to get out.


Know exactly how you will exit the situation, who you will call etc…


Nobody joins a cult.


They join something they believe will give them meaning in their lives.


Con artists at their best and worst do the same, give us meaning. We fall for them because it would make our lives better if the reality they proposed were indeed true.


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