Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It ... Every Time by Maria Konnikova (2017)

[Prefatory Note: This review is based on getting slightly beyond the half-way point. If, upon completion, the review requires correction or addition, worry not, it shall be done]

Every human characteristic can be characterized in beneficent or pejorative terms. Thus, a person who doggedly pursues a goal might be characterized as persistent or pig-headed. In this book, the authors are not unaware of this truth, but they seem to ignore it as they go through the theory and practice of cons. Putting that criticism aside, and that the author is not the best writer in the world and likely not the most brilliant person in the world, this is a really good book and is definitely worth reading.

At one level, the book tells the story of one con after another. These stories alone, many of which will make your head explode in disbelief but they are true, make the book an interesting read. But its delving into what makes a con successful is what makes the book of real use to read. Without truly giving away its secret, the answer is simple: Cons are successful when they effectively play (tell a story) to a person or people who want to believe. Whether that belief is that they can beat the con (e.g., 3-card Monte) or get a favorable outcome (following the advice of a psychic) or be cured (buying a magic cure) or make America great again, it’s not that all such victims are stupid. It’s that their wish for a better something eclipses their rationality.

Now, back to the premise of this review: To use the word “con” is to invoke a pejorative. But, like everything else, there is a beneficent side to the same coin, namely, great story-telling or persuasiveness. For example, a great trial lawyer has to be a great story-teller, because the lawyer’s job is to have judges and juries buy, believe in, the story being told. It is beyond this review go into what makes for a great story, but suffice it to say, that opposing lawyers are telling different stories, and one of them is going to be bought at the expense of the other.

So, another word for “con” is “manipulation,” i.e., the effort by one person to have another person believe something or do something or refrain from doing something. Manipulation is neither good nor bad in itself. It is good (and necessary) when used in certain ways (e.g., by lawyers to persuade judges and juries; by doctors to make patients adopt healthier ways; by ministers to inspire faith and good works); and it is bad when used to cheat or steal. In the everyday workplace, manipulation is what bosses should do to have their underlings perform at their highest level, and what underlings should do to have their bosses perform at their highest level. And that’s where this book comes in: It sets out in detail the keys to understanding how one can be the best manipulator one can be by understanding the wiles of the con artist (be it the boss or underling) and the frailties of the victim (be it the underling or the boss).

In short, this book will not make a good person into a bad person. It will not turn anyone into a malicious and malevolent con artist. Rather, it will give some key insights into how to become a person better able to persuade others, which is another way of saying a better way to manipulate others.

Link to The Confidence Game on Amazon

PS: Anticipating inquiries in this vein, Maria Konnikova is no relation to Anna Kournikova.

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