Book review: The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova

Maria Konnikova delights in the vocabulary surrounding her subject. ''Picture: Margaret Singer & Max Freeman
Maria Konnikova delights in the vocabulary surrounding her subject. ''Picture: Margaret Singer & Max Freeman
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It’s impossible not to be drawn in by an expert, if artless, study of the greatest confidence tricksters. By Stuart Kelly

The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova | Canongate, £12.99

What connects three monks, a Texas prison guard, a civil engineer who nearly got the contract to build a bridge in Mexico, a teacher at a school for children with special needs and the Canadian naval surgeon who saved the lives of 17 men in 1951?

They were all the same man: Ferdinand Waldo Demara. Not only was he immortalised in Robert Crichton’s The Great Imposter, he managed to take in Crichton and scam him too. He is just one of the fascinating case studies in Maria Konnikova’s engrossing and intriguing The Confidence Game, which explores, with considerable élan, the psychology of the con.

The con is an ideal way to cover a great deal of psychology: from the psychopathology of the con artist, to what makes people gullible; the superiority bias (whereby we overrate our own abilities) and the optimism bias; why narrative is more convincing that statistics; how and why we trust; cold-reading and cognitive dissonance (what happens when our opinions and the facts are at odds: answer – the facts must be wrong); and a host more. Now, a great many books might cover these topics as well. Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink discussed how we judge, Jon Ronson has covered manipulation in The Psychopath Test, Maryanne Wolf has written on consciousness and storytelling with Proust And The Squid, Charles Fernyhough looked at our predisposition to misremember in Pieces Of Light, and Dominic Johnson went into co-operation and the effect of being watched in God Is Watching You. But this does not matter at all. It is not just that the very disparate material here is very precisely orchestrated. What makes Konnikova’s book an example of “literary non-fiction” is the panache and artistry with which it is delivered.

The entire book is constructed as a con: the grifter and the mark, the put-up, the play, the rope, the tale, the convincer, the breakdown, the send and the touch, the blow-off and the fix. This works extremely well, giving an arc to the information (and indeed, Konnikova stresses the importance of having a yarn if you are perpetrating a con). She also delights in the language of the con; revelling in the green goods and the rag, rubes and flimflam, scamming, diddling and the three-card monte.

Each chapter has judiciously chosen stories of almost staggering audacity. But as Konnikova would be the first to point out, I would find them jaw-dropping because I think I am too smart to be caught out; no-one considers themselves to be a credulous poltroon. The pendulum swing between explication and anecdote is very pleasing. Along the way we get fake psychics and real magicians, art historians and evangelical preachers, and even the horrific story of Gregor MacGregor’s Poyais Scheme – which, we should not forget, sent 150 innocent Scottish colonists to their deaths.

That MacGregor then went on the pull the same scam in France brings up one issue not touched upon too directly here. Why do so many of the con-artists Konnikova describes seem to have a necessity to keep on doing what they do? It’s an area where scientific psychology bleeds into psychiatry, but the number of repeat offenders is just odd. Psychiatry might also have been deployed in her chapters on lying – one study cited, by Robert Feldman, claims that we lie at least three times in a ten minute conversation with a stranger or acquaintance. But is it a lie to say “oh, fascinating?” rather than “that strikes me as unspeakably boring?” Jacques Lacan’s idea of the “Big Other” – the unreasonable reason why we submit to conventions – might be enlightening.

Konnikova seems so effortlessly au fait with the science behind the scam, it is a pity not to see more about the aesthetics. She cites Poe’s lovely essay “Diddling”, where he categorises the qualities of a swindler as “minuteness, interest, perseverance, ingenuity, audacity, nonchalance, originality, impertinence and a grin”, and Melville’s The Confidence-Man and Highsmith’s Tom Ripley get a glancing nod. But literature is full of this – Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull, Sir Quentin Oliver in Muriel Spark’s Loitering With Intent, Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, let alone all those gamblers turned surreptitious thieves in Tolstoy, Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Anne Brontë. It is always interesting when a scientist turns her attention to the arts. Do they reveal unexpected truths or exemplify common, but erroneous, beliefs?

Nevertheless, this is the kind of science book which can properly be called a page-turner. Unless, of course, I’m shilling for her. You’ve trusted me for many years, readers, but who’s to say I’m not getting 10 per cent of the profits for a good review? Trust me: I’m not.