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New York Times



There’s an adage you hear most anytime you mention con artists: You can’t cheat an honest man. It’s a comfortingdefense against vulnerability, but is it actually true?

No, as it turns out; honesty hasprecious little to do with it. Equally blameless is greed, at least in thetraditional sense. What matters instead is greed of a different sort: a deepneed to believe in a version of the world where everything really is for thebest — at least when it comes to us.

Robin Lloyd wasn’t looking to getrich. She was just a poor college student who thought she’d finally caught abreak. It was 1982, and Ms. Lloyd was making her first trip to New York City.On Day 1 she fell for what, to a hardened New Yorker, would seem impossible: agame of three-card monte. On a Broadway sidewalk, a loud man behind a cardboardbox was doing something at lightning speed with three playing cards, tellingthe crowd to “follow the lady.” Guess where she went correctly, and you couldeasily double your cash.

“I remember being like a kid at thecircus, so fascinated by him showing us how easy it was to win,” Ms. Lloyd toldme. She didn’t take the decision to play lightly. She had only two $20 bills inher pocket, and she remembered, “At this time in my life, I had no wintercoat.”

But something about this man’s patterseemed genuine; it was almost as if he saw her woes and wanted to help. Andshe’d just seen a lucky winner who’d doubled his money and walked away elated.“It was so exciting, the energy there. And you want to win and want to believeso much.” The moment the cash left her hand, she regretted it, and rightly so.In a flash, she lost everything.

Three-card monte is one of the mostpersistent and effective cons in history. The games still pop up along citystreets. But we tend to dismiss the victims as rubes. Even Ms. Lloyd felt thatway, calling herself a fool. “I probably deserved it,” she says. But that’s inretrospect. In the moment, it wasn’t so simple. She was frugal and intelligent(a student in sociology, who would soon go on to get her Ph.D., she was, untilrecently, the news editor at Scientific American).

But Ms. Lloyd was up against forcesfar greater than she realized. Monte operators, like all good con men, areexceptional judges of character, but even more important they are exceptionalcreators of drama, of the sort of narrative sweep that makes everything seemlegitimate, even inevitable. When I mentioned to Ms. Lloyd that the winnershe’d seen was planted there to lure people in, she expressed surprise. Shehadn’t realized that that was how the game worked. “The rational part of meknows I was conned. But there’s still a part of me that feels like I wasunlucky.”

That’s the power of the good conartist: the ability to identify your deepest need and exploit it. It’s notabout honesty or greed; we are all suckers for belief. In Ms. Lloyd’s case,money was indeed a factor. But it need not be.

Take love. Joan (not her actual name;why will be clear soon enough), a savvy New Yorker, found out after not onlydating but living with her boyfriend, Greg (also not his real name), that shehad fallen for an impostor. “He was wonderful, funny, kind and generous,” sherecalled.

“He was kind of improbable, likewhere you would mention almost anything, like deep-sea diving, he’d be like,‘Oh, here’s how to do this.’ And then it would turn out that he’s either doneit or manufactured a suit for someone else who did,” she says. “He knew how toset bones — he’d been a paramedic. He built me a kitchen — he knew how to makestuff. He knew how to cure things and take care of sick people.”

That, and he had created an entirepersona for her benefit, complete with a false background, a fake position at alab at a prestigious research university and an apocryphal family history.Everything he’d ever told her about himself was a lie.

How did she miss it? It seemsimpossible in the age of Google — and Joan had googled away, as any diligentmodern girlfriend would. But his name was common, the details were vague andhardly anything came up. She realizes now that all the red flags were there.But at the time — well, she was in love. “I just kept thinking, God, I’m solucky.”

Joan isn’t what one thinks of whenone thinks of a quintessential mark, either. She wasn’t greedy; she was justgreedy for a certain reality. At that point in her life, she needed to feelcherished, protected. All of her friends were getting married. Some hadchildren. She was alone. She wanted to believe in perfect love — and societywas only too happy to reinforce that desire.

The confidence game existed longbefore the term itself was first used, most likely in 1849, during the trial ofWilliam Thompson. The elegant Thompson, according to The New York Herald, wouldapproach passers-by, start up a conversation, and then come forward with aunique request. “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch untiltomorrow?” Think how much is loaded into that simple query: You are arespectable person, since I approached you, but are you also someone whobelieves the best in people, or are you a cynical blight on humanity? Facedwith such a conundrum — a story about the kind of person you are contained in asingle question — many a stranger proceeded to part with his timepiece. And so,the “confidence man” was born: the person who uses others’ trust in him for hisown private purposes.

Stories are one of the most powerfulforces of persuasion available to us, especially stories that fit in with ourview of what the world should be like. Facts can be contested. Stories are fartrickier. I can dismiss someone’s logic, but dismissing how I feel is harder.

And the stories the grifter tellsaren’t real-world narratives — reality-as-is is dispiriting and boring. Theyare tales that seem true, but are actually a manipulation of reality. The bestconfidence artist makes us feel not as if we’re being taken for a ride but asif we are genuinely wonderful human beings who are acting the way wonderfulhuman beings act and getting what we deserve. We like to feel that we areexceptional, and exceptional individuals are not chumps.

This is the logic that governs suchimprobable-seeming cases as that of Paul Frampton, the University of NorthCarolina physicist who, in 2011, fell for a sweetheart swindle on a datingwebsite. He became convinced that he was corresponding with the model DeniseMilani, proceeded to fly to South America for an in-person rendezvous and endedup jailed for smuggling cocaine.

“Some people will say they’reinnocent, but when I talk to them further, it becomes clear that they weresomehow involved,” he explained in an interview from prison with The New YorkTimes Magazine. “I think people like me are less than 1 percent.” It’s thatless-than-1-percent logic that gets the conned to a place that seems ludicrousto an observer.

Caught up in a powerful story, webecome blind to inconsistencies that seem glaring in retrospect. In 2000, twopsychologists, Melanie Green and Timothy Brock, had a group of people read“Murder at the Mall,” a short story adapted from a true account of aConnecticut murder in Sherwin B. Nuland’s “How We Die.” The plot followed alittle girl as she was murdered in a mall. After reading the story,participants answered questions about the events. Then came the key query: Werethere any false notes in the narrative, statements that either contradictedsomething or simply didn’t make sense? Ms. Green and Mr. Brock called this“Pinocchio circling”: the ability to spot elements that signal falsehood. Themore engrossed a reader was in the story, the fewer false notes she noticed.

Well-told tales make red flagsdisappear. Consider the case of Ann Freedman, the former president of thenow-defunct gallery Knoedler & Company, who became embroiled in one of thelargest art forgery scandals of the 20th century. For over a decade, she hadbeen selling work on behalf of Glafira Rosales, an art dealer. The Rosalescollection, it would turn out, was made up entirely of forgeries. Inretrospect, there were red flags aplenty, but Ms. Freedman was so swept up inMs. Rosales’s story about a mysterious collector who had amassed a previouslyunseen trove of Abstract Expressionist masterpieces that none of them stoodout.

In one of the most telling examples,Ms. Freedman, along with multiple experts, failed to spot a seemingly egregioussign of forgery: a Jackson Pollock painting that she herself had purchased anddisplayed in her apartment, where the signature was misspelled “Pollok.”

“I never saw it, in all the years Ilived with it,” Ms. Freedman told me recently. “Nor did anybody else.” Itwasn’t a failure of eyesight so much as a failure of belief: Faced withincongruous evidence, you dismiss the evidence rather than the story. Orrather, you don’t dismiss it. You don’t even see it.

Given the right circumstances, we allexhibit a similar myopia. As the psychologist Seymour Epstein puts it, “It isno accident that the Bible, probably the most influential Western book of alltime, teaches through parables and stories and not through philosophicaldiscourse.”

In a sense, all victims of cons arethe same: people swept up in a narrative that, to them, couldn’t be morecompelling. Love comes at the exact moment you crave it most, money when youmost need it. It’s too simplistic to dismiss those who fall for suchwishful-seeming thinking as saps — just as it’s overly neat to dismiss thetypes of people who would take advantage of them as unfeeling psychopaths.

Sure, you have to be cruel to want tofool someone else into trusting you when that trust is baseless, but griftersaren’t necessarily psychopathic and cold. Delroy L. Paulhus, a psychologist atthe University of British Columbia who specializes in what have come to beknown as the dark triad traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy),suggests that “Machiavellian” is a better descriptor for what con artists dothan “psychopath.” “It seems clear that malevolent stockbrokers like BernieMadoff do not qualify as psychopaths,” he writes in his 2014 paper “Toward aTaxonomy of Dark Personalities.” “They are corporate Machiavellians who usedeliberate, strategic procedures for exploiting others.”

Indeed, people high on theMachiavellianism scale tend to be among the most successful manipulators insociety. They are also more convincing liars than the rest of us: In one study,when people were recorded while denying that they had stolen something, thosescoring higher on the Machiavellianism scale were believed significantly morethan anyone else was.

The spell confidence artists cast isso strong that even when it’s broken, our minds have a hard time wrappingthemselves around the notion that we were mistaken. When I pressed Ms. Freedmanabout the erroneous signature, she remained firm. Had she noticed it, she said,she would have been more likely to take it as a sign of authenticity ratherthan of something untoward.

“Even if I had noted that, I wouldhave said, ‘no forger would make that mistake,’ ” she said. People have aremarkable instinct for self-preservation.

This is one reason confidence gamesflourish, why anyone, no matter how honest, is a potential victim: Even as theevidence against them piles up, we hold on to our cherished beliefs.

“When people want to believe whatthey want to believe,” David Sullivan, a professional cult infiltrator, toldthe Commonwealth Club of California, a public affairs forum, in July 2010,“they are very hard to dissuade.” And the reason it happens (and often happensto the most intelligent people) is that human nature is wired toward creatingmeaning out of meaninglessness.

“There’s a deep desire for faith,there’s a deep desire to feel there’s someone up there who really cares aboutwhat’s going on,” Mr. Sullivan said. “There’s a desire to have a coherentworldview: There’s a rhyme and reason for everything we do, and all theterrible things that happen to people — people die, children get leukemia —there’s some reason for it. And here’s this guru who says, ‘I know exactly thereason.’ ”

he often-expressed view of modernscience is that God resides in the cracks between knowledge. That is, as moreof the world is explained — and ends up being not so divine after all — thegaps in what we know are where faith resides. Its home may have shrunk, but itwill always exist so there will always be room for things that have to be takenon faith — and for faith itself.

Nobody thinks they are joining acult, David Sullivan explains. “They join a group that’s going to promote peaceand freedom throughout the world or that’s going to save animals, or they’regoing to help orphans or something. But nobody joins a cult.” We don’t knowinglyembraces false beliefs. We embrace something we think is as true as it gets. Wedon’t set out to be conned. We set out to become, in some way, better than wewere before.

That is the true power of belief. Itgives us hope. If we are skeptical, miserly with our trust, unwilling to acceptthe possibilities of the world, we despair. To live a good life we must, almostby definition, be open to belief. And that is why the confidence game is boththe oldest there is and the last one that will still be standing when all otherprofessions have faded away.


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