In August 2015, hackers leaked details of 33 million Ashley Madison accounts, the website with the audacious tagline: ‘Life is short. Have an affair.’ Beyond the horror of several loved ones’ infidelity being shared with the world, the fallout surfaced other ugly truths – chiefly, that most of the female profiles were fakes, and that Ashley Madison had personnel on their payroll whose job was to create sexed-up fantasies and then bombard paying male members with invites to chat. It was a classic ruse, a put-up and play of such deliciousness, one feels conmen will be referencing it for decades to come.
‘Amusing’, you may think, but ‘…not relevant to me.’ For many, the temptation will be to see oneself as beyond the conman’s reach: too savvy, too streetwise, too clever; with radar that has not been scrambled by the urge to get jiggy with it; and just not into Mystic Meg. In that case, I doubly recommend The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova. As she illustrates, the con man (and they are almost exclusively men), is a (lay-)psychologist attuned to picking up distress signals that the vulnerable emit, and armed with the charm, confidence, savoir faire and killer instinct to fleece them – not only without realisation, but rather leaving them convinced ‘…what a swell guy!’
The main chapters follow a pattern: some aspect of the conman’s overall game is introduced by way of an actual case (that is, invariably, nothing short of sensational). And that’s followed by a science bit alongside Konnikova’s analysis, before being spliced by another case. What is crucial with any popular-science book is that the science is up-to-date and seeming to be thorough, without being patronisingly delivered or getting mired in esoterica. And Konnikova pulls this off with panache – as a lay-reader, one feels like one is gaining genuine insight whilst hand-in-hand being entertained. The Confidence Game is easy and fun to read, whilst imparting authentic science in an area with obvious practical relevance for the everyday man or woman. As Konnikova brilliantly illustrates, if the Canadian Navy and the Irish police force can be played, no-one is immune. And moreover, don’t be lulled into thinking that conmen are some ‘other’, a secret band of brothers living in the shadows and practising some dark art:
“…There’s no such thing as an innocent cutting of the ethical corner. Once you’ve decided to get on the sled, and have eased yourself over the edge of the hill, it’s too late to break. It starts with a small thing. A credit in a candy store. A fudged line in a financial statement. A rogue quote massaged ever so slightly to make your case more compelling. And lo and behold, nobody notices. And even though you thought it was just the once, because the circumstances were so extreme and you were in such a tight corner, those circumstances somehow never get any better. You’re always pressed for time, for money, for energy, for mental space. … And once you do it once, … the temptation to do it again, do it more, do it differently, grows.”
Sound familiar..? <Reviewer gulps> Personally, the book got me thinking – for example, if one can buy a suit for £99, am I being played if someone convinces me to pay £1000 for a suit because it’s got a fancy Italian label? I don’t know. But what I do know is that if you read The Confidence Game, your eyes will be well and truly opened.
(Oh, and still think you’re beyond the con? Late in 2015 Ashley Madison reported 4m new users, i.e. *post* the leak. Truly, we live in a conman’s paradise…)