In November, I came across a story that made absolutely no sense to me. A 33-year-old consultant named Niall Rice gave $718,000, little by little, to two Manhattan psychics who promised to reunite him with an old flame. How could someone be so gullible? Rice himself didn’t even seem to know: “I just got sucked in,” he told The New York Times later.
As it turns out, it’s much easier to fall for these types of cons than many people think. As Maria Konnikova, a psychologist and New Yorker contributor, explains in her new book, The Confidence Game, grifters manipulate human emotions in genius (and evil) ways, striking right when we feel lovelorn or otherwise emotionally vulnerable. I recently spoke with Konnikova about cons, why they happen, and if there’s any way to avoid becoming a fraudster’s next target. A lightly edited version of our conversation follows.
Khazan: You have so many great examples of cons in your book. Which one was the most remarkable to you?
Konnikova: I have too many favorites to choose. The one that really, I think, piqued my interest the most, which is why I explore it throughout the book, is the case I open the book with, of Ferdinand Waldo Demara. The fact that not only was he able to take on so many different guises, including as a surgeon—I mean that’s crazy, that he was able to fool the Navy into giving him an entire ship full of people. But, the fact that he was successful, that he actually performed surgery, so he was able to bluster his way through it, which is kind of remarkable if you think about it. That someone who didn't even graduate from high school was able to do this. And I also thought it was really interesting that so much of his life isn't known or at least, wasn't known to the public, because he has a really dark side and he's actually kind of a nasty person, but all of that got lost because his biographer was also conned by him, which is kind of incredible.