Monday, December 11, 2017
Books

Review: Maria Konnikova's 'Confidence Game' misses a trick

Almost all of us are suckers for books about suckers. What's not to like? They flatter our lofty conception of ourselves — no chumps are we, with our wits about us and our nose for baloney as fine as a butcher's — and they satisfy the secret part of us that delights in gossip and goggles at audacity.

In The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It ... Every Time, Maria Konnikova provides a modest compendium of outrageous deceptions, with cameos from Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr., a serial impostor who performed 19 surgeries aboard a Canadian naval ship (he was not, needless to say, a doctor); Glafira Rosales, an art dealer who trafficked in fakes so impressive they duped the president of New York's oldest gallery; and Victor Lustig, a self-invented "count" who twice sold the Eiffel Tower to investors, claiming it was soon to be destroyed for parts.

But the real purpose of Konnikova's book is not to rehearse a history of the con. Rather, as she explains in her introduction, it is to explore "the psychological principles that underlie each and every game, from the most elementary to the most involved, step by step."

And this is precisely what she delivers: an anatomy of the scam. Konnikova's first chapter attempts to explain the psychology of both the grifter and the mark; from there, she spends a chapter on each station of the double-cross, starting with the putup (the process of identifying the perfect victim), then moving along to the play (seducing the victim), the rope (pitching the scam), the tale, the convincer, the breakdown and so on, detailing the psychological mechanisms that both hoaxer and hoaxee engage. It's a Via Dolorosa of ensnarement and betrayal.

Konnikova's central contention is that practically all of us — prosperous or penniless, quick-witted or dull — are susceptible to charlatans, for the simple reason that we possess a basic instinct to trust. So overwhelming is this instinct that it obscures our ability to see even the most baldfaced forms of trickery, especially in moments of weakness, which an expert cheat can spot from a thousand paces (or create, if he or she is especially enterprising). Worse still, we humans are encumbered with all sorts of biases — toward optimism, toward our own superiority — that help this cheat along.

"Cons work so widely because, in a sense, we want them to," she writes. "We want to believe the tale."

These arguments are all fine, so far as they go. But as I was reading The Confidence Game, I couldn't help wondering if this particular genre of book now risks becoming its own kind of con — or feint, at the very least — by razzle-dazzling its readers with a sparkling cascade of research from cognitive and social psychology but failing, ultimately, to deliver a good story.

Since the publication of The Tipping Point in 2000, a great many books have been written in the school of Malcolm Gladwell. Some are very good (Freakonomics, The Paradox of Choice). Others are facile, unsurprising — self-help adorned with peer-reviewed garlands. All of them, with varying degrees of success, use data to try to explain the spikier, messier parts of our selves. There are books explaining the science of love. The science of learning, lying, creativity, forgiveness, decisionmaking.

In this oversaturated marketplace of seductive data, I have always counted on Konnikova, a contributing writer for the New Yorker, to be a reliable guide. Her journalism hums with intelligence, wit and good judgment; I implicitly trust that she'll spin through the latest research and tell us which papers float to the top of the centrifuge and which sink to the sludgy bottom. Most important, I love Konnikova's storytelling, her ability to weave academic research into an involving narrative without any visible seams.

But in this book, her second (the first was Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes), something went awry, which is puzzling and also disappointing. Usually, the complaint about social-science writing is that authors cherry-pick data to support a slick argument. That isn't Konnikova's problem. Her problem is that she's shaken the entire tree. In each chapter, she fills page after page with study after study, all generally in the service of making rather similar points.

I am as much of a data dork as the next girl. But as narrative techniques go, this is an almost certain formula for monotony. Far too many sentences in The Confidence Game begin with the phrase, "In one study." (They appear with such numbing regularity, I began circling as I was reading, and when I started including its cousins — "in a separate study," "in a follow-up study," "in another study," "in a further study" — entire chapters were filled with portholes.) Four appear on consecutive pages.

Each citation is a variation on the same basic, already intuitive, idea: Intense emotions compromise our ability to think rationally. Buried in the rubble here, crying out to be heard, are fabulous tales of fabulists. But Konnikova tells so many they whirl by on a carousel; what I would have given for her to slow down and pick just one horse or two to follow.

As Konnikova points out, there's real ingenuity in some of the cons these scoundrels dream up. We don't call them artists for nothing. And there's a reason that filmmakers and novelists adore their stories. They play into our deepest desire to believe.

Konnikova may offer a psychological lexicon for explaining the con. But she doesn't offer a reading experience that conveys its operatic power. Instead, she opts for volume. She deluges us with studies, surveys, anecdotes. But the drama, the excitement, the intensity of the material — it's somehow all been drained away. And considering that con artists are some of the best storytellers around and that Konnikova is one of the rare writers to make a great story vibrate with life, this seems, as a huckster might say, a missed opportunity. Only this time he'd be right.

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