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Skeptics Can Be Conned Too: An Interview with Maria Konnikova

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Carrie Poppy

September 2, 2016

Photo by Thomas Hawk

Maria Konnikova has the kind of quietly commanding presence and eloquent speech that makes you want to record her every word and play it back in case you missed something. Which makes it all the more annoying that she’s also funny, kind, and quick-witted. Fortunately for me, I got to speak with her in preparation for her upcoming talk at CSICon 2016, so I could, in fact, record her every word.

Konnikova is a contributing writer for The New Yorker and the New York Times bestselling author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes and, most recently, The Confidence Game, a look at con artists. She studied psychology, creative writing, and government at Harvard and earned her PhD in psychology from Columbia. Her writing largely focuses on psychological issues, including deception.

I spoke to Konnikova over the phone, to the occasional tune of New York ambulances on her busy street.

Carrie Poppy: Is this your first time at this conference?

Maria Konnikova: It is, yes.

Poppy: OK, cool. Do you know yet what you’re speaking about?

Konnikova: Con artists.

Poppy: OK, so, generally about the same topic as your book.

Konnikova: As my book, yeah. About the nature of belief and why con artists are so effective. What it is about us that makes us believe them; what it is about them that makes them do what they do.

Poppy: And do you feel that you’re more interested in con artists in particular or in their victims? Which part of the psychology, there, are you more interested in?

Konnikova: You know, I’m interested in both. It was a very purposeful decision on my part to focus on the victims. It was one of the reasons I wrote the book. I felt like they often get the short end of the deal. That people are so just blown away by these stories of these cons and escapades and tend to look down on the victims. You know, we really aren’t that nice to them. We say, “How could you be so gullible? How could you be so stupid? This could never happen to me.” You know, we have a million and one excuses. Which I think is absolutely not true. And so, I was really interested in bringing to the forefront that victims can be anyone, and that every single person that’s coming to this meeting can be conned.

Poppy: Mmm, “this meeting” meaning the conference?

Konnikova: Yep, the skeptics’ conference.

Poppy: Yes! Interesting! How do you think they’ll respond to that?

Konnikova: Um, not well. Because I’ve already tried that at some other skeptics-like meetings, and people got very mad at me.

Poppy: [Laughs] Yeah, I kind of believe that.

Konnikova: But it’s not gonna stop me from saying that, because I firmly believe it’s true.

Poppy: Yes. I mean, to maybe give away my own bias, I think you’re right too. I think it’s a little bit of a controversial opinion in that arena. Do you see something that skeptics get wrong? Is there anything you feel like you’re fighting against there?

Konnikova: Well, I think I’m fighting against overconfidence, right? This belief that all you need to do is be cynical and skeptical to avoid being conned. I think people really have a narrow view of what cons are possible, of what it means to be conned, of what can protect you against being conned. I think they don’t realize that every single person has a point of vulnerability, and the great con artist will find that point and exploit it. And people get very defensive. They say, “That’s absolutely not true.” And by the way, not all people. Some people are very receptive, and they say, “Yeah, you know, I totally believe I can be conned.” Or, “Look, in fact, I have been conned.” But I actually have found skeptics not to be very receptive in general because they think that they know it all. And what I say to that, and this is a point that I may or may not make in my actual talk, is that con artists get conned all the time—the best con artists in the world!

Poppy: Oh!

Konnikova: There’s even a special type of con that con artists perpetrate on other con artists.

Poppy: Really?

Konnikova: When they think they’re getting a little too confident, yeah. And so, one of these ironic effects of skepticism is that you think you’re better protected than you actually are.

Poppy: Are skeptics any better protected than the general public, do you think?

Konnikova: Sure, from some cons! So, one of the things I found is that those same things that make you vulnerable to one kind of con are protective against another. So, for instance, high intelligence is protective against lottery scams, but investment fraud [victims] are much more likely to be highly intelligent and well-educated. And so, what I want to stress—and this is a very central point of my book and my argument, and I borrow it from this guy David Sullivan, who before he died, he was a cult infiltrator. So, he spent his life going after the most profound con of all. And he had this thing, he said, “No one ever joins a cult.” People join an organization that they think is going to make the world a better place. And I think you can actually apply the exact same logic to cons. So, no one says, “I’m going to be conned,” or “Oh, I’m going to believe in this con.” People actually think that this is real. And we have a blind spot when it comes to ourselves. We’re very good at being objective when it comes to other people. But when it comes to ourselves, we’re not going to see that vulnerability. And if someone points out that it might be a con [that we’re buying into], we’ll probably get really mad.

Poppy: Right. What con artists are the most concerning to you right now that you see in the culture right now?

Konnikova: They’re all concerning, to be frank, just because they’re not very nice human beings. They really take advantage of people. You know, I spoke with people who tried to commit suicide, people whose lives were absolutely ruined. For the most part, it’s not like they’re after wealthy people. They take you for everything you’ve got. So, in that sense, they’re all concerning. The ones that I’m finding concerning in particular, right now, are sweetheart scams that take place on dating websites. These are people who pretend to be someone they’re not. It’s kind of a sweetheart/catfishing kind of scam. And they end up stringing victims along, thinking they found their soul mate, and then [the victims are] just emotionally devastated. And that’s just so low. These are people who are lonely, who are vulnerable, who just want to find love. And they’re not greedy. This is the example I use when people say, “You can’t fool an honest man,” or “All victims are greedy,” et cetera, et cetera. All of which is wrong, by the way. And I always give this example of sweetheart scams. I say, “Well, what is there to be greedy about? People want human connection.” And, to me, those types of cons that really prey on a person’s trust and desire for love and connection and spiritual or emotional reassurance... those are the worst. Because it really hits below the belt. There’s something about these people who take advantage of love that are particularly cringe-worthy.

Poppy: Are they usually acting on an individual level, where it’s just a bunch of people operating by themselves, just trying to find one person to take advantage of? Or are they in these big networks?

Konnikova: For sweetheart scams, there are both, but there actually are networks.

Poppy: Really?

Konnikova: And the funny this is, right now, a lot of them are in Nigeria. [Laughs] Which I find hilarious, because people always joke about, you know, the Nigerian prince scam. A lot of these scams do operate out of Nigeria.

Poppy: Huh!

Konnikova: And it’s not one person, one victim. It’s usually one person, I don’t know how many victims, but lots. And oftentimes they are connected, because [with] prolonged cons especially you often need a lot of people to establish trust. You know, you meet the parents. You meet the friends. There are lots of actors who support this drama.

Poppy: You mentioned some people saying, “You can’t fool an honest man,” which I guess is a saying I’ve heard in old movies, but I didn’t really think was a position anyone held. I mean, I think of our vulnerabilities to being conned as kindness. They’re sort of versions of our best selves: wanting to trust other people, wanting to believe that what other people are saying is true… that they’re the vulnerable sides of the best things about us, no?

Konnikova: Well, I think that’s a very nice way of looking at it, and I agree with you. But I do think that a lot of people believe that victims of cons are greedy and dishonest; that if you are always above board, you can’t be conned. There is definitely desire to look down on the victims, because in a way it’s protective. It means it can’t happen to you. And it explains it. Because it’s scary to say, “This person was honest. This person just wanted hope, they wanted connection, they wanted something good, they wanted to be a good person, to be trusting, to help.” Then all of a sudden, that could be anyone. I’ve spoken to a lot of people, and you really do hear people wanting to blame the victims of the con artists. I mean, look at how people wrote about the victims of Bernie Madoff. That coverage is appalling, because they say, “Oh, of course they should have known. Too good to be true returns, blah blah blah. This and that.” And, “Oh, they were just greedy. If they weren’t greedy....” That is not true! Sure, maybe some of them were greedy, but a lot of them were not. And I’m picking on Bernie Madoff in particular, because those victims were really raked over the coals. And think about victims of psychics. People just think that they’re the stupidest [people] in the world. And they often lose their family and friends because people are embarrassed to know them. So, I couldn’t agree more with your point of view, and I actually think that our point of view is a minority. That’s my experience.

Poppy: Huh, how interesting. I don’t even really see the internal logic in the other point of view.

Konnikova: Well, ask a skeptic friend of yours. Say, “Oh, this person fell for a psychic.” Don’t even say “What do you think of victims?” Say, “What do you think of this person?”

Poppy: Right. Well, I’ve certainly seen people look down on people who have fallen for psychics, for sure. But I guess I’ve never really seen anyone say, “Well that means they weren’t honest,” or, “That means they were greedy.” I’ve just seen people say, “Well, that means they were stupid.”

Konnikova: Sure, with psychics, yes. With Ponzi schemes, we get “greed.” It depends. It’s always some kind of negative characteristic. It’s never just, “Oh, this person was just really nice.”

Poppy: Right. Or, “This person was taken advantage of.”

Konnikova: Right.

Poppy: OK, moving on a little bit. The skeptical community tends to focus on these few darlings like vaccination, homeopathy, cryptozoology, ghosts, telepathy. Are there any other things that you’d really like to see the skeptical movement touch that they haven’t tackled before?

Konnikova: Um, let me see. Well, out of the health stuff, cause we’re rattling some off, I’d like to see them pick up the GMOs crusade, basically, to debunk the anti-GMO people, because I think a lot of very liberal people who otherwise think they believe in science are anti-GMO, and it’s really galling. And I think the skeptic community is well placed to do it because they shouldn’t be political, though some of them obviously are. I’d love to see both sides of the political spectrum taken to account because, at least in the media, people really tend to focus on the conservatives, and the incorrect beliefs that they have: Creationism, Flat Earth, and all this stuff. But liberals are, especially right now, going insane with these virulently wrong anti-health claims. And I think that’s really just as scary. And they’re being just as anti-science. And you don’t see it covered in the media as much because most media is liberal.

Poppy: That does seem to be coming to a head a little bit with Jill Stein.

Konnikova: Yes, yes, yes. Yes, so I guess there’s one thing Jill Stein is good for. [Both laugh.] Which is making some of these issues come to the forefront. And can I just reiterate how terrible psychics are?

Poppy: Sure!

Konnikova: I mean they are just awful people.

Poppy: Psychics is one of those things where there definitely are some people who think they have this power and are misleading themselves, but once you’ve done that long enough, you know that you’re making it up.

Konnikova: Yeah. It’s really heartbreaking. Victims of psychics are some of the most frowned-upon, looked-down-upon victims.

Poppy: Did you get to talk to any of them for your research?

Konnikova: I did. I talked to a bunch of psychic victims, and it’s really sad. You have really smart people. There was one woman I talked to who was a Harvard MBA. These are not stupid people. This is what I found over and over: if the people [psychics] are really, really, really good, they can get through anyone’s defenses at the right point in time. Because, you know, when you’re emotionally vulnerable, and lots of things are going on in your life, you have no idea how many times I’ve heard this sentence: “I know psychics are total bullshit. I don’t believe in psychics. Psychics don’t exist. Except for this one psychic. They’re the real deal.” I heard that so many times! And you realize that if everyone had the one psychic, well, all of a sudden, you have an explanation for why there are blocks of Manhattan with five psychic parlors.

Poppy: Right! The exceptions can line a street.

Konnikova: Exactly.

Poppy: Extraordinary. That’s all the questions I had, except, do you have anything you’re excited to do in Vegas? I hate Vegas.

Konnikova: Play some poker.

Poppy: What?! After all that? After all that talk of critical thinking! You’re going to play some poker?

Konnikova: No! Poker, not gambling.

Poppy: Oh, I guess you’re right. See, I know nothing about gambling. [Laughs.]

Konnikova: Poker’s a game of skill. It’s actually research for my next book.

Poppy: Oh, OK. All right, I’ll allow it.

Konnikova: [Laughs.] No, I’m not a fan of Vegas at all. In fact, I hate Vegas with a passion.

Poppy: Oh good, see? We agree on all things.

Carrie Poppy

Carrie Poppy's photo

Carrie Poppy is the cohost of the investigations podcast Oh No, Ross and Carrie. She regularly writes and speaks on social justice, science, spirituality, faith, and claims of the paranormal. She also performs, mostly in funny things. She only has one fully functioning elbow.