Phone-a-friend: con artist expert Maria Konnikova

Published April 22, 2016.

Aminatou: Welcome to Call Your Girlfriend.

Ann: A podcast for long-distance besties everywhere.

Aminatou: I'm Aminatou Sow.

Ann: And I'm Ann Friedman.

Aminatou: Every other week we'll be bringing you a special phone-a-friend episode between either Ann or me and one of our rad pals.

Ann: So this week, Amina, I talked to journalist Maria Konnikova.

Aminatou: Oh my god, she has a book out that I love.

Ann: The Confidence Game. She is an expert on con artists.

Aminatou: My favorite vertical.

Ann: And related phenomena like sociopaths. We had a really funny conversation about psychopaths and sociopaths and the typical gender breakdown of that behavior.

Aminatou: Ugh, can't wait to hear this.

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[Interview Starts]

Ann: Maria, thanks so much for being on the podcast.

Maria: Thanks so much for having me, Ann.

Ann: I have to tell you that I read your book in like three sittings because there was something kind of car crash like about it but I couldn't look away. [Laughs] 

Maria: I'm going to take that as a compliment.

Ann: Not due to your prose but just due to the phenomena that you write about. It sort of has that feeling -- I guess now I'm really mixing my metaphors -- of you know when you read a health article where you're like this could strike you at any moment? That's sort of how I felt reading your book. I was like have I been conned? Am I going to be conned? Did you come away from the reporting process feeling nervous about that?


Maria: Oh, oh, absolutely. I mean I felt like I could not trust humanity, that just everyone sucked. People sucked. Everyone was out to get me and the world was just a horrible place. I was just so dispirited by the end of it. The more I got into the research and the more con artists I met with and the more victims I met with, the more I realized that oh my god, this actually does happen. It could very, very well happen to me. And in fact I am positive that I've been conned and not been aware of it both in small ways and potentially in bigger ways. I just can't pinpoint when. That's a little bit scary.

Ann: Yeah, okay, wow, that's just blowing my mind that I've probably been conned and didn't even know it multiple times. What are some of the signs that maybe this is a con or you've been conned?

Maria: Well, I think one of the things we really need to be aware of, too good to be true in positive ways. So when something just really remarkable seems to be happening to you it often ends up not actually being true. But when it's happening to us we don't realize it's too good to be true. And I'm not actually just talking about money. A lot of people would hear this and say "Well, I'd never fall for a lottery scam. Obviously that's stupid." But think about how many times people fall for relationship scams or some things that actually are minor cons? People who have no desire to be in a relationship. I actually spoke to some pick-up artists for the book who didn't make it in but they are a con artist of a sort and you really want to believe it and you convince yourself and you probably even, after it's over, don't realize that you've actually been conned. So that's also too good to be true.

And on the other side you have stories that are too sad to be true and that's much more difficult to resist even though we are often more capable of seeing those signs because it's one of those things where it's just so taboo and so questionably unacceptable to question it, we also don't think anyone would lie about it. So I read about some con artists, one who pretended that she was the victim of sex trafficking for instance. So what are you going to do? Say "I don't believe you. You have to give me truth. Where are the papers that say you've been sex trafficked?" We can't do that. So even if we see that red flag we're probably actually going to ignore it and there's really no good advice for that in the sense that what are you going to say? Show me that you have cancer. The sob stories are much more difficult to abide, I think, than a lot of the positive ones.


Ann: It's so funny because as I was reading it I was thinking about how as a reporter your job is to ask questions about everything and try not to make assumptions and it would seem that in some ways a book like this that is asking whether everything is a con, it's like the ultimate version of that. In some ways it's the ultimate reporting task and in other ways it's like the ultimate tinfoil hat conspiracy. I feel like in some ways it's the most practical thing you can do and also the craziest, to keep asking like "Is this real? Is there some other motivation?"

Maria: Absolutely. Well, and some of the people that I write about and hear actually end up being journalists, and I think some of them ended up unwittingly conning others because they didn't do that. It shows just how . . . you know, how much of a burden we carry as journalists to really fact-check what we do. I read about the Rolling Stone fiasco with the rape case which was just terrible. It almost set the cause back rather than bringing it forward which it was meant to do because you want to believe that story so much. And I don't actually think that we're dealing with a reporter who is malicious; I just think that she really got caught up in this, as so many of us would, because it's such a good story. And I think it did bring home to me just how much we have to follow that trust but verify dictum and do that not just when we're reporting stories but in our own lives more broadly. But it's hard. I mean at a party I don't want to ask everyone "Oh, really? Is that really what you do? Are you really a best-selling author or are you just someone who's telling me you're a best-selling author?" It's harder to do when you're not on, so to speak, when you're not actually reporting a story.


Ann: There's a lot in this book that's about fundamental facts of human nature.

Maria: Yes, yes.

Ann: We like stories and we're predisposed to believe people actually . . . do you think this is sort of innate, like the behavior? Are humans built to sort of elaborately lie?

Maria: I think both things are true. I think we're built to trust. It's at a very, very basic level. It starts with a level of perception where we have to kind of trust that what we see in the world is real before we start figuring out wait, can this actually exist? We have evolved to trust one another rather than to question one another, at least that's always our first instinct. And then on the flip side of that I think we do all have a little bit of a con artist sitting inside us in the sense that we do all lie on a daily basis and you find that it's really universal. I mean you have deception throughout the animal kingdom. I wish I could've included all the animals. I have just two paragraphs on animals in the book. But they were so interesting. There were so many liars in the animal kingdom and so many studies. You look at them and you're like "Oh, that's a very human behavior." And I think also it kind of helps grease each conversation and each social interaction. You don't want people to always tell you the truth. I think that would make us really sad. I certainly don't always want to know when I look bad and when I look tired and that someone doesn't really like me or that someone's not interested in what I have to say. You know, it's much nicer to believe those little social lies that we hear all the time.

Ann: [Laughs] So is there a line where someone goes from becoming a serial liar maybe, or maybe even an average liar, to a con artist? What is the distinction?


Maria: Yeah, that's a really good question and it's actually one that I've struggled with because it's very easy to say well, don't a lot of these things just apply to everyone? And I think you do have to draw the line somewhere. I do draw it at intention because I think most of us don't do it with evil or nefarious intent. We're not out for personal gain in any kind of real sense. We're not trying to manipulate others to do our bidding so we get something out of it. Instead we're doing it with good goals and with good aims and we're really not out to screw people over so-to-speak the way that con artists are.

I think that it is a combination of opportunity and disposition. So in the exact same situation I think some people would turn to kind of deception and con artist like tactics while others would not. So I do think there has to be some sort of predisposition there, but that said, would the same person after lying successfully keep lying if the predisposition is there? I think that that's actually a very real possibility and we do see it with a lot of con artists playing it out in just that way, that they kind of . . . they don't slip up; I mean they make a conscious effort. But then they get away with it, and they realize that they actually really enjoyed the feeling of getting away with it. I think that's part of it. They get a rush out of it. It's this kick of adrenaline, of I don't know, serotonin, of power, where you say "Whoa, that feels good. No one noticed." So you keep doing it again and I think then it becomes a really self-reinforcing behavior.

Ann: Yeah. It's also interesting because I mean I'm always curious about how people tell stories about themselves. I could selectively give you details about my life and have you come away with several different impressions of who I am and none of those details would be lies. I mean again this kind of goes back to being a journalist or being a writer. You and I both know you can reveal nothing but truths about someone but because you've selectively left out three things you can paint a really specific picture, or how you can con without lying potentially.


Maria: Absolutely. I mean I think we talk about lies of commission and lies of omission and I think con artists most definitely use both. I think one of the things that fascinates me and I think fascinates others about con artists is they don't often do anything criminal. Like if you catch them, they haven't stolen anything. They haven't broken any laws. They've just gotten you to do stuff and to give them your confidence, give them your trust, give them your money, give them your love, give them your emotional involvement. Whatever it is -- give them your respect, whatever they're looking for. But they've never actually kind of lied. You supplied a lot of the missing links.

So you and I are writers so we both know about the case of John Oler (?) obviously. That was kind of very big for us a few years ago, and one of the things that he did is he just didn't correct other people's mistakes about him. So I don't think he ever actually said "Oh, I have a PhD." But when people called him a neuroscientist he didn't correct it. So that's kind of a lie of omission. You present information in a way that makes it seem like you are more qualified than you actually are and you let those misconceptions go and that suddenly creates the sort of picture of you that's quite inaccurate.

Ann: Oh man. I'm wondering about . . . obviously there are both male and female con artists who are written about in your book, but I'm wondering about in terms of the tactics they use, or maybe the motivations, if there are gender differences in how that manifests.


Maria: I wish I had a really good answer to that question. I think it's really important. I have one answer but it's a very partial answer. I talk about the dark triad of traits that a lot of con artists possess and that's  psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism. What we know is there are basically no female psychopaths. It's fewer than 1%. I mean we're talking about .01 or something along those lines of a percentage of all existing psychopaths are female. And so that's definitely one big difference. And so insofar as con artists are psychopathic, those are going to be men. These are people who actually don't feel empathy, actually don't experience emotion in the same way.

Women on the other hand probably do and they are much more calculated in how they employ their emotion. That would be one difference. But that said, there are also men who aren't psychopaths who are con artists.

Ann: [Laughs] Oh, really? No, I'm just kidding.

Maria: So it's a really . . .

Ann: I thought you were going to stop the sentence at "Men who aren't psychopaths."

Maria: Oh, yeah, let's do that. So there are men who aren't psychopaths. Done. Can we have that be the last sentence of the interview?

Ann: Please, yeah. I'll quote you on that.

Maria: So I have a pet theory. So people obviously know more about male con artists in the sense that they've been covered I think more extensively, and I on purpose actually wrote about women to say hey, you know, a lot of the best con artists are female. But we have really bad statistics on con artists because most con artists are never caught. The vast majority are never reported. And that's either because people are really embarrassed or because they don't realize they've been scammed. So my pet theory is that actually women probably make better con artists. That's why we don't know about them because they're still operating. 

Ann: They don't get caught.

Maria: Yes, and they don't need the recognition. So most of the people who I had to basically fend off who were so eager to talk to me were men. The few females who I interviewed, I had to really track them down and really ask them to talk to me. Men were much more eager to kind of share their stories. They were much more kind of . . . they wanted their names and what they did out there. Women not so much.

Ann: Probably not surprising maybe but that is so interesting.

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Ann: So, okay, you said right off the back you've probably been conned but don't even know it. If you were to guess, like okay, what are the types of cons that someone like you or me has probably fallen for even though we don't realize it . . .

Maria: Sure. Well we've -- I mean I've certainly given money before to either panhandlers or someone I didn't realize was a panhandler, to someone who said "Hey, I don't have my Metro card. Can you give me a swipe?" or "Can I have some cash for the bus? I don't have my wallet, or I don't have this, or I don't have that." So I've definitely given a few bucks here and a few bucks there and I'd like to think that all of those people were legitimate but I'm willing to bet that some of them weren't. I'm also willing to bet that most people who live in a city have fallen for a con like that at some point. I mean have you ever given money to anyone?

Ann: Yeah. As I was reading your book I was actually thinking about a guy who approached me. I was outside a farmer's market or doing something that I'm sure he was like I'm going to target people who are weird bleeding hearts (?). But I forget what it was, but it was framed as some kind of bigger charity donation and I gave him some money. And later I was like oh, that was just for that guy to get something to eat, and I didn't necessarily feel bad about it, and I don't even care if the answer was yes, it was, or no, it really was for the charity. But that's definitely something that I've thought about, like a super-tiny thing that didn't really matter that much.

Maria: Yeah, absolutely. Well, and something -- you could actually probably call this a con. I dated a psychopath. I actually had an ex-boyfriend who I'm pretty certain -- and I spent a lot of time with him so I feel much more comfortable giving a psychological diagnosis -- who I'm fairly certain was a psychopath. That and actually had lied about a lot of things about himself. So in that sense I was conned in actually kind of a big way. He wasn't an imposter. He was exactly who he said he was. But there were lots of details about his life and about what he did that never added up. So I think that people like us could unfortunately also fall for something like that. I mean all of us want to believe that you'll meet the perfect love and we often don't even see -- we don't see the red flags when they're there. I should've in retrospect when I analyzed that relationship. I think oh my god, what was I thinking? But it was really rough while I was in it.


Ann: I have a particularly bad ex and I'm like hmm, I wonder if he was a psychopath. [Laughs] Tell me the tell-tale signs.

Maria: Sure. So psychopaths, as I think I briefly mentioned, they don't experience emotion the way that we do, the way that healthy people experience it, and actually they have differences in parts of the brain like the amygdala which are quite closely connected to emotional processing. They don't actually feel empathy for you. They don't feel what you feel. They don't project in that same way. And so they're much more cold and rational and coldly calculating.

What I mean by that is they will understand exactly how you feel but on a totally cold and rational basis, so they can actually manipulate it. They don't get emotionally involved in it. So they'll be able to take advantage of it, and they'll say "Okay, right now she needs this and this is what I'm going to project. Right now she needs this and this is what I'm going to project." That said, it's not that they don't themselves express emotion. They can get incredibly angry and irrationally angry. So that's one of the tell-tale signs, when they feel like they're not getting what they deserve, because they normally have a very high sense of themselves. They will suddenly just lash out and get very out of character, or so you think, because they're very charismatic usually. They're very kind of sweet and nice. But if you cross them in that way they can get very explosive and very reactive.


Ann: Or perhaps . . . now I'm totally, 100% also convinced I dated a psychopath. I was going to say or they get angry when you sort of realize that what they're doing is analytically responding to your emotions.

Maria: Yes.

Ann: Rather than dealing with you authentically.

Maria: Yes, yes, absolutely. Absolutely. So they have this very kind of . . . they have a very grandiose sense of themselves and that kind of goes to thinking that you will never see through them, that you actually understand exactly what they're doing.

Ann: This is just like a hazard of heterosexual dating for women, clearly. I feel like I'm understanding women's horror stories in a whole new way. Oh.

Maria: And they also actually -- one of the other characteristics of psychopathy is they don't ever feel guilt or remorse, so they can do really horrible things to you. Can I say shitty on your podcast?

Ann: Absolutely.

Maria: All right, so they do really shitty things to you then they don't feel bad about it at all but they can fake feeling bad. So you can say okay, he felt bad. He'll never do it again. But he didn't actually feel bad so he will do it again. There is that . . . there's just no guilt there because they never thought that they were actually doing anything wrong to begin with. And they're also often kind of a little bit parasitic. They like other people there. They like the trappings of a normal life. They don't want to be called out as a psychopath. One of the things they get off on is kind of getting people to think that they're so wonderful. And psychopaths aren't wonderful, right? Charismatic and kind people are wonderful. They need this image to really remain intact.

Ann: Oh my god. And so I also feel like now -- it's been a while since I read your book, but just talking to you now, I feel like the title The Confidence Game, I'm like is that just life? Is this everything? Or is it screwed up people? [Laughs]


Maria: You know, in some ways it is everything and in some ways it isn't. You have to . . . in order for the book itself to make sense you do have to draw the line so that you kind of can figure out who's a con artist and who's not. But to be perfectly honest, it explains how a lot of relationships work. It's just a matter of degree and not a huge difference. I think this is a lot of how relationships actually develop and how we get people to trust us. And when I reread my book I was actually a little bit horrified because I thought this is actually not just . . . this doesn't just explain it; it's a pretty good guide to how to exploit people.

Ann: Yeah. I had that thought. I mean again reading it as a reporter, you and I talk to strangers a lot who we . . . I don't need them to trust me like a friend or a confidant, but I usually need people to trust that I'll portray them accurately, that I truly care about conveying what they're saying to me, that I don't have some ulterior motive. And it is true. I'm sure in lots of professions it works to your advantage to gain people's trust quickly.

Maria: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Ann: Yeah. So, oh man, and being good at that is clearly such a . . . I don't know. I can see how it's innate for some people where they're more predisposed at being great at it, but I mean other people hone it. That's part of becoming good at your profession.

Maria: Absolutely. So many professions are predicated on it. You know, one of the things I found hilarious in a kind of non-hilarious way when I was doing this is that one of the kind of so-called Bibles of the con artist is Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People which is a book that's recommended to businesspeople, lawyers. It's recommended to a lot of people actually all the time. I mean it's one of these perennial best-sellers, probably one of the best-sellers of the 20th century, wouldn't you say?

Ann: Oh, yeah. It's like a hugely iconic book.


Maria: Those are the exact same principles you need if you're going to take in your mark and be able to pull off your con.

Ann: Well Dale Carnegie was himself a con artist. When he wrote that book he wasn't successful at anything. He was a failed salesman.

Maria: That is such a good point. That's exactly . . . I think that's getting at exactly what your point is, that being good at that really can make you successful in all walks of life. I mean David Moore who wrote The Big Con back in 1940 which is just such a fun and incredible book, and he spent years with them because he was learning their language. He's a linguist. He actually points out at some point -- and I think I quote him, I just don't remember the exact quote -- something along the lines of we'd do well to remember that a lot of the people who surround us legitimately, the politicians, the business people, the lawyers, all these people around us, we'd do well to remember that they're doing a lot of the same things as the person you dismiss as a con artist on the street. It's just a social legitimacy that's conferred to what they do.

Ann: Right. Like how different is that guy who approached me outside the farmer's market -- how different is his tactic from someone who gets paid a six figure salary to sell me soap or whatever, you know?

Maria: Exactly. Exactly.

Ann: Yeah. Okay, well that's chilling and fascinating.

Maria: Exactly right.

Ann: [Laughs] I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about catfishing because I know Amina is not on this call but my co-host is a long-term student of catfishing and all its many iterations and I'm wondering if this has changed, gotten easier, etc. in the digital social media super-connected era.

Maria: Catfishing, which is just I think the modern word for impostering, has been around forever. But the modern era, the era of catfishing that actually goes by the name catfishing, is I think it's just a gold mine. It's so easy to craft an identity and to make people think you're legitimate because we use all sorts of technological and online resources as things that confer legitimacy. So the fact that we all use all these social networks, we trust social networks because we use them and people we know use them.


There's one con artist who I follow in the book who was so good at basically creating fake online trails for himself, profiles that connected to one another on Facebook, on Twitter. He created dating profiles. He even created Wikipedia pages about himself and wrote himself into Wikipedia pages on lineages because he was pretending to be an aristocrat. So people who were just doing this kind of superficial search would see all sorts of hits. And he crafted these identities over a period of time that was pretty sophisticated. And so, you know, even if you try to do a rudimentary Google search, especially if somebody uses a common name which a lot of them do because they're smart, you just get inundated and you're like oh, yeah, he seems legitimate. She seems legitimate. It's so incredibly easy also to join people's social networks.

There was the fake Politico journalist who started friending all these journalists who would actually accept her friend request and she was catfishing -- well, we think. She might not have even been a she; I'm just calling her a she because her profile picture was female. But by the time the story broke I actually checked to see if I have a Facebook friend request from her because I felt her that she hadn't friended me and she had, in fact, and we had 80 Facebook friends in common.

Ann: Wow.

Maria: So, yeah, 80 of my writer/journalist friends had accepted this made-up person's friend request. That is so easy. It's just kind of . . . it's a give me type of situation.

Ann: Yeah. It makes me feel good about my policy of no Facebook friends who are not people I actually know. [Laughs]

Maria: Yeah, that's my policy as well which is why I ignored her friend request and didn't even realize she'd friend requested me until this whole story broke. Because if I don't know you -- and we might not have met in real life. I don't know if you and I are Facebook friends but I certainly would be Facebook friends with you. I assume you're actually Ann Friedman, right?


Ann: There is the twist actually. Yeah. [Laughs]

Maria: But yeah, I think it's a really smart policy. Catfishing is really hard to avoid, it's gotten so easy, and I'm actually seeing it as getting progressively easier the more of our lives we entrust to technology.

Ann: Okay, well, thank you so much for talking to me about the book. I'm going to go Facebook friend request you immediately.

Maria: [Laughs] Excellent, and I will accept immediately.

Ann: Excellent. Okay, thanks Maria.

Maria: Thanks so much, Ann. This was a lot of fun.


[Interview Ends]

Aminatou: You can find us many places on the Internet, on our website, you can download us anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts, or on iTunes where we would love it if you left us a review. You can tweet at us at @callyrgf, or email us at You can also find us on Facebook -- you can look that link up yourself -- or on Instagram at callyrgf. You can even leave us a short and sweet voicemail at 714-681-2943. That's 714-681-CYGF. This podcast is produced by Gina Delvac.