In the history of high finance there’s no shortage of stories about stock frauds and rip-off schemes. One of the biggest in recent years was the Bernie Madoff scandal. For months we heard tales of the victims he defrauded through his investment Ponzi scheme.
We might think that most of Bernie’s victims were relatively unsophisticated investors, but surprisingly, among his marks was Morton Zuckerman, a billionaire New York attorney and real estate investor. Other victims include movie mogul Steven Spielberg and a slew of European banks.
If fat-cats like Mort, Steven and the Euro-bankers, who have access to all the relevant data, can end up getting screwed big-time, we have to wonder what kind of magic Bernie Madoff must have possessed to hoodwink them.
There are plenty of theories about how con men work their schemes on us, and one recent book, The Confidence Game, Why We Fall for it…Every Time, by Maria Konnikova, chronicles the many studies that attempt to pinpoint the traits of both the con man and his victim.
In her introduction she recounts the story of Ferdinand Demara. Eventually known to the world as The Great Impostor, his story was dramatized in a 1959 film by that title, starring Tony Curtis. Demara managed to con the U S Navy into believing he was a surgeon, and after he was unmasked, Konnikova writes,
He would go on to impersonate an entire panoply of humanity, from prison warden to instructor for mentally retarded children to humble English teacher to civil engineer who was almost awarded a contract to build a large bridge in Mexico.
Demara was such a successful con that he nearly persuaded his biographer, Robert Chrichton, to let him oversee the birth of Chrichton’s daughter. It was Chrichton’s wife who said no to this, but four years later she was so trusting of Demara that she allowed him to babysit that daughter.
Now that’s a con artist!
The author lists the three attributes that seem to make up a successful con artist. These attributes have been given the title, “The Dark Triad.” The traits are psychopathy, nonchalance (lack of empathy) and Machiavellianism.
There is actual evidence in brain scans of these traits, but the problem is, a person can have all these brain symptoms, be actually psychopathic, and never become a con man or be a threat to others. As proof of that, the author notes a study conducted by a neurologist who found that his own brain scan revealed that he himself was a psychopath.
A disturbing fact revealed by the listed studies is that many Dark Triadists often gravitate to somewhat less sleazy professions than the con game, becoming lawyers, stock brokers, and, surprise… politicians.
The conclusion is that it’s a combination of factors, genetic and environmental, that will determine if someone becomes a con artist. It is nearly impossible to clearly determine an exact set of conditions that will predict future behavior.
The focus of the book then turns to studies hoping to reveal the personality traits of the typical “mark” or victim of a con scheme. This is where things get really murky. As the author notes, we must keep in mind that,
The confidence game is an exercise in soft skills. The true con artist doesn’t force us to do anything; he makes us complicit in our own undoing. He doesn’t steal. We give.
There are several case histories in the book of con-game victims, but the wide variations in their personalities, and in their life circumstances at the time they fall for the cons make it nearly impossible to pinpoint a specific set of traits that make up the ideal victim. There are certain weaknesses that expert con men can spot; they have an inborn talent for spotting the gullible. That tendency to gullibility, however, is something we all share, no matter how sophisticated we think we are. Bernie Madoff’s victims were educated and by no means financially desperate.
As the author points out, “Our need to believe, to embrace things that explain our world, is as pervasive as it is strong.”
Studies listed in the book imply that the more trusting we are, the happier we are. After all, if we spend our lives constantly on the lookout for “the evil that lurks in the hearts of men,” our lives would be pretty grim.
But this tendency to trust also makes us vulnerable. Our vulnerability to the con springs from our desperate need for something or someone to believe in.
This basic human proclivity has led to what is known as The Guru Culture. Bookstores are crammed with advice and self-help books and we are barraged with T V ads, telling us how we can be thinner, more attractive, wealthier and just all-around better. All this is based on the unconscious assumption that we are desperately lacking in something, and that we need someone who knows better to help us.
Doctor Oz, Anthony Robbins, Dr. Laura Schlessinger and a host of other advisers produce endless streams of information in various formats. But… if these guys know all the answers, why is it necessary to keep buying so many of their books and programs? Surely the truths they impart can’t be all that complicated.
There is a saying in the literature of Zen Buddhism,
“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”
As with many Zen sayings, this is not to be taken literally. It simply suggests that if we meet someone who appears to have all the answers, we should avoid them.
In his book by the same title, psychologist Sheldon Kopp states the longing we all seem to share.
Unwilling to tolerate life’s ambiguity, its unresolvability, its inevitability, we search for certainty, demanding that someone else provide it. Stubbornly, relentlessly, we seek the wise man, the wizard, the good parent, someone else who will show us the way.
Surely someone must know. It simply cannot be that life is just what it appears to be, that there are no hidden meanings, that this is it, just this and nothing more. It’s not fair, it’s not enough! We simply cannot bear to live life as it is, without reassurance, without being special, without even being offered some comforting explanations. Come on now! Come across! You’ve got to give us something to make it all right.
And, sorrowfully, it seems that time and again our chosen wise ones turn out to be ordinary examples of human frailty, just as we ourselves are. This is a constant refrain in our society, as icon after icon is exposed as just another “Great and Powerful Oz.”
But history shows that despite the apparent weaknesses of our chosen wise ones, humans will go to great lengths to maintain the illusion that the wise one is above criticism. The twentieth century was a long dreary drama of millions “following orders” and marching side by side into mass slaughter. We tend to put the blame on Dark Traidist leaders, and we dub them monsters. But we must keep in mind that Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot etc., did not, as far as we know, murder anyone. All these guys ever did was…say stuff. It was their true believers, those who sought in them their salvation, who perpetrated the crimes. As Konnikova reminds us,
The true con artist doesn’t force us to do anything. He makes us complicit in our own undoing.
So, if we can become more aware of our dangerous proclivity to put our trust in fallible human beings and do as we are told, will that knowledge of our weakness keep us from being scammed, or following false prophets, or doing what The Great and Powerful Oz orders us to do?
Life is just too scary, and the truth is simply too awful. We’re human beings, and we gotta believe in something or someone. Otherwise, we’ll go crazy.
That’s all for now, my friends. Keep a firm grip on your wallets, and always remember that the only person in this cold cruel world that you can ever really trust is, of course… me.
The Confidence Game, Maria Konnikova, Penguin Random House, 2016
If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Kill Him Sheldon B. Kopp Bantam Books, 1972
Trycycle: The Buddhist Review Clark Strand, March-April, 1999
Why Johnny Can’t Disobey, Liberty Magazine, July 1999