How Religion and Culture (Literally) Enslave
When "Public" Doesn't Mean "Public"

The Social Psychology of Con Artists

A great con artist is a great persuader.  A con man must persuade a mark to trust him.  Usually a con involves a mark thinking that he is part of the con - a co-con artist.  How does a con artist con you?  By using principles of social psychology.

While social psychology is a broad topic, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, lists six main principles of persuasion: reciprocation; commitment and consistency; social proof; authority; liking; scarcity.  In a fascinating book (upon which this article is based), a con man illustrates the principles of persuasion. 

How does a con man get you to like him?  Here's how:  

Mr Lovell draws people in by mirroring their body language. He breaks their defences by entering their physical space.

This is the liking principle at work.  People - that's you - like people like you.  If someone has your body language, you like them more.  Because they are like you.  If they are like you, they must be good!  That's the liking principle.

Con men want something from you.  How do they get it?  They give you something first:

Con men tend to be excellent conversationalists. "Many men kissed the Blarney Stone," Mr Lovell likes to say, "a con man has swallowed it." A con man puts a victim at ease by telling a story that reveals his own rather similar anxieties, thereby forging a "mutual understanding" of sorts.

Reciprocation.  By sharing your own anxieties, you'll get the other guy to feel obligated to share his.  It really is amazing.  Tell a sob story.  The person you just told the story to will feel like he must say something.  He'll fill in the space with his own life story.  As a con man, you can use this to manipulate your mark.

After establishing rapport using the liking and reciprocity principles, the con man has to establish himself as an authority.  A card trick will do:

As the conversation progresses, Mr Lovell will start showing the man some card tricks. "They must be really good and impressive ones," Mr Lovell warns. "After all, you have to know what you are doing."

People respect authority.  So you have rapport, and you've established yourself as an authority.  You're a valuable person.  So now you have the mark, right?

No way.  You gotta make yourself scarce.  Never be the last guy to leave the party.  If you're not scarce, you're not valuable.  The con man makes himself scarce by telling the mark that the con man isn't going to let the mark in on the con:

[The con man] then unloads his problems on the guy, perhaps something about a partner getting arrested for a small crime, leaving him without a partner for a big poker game the next day. The victim will then almost invariably offer to help. Mr Lovell will question his toughness, but the man will insist he can handle it. With a touch of hesitation, Mr Lovell will then offer to test the man's skill by taking him to a small game that very night. He will even put up the money.

Scarcity.  Not just anyone can do this con with me.  I can only do this so many times.  Nah, I can't let you in on it.  I'll need someone else.  Thus, you have the urge to qualify yourself! 

At the game, Mr Lovell explains, he will tell the victim to go all in when he taps the table. Mr Lovell has allegedly figured out a way to determine the hand of each poker player as he deals the cards. It is a skill he spent years honing, and he displays it proudly in his one man show. (Rumour has it casinos in Las Vegas have banned Mr Lovell.) With this gentle coaching, the victim wins the pot, about $500, and is elated. He's ready for the big game the next day.

Commitment and consistency.  Humans are creatures are habit.  The best argument against telling small lies is that those will lead to larger lies.  The reason you shouldn't steal a dollar from someone is because you'll start stealing a lot more than a dollar.  We slide down slippery slopes.  Con artists know this.

A con man always gets a mark in on a small con.  When you pitch a guy on the larger con, he's going to remain consistent.  He's always started conning.  He'll be down for future cons.

Once you have someone in a pattern, you've got them.  You can take them for all they are worth.

For more on con artists, be sure to check out "How to Cheat at Everything."