As humans, we have an innate desire to find significance in our surroundings. Tales of creation, myths of gods and heroes, religious parables, books, theatre and music make life meaningful through storytelling. In doing so, they offer us something to believe in. And ultimately, belief begets hope.
There’s a reason why hope was the only thing left in Pandora’s Box. A life without even a little hope is not a life anyone would choose for themselves. Confidence tricksters understand this; and though they beguile with promises of wealth, beauty, popularity, health, love and power, hope is actually what they are peddling.
Hope, therefore, is the real currency of deception. Thinking back to a deception that was played on me recently, I believe this rings true.
In The Confidence Game, author Maria Konnikova deconstructs each element of the con – and there are several – in extraordinary detail. Whatever else may be said about them, confidence games take time, energy and elegance to pull off. Of course, this is what sets the con-artist apart from the everyday thug. To paraphrase Konnikova: con-artists don’t demand, threaten or intimidate their mark – that, after all, would be unartistic.
The first element of the confidence game is the most crucial – selecting the mark. Konnikova notes that while personality, values and motivations are contributing factors, circumstance plays a starring role. Major upheavals tend to make people more vulnerable. And vulnerable people tend to want to be understood. The con-artist is only too willing to oblige, collecting information and building trust in one fell swoop.
It was mid-2014 and I was newly separated from my now ex-husband. I was planning a trip to the US and Canada from October to the following January and I couldn’t wait. I was excited to see new places, but more than that, I was excited to have an adventure that was all my own – something I hadn’t done since I was eighteen. I had a crazy idea that I might have a winter fling while I was there. And why not? I was going to be in a small town near Niagara Falls for three months and three months is a long time to be in one place and not know anyone. So I put some feelers out online to see what I might get. I soon struck up a conversation with Mike. He lived near Niagara, was single and made me laugh. He had this rugged, gregarious way about him. I reminded myself that I wasn’t ready for anything serious – this was just a holiday thing.
The second element follows on nicely from the first. The play is all about activating emotional responses, especially through familiarity and shared experiences. This is most easily done with a good story, something to engage the mark’s excitement or sympathy. Mutual acquaintances can also lend a real air of legitimacy. The idea here is to create a bond strong enough to dissuade the mark from questioning what comes next. As Konnikova says:
“When a fact is plausible we still need to test it. When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.”
What started as emailing soon became Skype chats. Mike told me all about his difficult past, including some health problems, and the strained relationships he had with his family. He started to use terms of endearment, which made me uncomfortable at first, but which grew on me over time. He gave me a nickname and talked about all the things we might do once I arrived; dinner at Skylon Tower, country drives to do photography, snowball fights…it wasn’t long before I was swept away by his enthusiasm, though I still considered it to be a short-term thing.
Already engaged, the mark is now ready for the rope – the moment when they are pitched an idea or an ideal – something to hope for. The con-artist has several strategies to choose from here; they could simply offer more (wealth for example) or maybe the product they’re selling is valuable precisely because it’s so rare, a collector’s item. Either way, the con-artist has eloquently appealed to the mark’s vanity and has thus primed them for stage four.
Mike began talking longer-term. He sent me flowers at work for my birthday. He had so many plans for us which were the perfect antidote to packing up – literally – the life I had built with my ex-husband. I looked forward to my nightly conversations with him and any reluctance I had about being in a new relationship melted away.
The tale is an extension of the rope; where the con-artist explains the personal benefits of the idea to the mark. The trick here is to package what the mark wants most with some plausible detail. The con-artist may offer a barrage of names and events as part of the tale – “multiple moving pieces” as Konnikova puts it – designed to confuse and misdirect, however if the mark is sufficiently invested emotionally, red flags come and go with very little questioning.
In a confidence game, this is the point of no return. The con-artist counts on subjective attachment overshadowing objective knowledge and the tale delivers this. In fact, Konnikova argues that con-artists can easily be swept away by their own tales if they’re not careful.
Soon, Mike was making references to visiting me here once I’d returned from Canada, even moving in together. He would find work and then we could go on holidays together; Japan, South America. He was particularly fond of the Great Blue Hole in Belize. He wanted to skydive into it. I found his zest for life enchanting, if a little overwhelming. Mike wasn’t backward about declaring himself (especially on my Facebook page) which I felt a little self-conscious about, but I also felt encouraged by it too. It meant that it wasn’t in my head, that it was real. I went to Melbourne to visit friends and was handed a flier about working in Canada. I kept it, just in case.
Mike had previously described where he lived, but when asked for an actual address he hesitated. I didn’t press the issue, and eventually he told me. One evening, Mike told me that he had been having headaches, but he was getting some tests done. He reassured me there was nothing to worry about and told me he would keep me updated. He was also having troubles with friends and family again – they didn’t understand him, they treated him badly, his best friend had gone AWOL.
It was only few weeks to go before I left for North America and there were no test results to speak of. Mike followed up with the doctor, but got no definitive response. He decided that no news was good news. I wasn’t so sure, but couldn’t do anything from the other side of the world, so I let it go.
Simply put, this is the part where everything that was promised begins to fall into place. If there was any doubt in the mark’s mind, it has now been assuaged by the good turn of events. Indeed, the mark begins to wonder if they could have doubted the plan at all.
I arrived in New York. Mike joked about coming to the airport. I was torn between meeting him and knowing I needed some time to myself, but in the end I decided to stick with my original plan – a photography workshop in Maine, ten days on Prince Edward Island and then the long drive to Niagara, via two days in Montreal. Mike and I still spoke every day and while my new start hadn’t quite materialised, it was just within my grasp. Somehow being in the same time-zone made everything seem real to me.
Newton’s third law of motion – to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction – sums this stage up perfectly. The convincer has whetted the mark’s appetite and delivered success, but the breakdown reveals unmistakeable cracks in the plan. After all, a scheme where the mark constantly wins is not what the con-artist is all about. And yet, the plan can’t fall apart completely – not just yet. According to Konnikova, the point of the breakdown is to get the mark to commit themselves even further.
Objectively, this sounds ludicrous. But the whole point is that the mark is anything but objective. In their minds, they have invested so much and they’ve already seen a return. Any losses are put down to anomaly. Evidence which doesn’t confirm their expectations is discarded (known as confirmation bias). And of course, the con-artist continues playing the role of master puppeteer, steering the mark’s attention away from loss and discrepancy and toward potential gain.
I had just arrived in Montreal and Mike was ready to jump on a plane to meet me. But just before he was due to leave, he got a phone call from his doctor to say he had a brain tumour and it was bad. He said the delayed diagnosis was due to a mix-up. I skipped my time in Montreal and drove the eight hours to Niagara to be with him. I wanted to surprise him, to be there for him. I went to the address he gave. It didn’t exist.
I called him. He came to meet me and we argued. Trying to prove himself, he showed me his driver’s licence. It had his real address but it also had a different surname to what I’d been told. I was devastated, but resolute. I couldn’t trust him if I didn’t know who he was. I checked into a hotel for the night and moved into my cottage the next day.
A few days later, Mike asked if he could deliver the flowers he had previously arranged for me. They were my favourite freesias which he had pre-ordered especially for me. I relented.
This stage refers to the mark’s renewed commitment to the plan. This usually means investing more resources, fuelled by hope that has been re-ignited. Konnikova notes that, like a commuter who is reluctant to call a cab despite waiting a lengthy period for a bus that still might come, the mark underestimates the risk and overestimates the return. Here, the mark is banking on an eventual reward after all their investment; they don’t want to stop believing that something good is on the horizon.
Over the next few weeks Mike and I spent some time together. He was unreliable, but he gave me just enough of his attention to renew my investment in him. Halloween came around and we did a ghost tour at the local fort. He was supposed to stay overnight, but his headaches came on and, despite feeling dizzy, he insisted on driving home. I still had no clear idea what situation his health was in as he kept me at arms’ length for most of the time.
Eventually I ended it. None of this went according to my original plan of a winter fling nor to the subsequent plan of being together as a couple. During this conversation, there were tears (not mine) and Mike’s headaches and dizzy spells returned. I offered to help, but he would have none of it. Instead, he literally stumbled out of my cottage towards his car. Christmas came and I flew to the US to spend it with family. When I returned, Mike was dying.
I was completely at a loss at how to handle this news. I was due to be going home at the end of January. He wouldn’t let me see him, but wouldn’t quite leave me be either. He wanted to talk, which I found awkward and exhausting. He told me he had instructed his lawyer to contact me after he had gone. A few weeks later, just as I was about to board the plane, he sent me a message saying he was going to end his illness on his own terms. I left for home feeling angry and sad and utterly helpless, though I resolved to concentrate on what lay ahead of me.
Finally, here is what the con-artist has been working so hard for. The plan implodes, the curtain is pulled back, the mark is played for a fool and the con-artist reaps their reward.
After I settled back home, I contacted Mike’s mother. I needed closure but had received no word from any lawyer. Also, there was a missed Skype call from Mike’s account that I couldn’t explain; I thought maybe his family had tried to contact me with the news instead. When I spoke with her, she assured me he was doing well and asked if I knew he was married. Feeling very small and very foolish, I answered no and then hung up.
This stage is exactly what you might think; in order for the con-artist to move onto their next target, they must extricate themselves from the mark as quickly and painlessly as possible. In addition to losing out on what the con-artist promised, the mark is also nursing a bruised ego. Konnikova observes that this pride is what usually ends the game here, rendering the next stage unnecessary in most cases. Not wanting to be outed to others as a fool, the mark goes quietly.
For Mike, faking his own illness and death was the blow-off. But really, the way it unfolded was so fluid that it is hard to separate the send, the touch and the blow-off. All I know is that I was left to make sense of the whole sorry mess.
If the mark isn’t sufficiently weighed down by their own sense of shame, they might just threaten to talk. And this is where the con-artist must actively persuade them to keep quiet. Konnikova observes this happens only rarely, thereby allowing con-artists to repeat their tricks indefinitely.
On Christmas Eve 2015, I received an anonymous and untraceable email wishing me a merry Christmas. The same on New Year’s Eve. There is no doubt in my mind that Mike sent them, perhaps as a way to say goodbye. After the second one, I took great pleasure in threatening to out him to his entire family if he contacted me again, even anonymously. While I know Mike is free to play this game again with someone else, this small act helped me regain some sense of control over the situation. And I have chosen to build on this by writing this account. To my mind, this is the biggest act of empowerment I can take in the circumstances.
Konnikova makes a point of stating that the con-artist won’t always gain financially from their schemes. Sometimes, it is about gaining an edge over others instead. Eliciting sympathy or attention. Being cleverer than others, especially those deemed to be intelligent or in positions of authority. Sometimes the con-artist just wants to be the storyteller, the one who makes meaning and magic. The person behind the curtain. I won’t ever really know what motivated Mike to spin such an all-encompassing lie, but I suspect he wanted the challenge, the excitement and the opportunity to be seen in a particular way by someone completely unconnected to his regular life.
I can’t deny that this experience messed me around in significant ways. I feel irrevocably changed by it, especially as it happened on the back of other difficult experiences. But it has also afforded me the chance to look at myself and decide that I was worth more than what I was getting from others. I looked – really looked – at the people in my life and assessed if they were contributing something worthwhile or something less than that. Anyone who has deconstructed their life just to be able to put it together in a more meaningful way, knows how difficult a process it is.
But, just as promised, it does come with a smidgen of hope too.
Photo credit: Little Henry in France