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BOUND TO PLEASE / Don’t fall under the spell of a charming predator

The Yomiuri Shimbun

By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterThe Confidence Game: The Psychology of the Con and Why We Fall for It Every Time

By Maria Konnikova

Canongate, 340pp

You’ve just sat down at your local coffee shop when the woman at the next table, whom you’ve noticed there once or twice before, suddenly begins pouring her heart out to you. Her little daughter was visiting her grandmother in a distant part of the country, but the old lady had a fall and is in the hospital, leaving the child all alone. The mother needs a train ticket to go get her girl, but she just ran out of cash ...

And you are just about to get conned.

Maria Konnikova, a best-selling author with a PhD in psychology, explains how it works in “The Confidence Game.” She divides a con into multiple steps, the first of which is “the put-up,” in which a con artist identifies and contacts a likely victim.

Familiarity is enough to begin lowering a person’s defenses, even if that familiarity is only a vague sense of recognition. Someone you’ve seen before in your local coffee shop is probably your neighbor. You’ll probably see her again.

Or maybe she was just hanging out in your neighborhood for a few days, looking for marks.

Next comes “the play,” a story the con artist uses to build an emotional link with the victim. Perhaps you had a sad experience like the one she described. Perhaps that distant part of the country is where you grew up. It’s as if you’ve met a kindred spirit.

Or maybe she knows these things because she was eavesdropping last time you were in the coffee shop. Even without physical snooping, anyone with access to Facebook these days can learn enough personal details about a potential victim to tailor the perfect story. The story may be so moving that a mark may offer cash before the con artist gets around to asking for it.

Longer and more complex cons have additional phases, which Konnikova calls the rope, the tale, the convincer, the breakdown, the send, the touch, the blow-off and the fix. She devotes about a chapter to each, but the concepts have blurry boundaries (be sure to highlight the definitions when you find them), so material in one chapter sometimes would fit just as well in another.

For example, consider how con artists take advantage of how people guard their own reputations. An art dealer who has been duped into buying fake paintings may continue doing so to avoid admitting the error (in the send), while victims of all types may keep mum to avoid public shame (in the blow-off).

But each chapter includes interesting ideas about the natural ways people fall into irrational thinking, with alarming true stories about the nasty ways criminals take advantage of such tendencies.

Konnikova warns that no one is totally immune to a well-executed con. Even so, forewarned is forearmed.

Where to Read

In your local coffee shop — wearing headphones to avoid speaking with that shifty woman at the next table. Perhaps you can listen to some hit tunes by deaf composer Mamoru Samuragochi. Oops! His deafness has been called into question, and he didn’t write those hits. But he did con plenty of people into buying them.

Maruzen price: ¥3,380 plux tax (as of Jan. 4, 2017)Speech

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