Excerpt: The Confidence Con by Maria Konnikova

Think you’re hard to fool? This fascinating non-fiction tome may have you second-guessing yourself. Maria Konnikova investigates the psychology of the con, and why we fall for it every time. 

Confidence Con
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What makes somebody particularly susceptible to being conned?

The alarming answer, according to Maria Konnikova, is being human. For good evolutionary reasons, we’re hard-wired to trust each other—or, putting it more starkly, to be gullible.

And that’s by no means all. Several other, often admirable, human characteristics also make the con artists’ job easier than you might imagine. We tend, for example, to be unreasonably optimistic about how things will turn out.

Psychological tests have also proved time and again that our primary response to almost everything is emotional rather than rational—yet because we rationalise it later, we remain convinced that we’re simply being objective. 

Konnikova has plenty of scientific evidence to back up these and other equally fascinating arguments. But she also has lots of eye-popping tales of how con artistry has worked in practice: the fake surgeon who carried out life-saving operations in the Korean War; the fake monk who founded a Christian college; the fake governor who ran a Texan prison. (And they were all the same bloke!)

Drawing on experts’ wisdom and confirming that victims of scams aren’t necessarily the type of people we’d expect, she shows that we’re all suckers for a good story…

 

The excerpt

Mamoru Samuragochi was a musical phenomenon.

Not only was he one of Japan’s most prolific and popular composers—his composition 'Hiroshima', inspired by his parents’ survival of the bombing, had sold an astonishing 180,000 copies—but he had a remarkable story that made his accomplishments all the more impressive. He was deaf. When he turned 35, a degenerative disease caused the loss of his hearing —and despite it all, he’d gone on to compose beautiful pieces of art. The ‘modern Beethoven’, the media dubbed him. In 2001, Samuragochi told Time magazine that his deafness was ‘a gift from God’. 

He remembered well the moment he’d lost his hearing: he’d had a dream—he wrote in his autobiography—in which he was pulled slowly underwater, losing the ability to hear as the water hit his ears. When he woke up, he went immediately to the keyboard. He couldn’t hear a thing. He was distraught. Composing was his life.

It was then that he decided to try a small experiment: could he hear Beethoven’s 'Moonlight Sonata' in his head and recreate the notes from memory? He could. His resulting score perfectly matched the original. 

It was only after he’d lost his hearing that Samuragochi’s career took off in earnest. Hiroshima, his birthplace, chose his composition to commemorate the bombing in a ceremony in 2008. In 2011, he became the only living composer to be included in a list of favourite classical CDs in Recording Arts magazine.

On February 5, 2014, Samuragochi made a stunning confession. Since 1996, he had employed a ghostwriter. Takashi Niigaki was a 43-year-old lecturer at a Tokyo music college, and for almost 20 years had written on Samuragochi’s behalf. He’d been paid approximately $70,000. He’d wanted to stop, he told the press, but Samuragochi wouldn’t have it: he threatened to commit suicide if the deception were to come to light. For Niigaki, the breaking point was an unprecedented piece of publicity: one of his ghostwritten compositions would be used in the Olympics by a Japanese skater. ‘I could not bear the thought of skater Takahashi being seen by the world as co-conspirator in our crime.’ 

But there was more, Niigaki said. Samuragochi wasn’t even deaf. The illness had been largely faked for the benefit of the story. Alone, the music might have been good, but not remarkable. Together, the story became irresistibly incredible—so much so that a number of red flags were ignored. In one interview, a reporter noticed that Samuragochi was responding to some questions before the sign interpreter was done making his interpretations; another time, he’d reacted to a doorbell ringing. Samuragochi was a con artist of the highest calibre, the media concurred. But part of the blame, wrote Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s most widely read newspapers, was with the press. ‘The media must also consider our own tendency to fall for tear-jerking stories.’

Samuragochi’s tale seems crazy. But when we become swept up in powerful narrative, our reason often falls by the wayside.