Wondrium Series Examines How Con Artists Trick People

confidence, vague statements play parts in con artists' trade

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Con artists take advantage of people every day through manipulation. They prey on what people want to hear about themselves and exploit their insecurities. How do con artists trick people?

Woman speaking to a large crowd
Con artists are known for making broad statements that can sound just specific enough that people believe it applies to them individually. Photo by Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock

From Ponzi schemes to P. T. Barnum, con artists have taken advantage of unwitting members of the public for centuries. Despite increased awareness of bad actors and exploitative schemes, scammers continue to make money by tricking innocent people with kind words, desperate pleas, and flattery. Due to their flattering speech and quick thinking, con artists make victims out of one in 10 adults in the United States every year.

How do they do it? In his video series Understanding Cognitive Biases, Dr. Alexander B. Swan, Associate Professor of Psychology at Eureka College, divulges the secrets of how con artists use specific kinds of language to profit off of unsuspecting victims.

What Makes Con Artists So Convincing?

“The first thing con artists have is an air of confidence,” Dr. Swan said. “All they have to do is believe what they’re doing is real, and people will trust and believe them. Next, they’ll use charts and figures to make you think that whatever they’re pitching is more reputable than you might think.”

Con artists might also employ some kind of gimmick. As an example, Dr. Swan said that a financial con artist will tell his mark that the con artist has employed a “proprietary algorithm” to determine how the mark should invest his or her money. Meanwhile, a psychic may make use of a crystal ball or palm reading to convince others of their insight and expert knowledge.

“They’ll even make sure to note what you’re wearing and reference that in their schtick, such as commenting on a woman’s earrings or a man’s suit—anything to make you feel like the most important person in the world at that moment,” he said. “Finally, to achieve that importance, they’ll use flattery. This is one of the older social influence tricks.”

What Is the Barnum Effect?

Gullibility means being too willing to trust others or be persuaded that something we hear is true. Meanwhile, a psychological concept called self-validation is a mental operation we undergo subconsciously that relates to us recognizing our self-worth. With self-validation, we justify the idea that we ourselves—and the things we do—truly matter.

“[Some] researchers call it the Barnum effect,” Dr. Swan said. “Yep, that Barnum—P. T. Barnum, the circus promoter and showman. Psychologist Paul Meehl coined this bias the Barnum effect because it appears when we hear a statement that could be true of anyone.”

For example, if a con artist tells us that they feel that we have a great need for other people to like and admire us, we may feel very personally validated. However, that statement applies to most people. That, Dr. Swan said, is the point. When someone makes a vague statement that applies to many people, sometimes it sounds just specific enough that we think the speaker is talking about us individually.

“These statements are referred to as Barnum statements because Barnum knew how to draw crowds to his shows by using broad and generalizable statements that people would interpret in their own way,” he said. “And this led them to participate in—and pay for—whatever show or product he was promoting. And this is where the idea of self-validation comes in.”

Understanding Cognitive Biases is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily