We’re all just a bunch of fools. It’s not an insult, it just means that our brains are configured in a way that makes us easy to deceive. The problem is that we need to be smart and savvy - the opposite of a fool - if we want to perform at our best, make great decisions, and solve difficult problems.
A great look at how and why people get fooled is the 1973 Oscar-winning Best Picture, The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. It is the story of two con artists in 1936 who seek revenge against a murderous gangster by conning him out of half a million dollars (an enormous amount in at the time). It is based on true accounts of grifters from that era.
I have watched The Sting at least a dozen times and discovered that it reveals some compelling truths about why people get conned - truths that can help us avoid getting taken in real life.
NOTE: This article contains spoilers. You don’t need to have seen The Sting to appreciate its insights, but I do recommend giving it a go as soon as possible. It’s great filmmaking and a ton of fun. You’ll thank me.
Greed makes us dumber
Every successful con and deception in The Sting works because the victim’s emotions are amplified and manipulated. When emotions drive decision making, we make poor decisions. Sympathy, fear, and anger can make us vulnerable to deception, but the primary driver for turning us into suckers is greed.
The movie opens with a street con in which a gangster’s money runner is conned out of a large sum of his boss’s cash. He thought he was getting away with his own con by stealing from strangers who trusted him, so his come-uppance is deserved and the audience cheers because he’s a greedy greasy slimeball.
Later, one of the con artists who hoodwinked the runner decides to ride his wave of luck and bets all his newly acquired wealth on one spin of a roulette wheel. He loses because (no surprise) the game is rigged. His greed made him an easy mark. The crooked gambling parlor didn’t even have to lure him in. He just fell into their lap, guided there by greed.
Start with the old adage that If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Before making any consequential decision, check your greed at the door and engage your critical thinking skills instead.
From sketchy investment strategies to playing the lottery - if an opportunity to make easy money appears - dig a little deeper and calculate the actual probabilities. Greed makes us ignore risks and overestimate the odds of winning. Recognize the emotion and soberly assess the risk and the odds.
Anger and Revenge
The protagonists in The Sting are con men Gondorff and Hooker. Their target is Doyle Lonnegan, a crime boss who falls into a trap and loses a fortune. Afterwards he doesn’t even realize it was a grift.
How could someone who lies and cheats and steals for a living be fooled so thoroughly? Greed certainly played a part, but the clincher was anger and revenge. That was the hook.
Lonnegan gets swindled in a poker game by Gondorff, who enrages Lonnegan by acting the part of a loud-mouthed drunk who can’t get Lonnegan’s name right. That’s the anger part.
Shortly after the game, Hooker tells Lonnegan that Gondorff cheated him. That’s where the revenge factor comes in. That desire for revenge (and greed) drives Lonnegan to get involved in a plot to get back at Gondorff. The scheme is fake, but Lonnegan, blinded by anger and the chance to get even, misses the deception and gets swindled.
The lesson here is that when you feel high levels of anger and/or revenge, cool your jets. Recognize that they muddle your decision making. Before acting, take some time to let your temperature cool. Also seek outside input from someone who does not have the emotional ties to the situation.
Verify the verifier
Lonnegan is very suspicious of Hooker from the beginning so he takes a number of steps to verify that the set-up against Gondorff is legit, which, of course, it wasn’t. The method the con men used to verify the authenticity of the scam was a deception itself.
Magicians take similar measures. For example, getting an audience member on stage to verify that the props are not gimmicked gains the trust of the audience. They don’t consider that the audience member may be “in on it.” Or when a magician passes a hoop over a levitating person to prove there are no hidden supports, the audience doesn’t question the legitimacy of the hoop.
We see this all the time from the media in the form of self-proclaimed fact-checkers. Many of these organizations have a strong ideological bias that drives what they decide to fact-check and how. They often seem to have a conclusion first then present evidence that supports it, when it should be the other way around.
It is difficult to know what is real and what is fake, but try not to assume something is true just because a so-called fact-checker says it is. Decide if their evidence and reasoning are compelling enough to warrant their conclusion. Sometimes it’s the debunker that needs debunking.
The trust conundrum
The “con” in con artist is short for confidence. Con artists need to gain your confidence and trust in order to swindle you. They also have greater access to us than ever before. Fake news, false advertising, hoaxes and elaborate email scams abound. The result is that we are less trusting now than in the past.
However, I do not recommend being less trusting in general. Having high trust in your professional and personal relationships is essential for success, but it must be “smart trust.”
(See Stephen M.R. Covey’s excellent book, Smart Trust)
While prioritizing trust pays huge dividends, it does require risk and sometimes you will get burned. But if you check your emotions - especially greed and anger - and do a reasonable risk/reward assessment, your odds of finding success will go way up.
Oh, you'll still get fooled sometimes, but you'll be less likely to make bad decisions, especially when the stakes are high.
Think well - live well.
- Steve Haffner, mind performance strategist
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