We Are Not Above Suckerhood: In Which I Present a Critical Thinking Award to Maria Konnikova

As I mentioned yesterday, it was my job to present the Balles Prize in Critical Thinking to Maria Konnikova for her book The Confidence Game, and that’s what I did. Oh, but unlike most of the rest of the conference, there will be no video record of my remarks, no historical record of the tears, the guffaws, and the many empty seats because most attendees were still recovering from the Tournament of Kings performance that had just concluded.

Lucky you, I just happen to have written my remarks in advance, and now you, dear reader of this quasi-live blog, can enjoy, through the glory of text, my award presentation to Maria Konnikova last night.


Photo by Mark Boslough

Good evening all, I’m Paul Fidalgo, communications director of CFI and host of its monthly-ish podcast Point of Inquiry. I’m here to present the Robert P. Balles Annual Prize in Critical Thinking, which is a $2,500 award given to the creator of the published work that best exemplifies healthy skepticism, logical analysis, or empirical science. [Etcetera etcetera.] …

There’s a sucker born every minute, goes the line attributed to PT Barnum. This fairly cynical cliche continues to resonate today because it evokes that which we all feel in our guts to be true: That some folks—many, many folks—will fall for just about anything. Of course, we are usually thinking of folks other than ourselves.

There’s a problem. When the phrase was supposed to have been spoken by Barnum, sometime in the middle to late 19th century, the word “sucker” wasn’t yet commonly in use to mean someone who is easily fooled. There is in fact no evidence that the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute,” was ever spoken or written by Barnum, in any variation, at all.

Who’s the sucker now?

Whoever coined the phrase, they were clearly giving humanity too much of the benefit of the doubt. A recent UNICEF estimate tells us that about 353,000 babies are born every day. That means that in our era, about 255 suckers are born every minute. Because, really, within each of us beats the heart of a chump.

Photo by @Skeptishrink

Maria Konnikova’s book, The Confidence Game, carries the subtitle “Why We Fall for it Every Time.” I think that “we” is important, because there’s nothing particularly special about being the victim of a con. We are all susceptible to having our biases, emotions, and self-images taken advantage of, manipulated by those who have made the engineering of our internal decision-making their livelihood.

It is not only a surplus of suckers we have to be worried about. “If you’re a sentient being you’ve almost certainly deceived at some point in your life,” writes Konnikova. “From reptiles to humans, the animal kingdom is full of liars.” So now we have untold thousands of liars born every minute, spanning an array of species. It’s all too much.

It seems to me that The Confidence Game could not have come at a better time. Last year, when we gathered here, we didn’t know we were about to begin living under the reign of Trump. Whatever your political persuasion, it is undeniable that our president emits lies as though he’s using them for echolocation, it’s like he doesn’t know where he is unless he can hear his bullshit waves bounce back to him. Most of us underestimated the lure of someone who reinforced the existing beliefs and biases of millions of people, who convinced them that he alone could fix what was broken in America, much of which he had made up to begin with. And for a con artist, Trump’s not even very good at it. He didn’t have to be. We are just that vulnerable.

And frankly, Trump is low-hanging fruit. Also attesting to the timeliness of The Confidence Game is the state of our lives online. Konnikova tells us that the con man’s genius lies in his ability to “figure out what, precisely, it is we want, and how they can present themselves as the perfect vehicle for delivering that desire.” Put aside the plague of fake news and viral hoaxes. Is it not the the very mission of companies like Facebook to be the “perfect vehicle for delivering [our] desires?” Presumably, Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Amazon aren’t trying to scam us outright. But with the intimate knowledge they have of every facet of our lives, including our biases and emotional triggers, well, it wouldn’t be all that hard to turn us all into their marks.

I think the skeptic movement is at its worst when its members conclude that they are above suckerhood, and deride those who have been taken in by cons, hoaxes, and false claims, mutually reassuring each other of our imperviousness to bullshit. I know I have at times been guilty of this.

But at its best, the skeptic movement accepts that to err is human, that 255 suckers are indeed born every minute and that we count ourselves among them. Konnikova advises the reader to “know yourself well enough to recognize and control your emotional reactions. What kinds of things provoke what kinds of responses in me – and can I see it happening early enough to resist it by staying grounded in details and logic?” In order to fortify the public against the forces of bullshit, we have to look to ourselves, and understand what could cause us to tip from skepticism into credulity. Once we accept our own susceptibility, then we are best able to do what movement skepticism was intended to do: to keep people from being scammed in the first place, whatever form the scam takes.

The Confidence Game is a book that is more valuable than perhaps was even intended. Without condescension, without derision, and without unrealistic promises of a “cure,” Konnikova drops into the hands of readers the bad guys’ playbook. Here is how the con artist plies his trade and plies his victims. And the lessons are applicable far beyond the relatively small pool of con artists, helping to arm us against deception in whatever form it takes, and revealing just how vulnerable all of us are to having our most foundational concepts of self and society coolly and surreptitiously manipulated so that we act against our own interests.

Oh lordy, do we need that now.

And thankfully, we got it. That’s why I’m delighted to present the Balles Prize for Critical Thinking to Maria Konnikova.


Header photo by Mark Boslough.

False Memories, Social Roles: Elizabeth Loftus, Anthony Pratkanis, and More Storytelling

They may not have intended it, but back-to-back speakers Elizabeth Loftus and Anthony Pratkanis both discusses what could be considered the same subject: What a trivial effort it is to make humans believe something that may not be so.

Yesterday, Maria Konnikova told us about how storytelling, so beloved in the abstract, can be a powerful force for evil. And like Pratkanis, she was focused on con artists, those who manipulate people, through storytelling, in order to arrive at some desired behavior.

Loftus’s area was slightly different, focused on how memories, as opposed to identities and what Pratkanis described as social roles, can be manipulated. Again, through storytelling.

You know what’s kind of scary about all this? How easy it seems to be.

Famously, Loftus’s research has shown that people can be led to believe the they have experienced events in their lives that have never occurred. This comes up a lot in terms of therapists knowingly or unknowingly convincing patients that they’ve endured some kind of trauma that they’d since suppressed: abuse, Satanic rituals, etc.

But the dials go up and down in terms of the significance of these false memories. Loftus explained that people can be led to, on one hand, be convinced that they have always loved asparagus, or to the other extreme, come to “remember” seeing traumatic events or taking part in mind-boggling adventures.

No one is immune, it seems. Even when they tested a control group against people of “superior memory,” the results were the same.

Imagine the implications of this, and the ethical implications. “Should we ever use this mind technology affirmatively? Should we ever ban the use of this kind of mind technology?” It’s truly a great power when you think of it.

Pratkanis showed us how this power can be exercised in more malicious or underhanded ways, not with memories, but with the assignment of social roles. But it’s all still storytelling.

The term here is “altercasting,” putting yourself in a social role to get the behavior that you want from another person. “If I wanted you to be critical of my lecture,” said Pratkanis, “I’d remind you you’re all skeptics.” Then, rethinking this, said, “That would be a bad example.” Laughter ensues, of course.

So a good example is someone who takes the social role of a teacher. That assigns the role of student to others, and they begin to behave like students, dutifully taking down the things spoken by the teacher.

But it has to be consistent, Pratkanis says. You can’t be in the role of teacher and tell everyone to take their clothes off. The story has to make internal sense.

“Once we’re in those roles, then we live up to them,” he said, “and all around us are people reminding us of those social roles.” All around us people take their roles in the story. And the story may be entirely false. But when altercasting is successfully pulled off, it’s like we’re all handed a script for a play in which we’ve been cast.

What we as skeptics can do is to altercast ourselves with the aim of promoting critical thinking and humanist values. We can promote a social role that values evidence and reason. We can serve as the best example of this by assuming the “scientist” social role for ourselves, “to bend over backwards to prove yourself wrong.”

As Loftus concluded in her presentation on memories, “Just because somebody tells you something, and they express it with a lot of confidence…just because they cry when they tell you the story, it doesn’t mean that it really happened.”

“Memory, like liberty, is a fragile, fragile thing.” And so, as we learned from Pratkanis, are our very identities. And, as we learned from Konnikova, so are our beliefs about others. Through storytelling, it’s a wonder we can be sure of anything about ourselves or what’s around us.