Life in the time of grifters


Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale, in Catch Me If You Can (DreamWorks)

Frank Abagnale coned employees of Pan American Airways into believing he was a company pilot in order to hitch free rides.  He impersonated a pediatric chief of staff at a Georgia hospital and a lawyer in New Orleans all between the ages of 15 and 21. That’s just some of his glamorous cons before he was caught in France trying to hitch one last ride. Frank was a talented grifter, a confidence man. The question that intrigues me is; what makes us easy marks, patsies, and stooges for the con man? Are we just gullible, or is there more to it?  I think our vulnerability reflects pernicious features of human nature, ones that date way back in our collective history and ones that neuroscience can shed light on.

A deluge of conspiracy theories and falsehoods flood social media and cable news making it nearly impossible to discern what’s true and what’s false. Max Read wrote an article on the topic for NYmag.  He asked how much of the internet is fake and concluded, “a lot of it”.   Quoting fact checker Maarten Schenk, “Just because it’s trending, doesn’t mean it’s true”, and that is precisely the problem.

Grifters win when they convince us that nothing matters, especially not the facts.  Richard Pryor put it this way; “Who are you gonna believe, bitch?  Me? Or your lying eyes?”

Trump followed with this; “Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening, just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.” The comedian and the president, both expressing a cornerstone of the con artist’s trade, but only one of them was being satirical.

Successful confidence schemes rely on human nature, on how our brains work.  A hustler may fashion an elaborate fraud, but his tools are really quite simple, drawn from the toolbox of magicians and marketers. A clever con can succeed even with easily provable falsehoods, but it helps to remember that to the con, a falsehood is not a lie but a means to an end, part of a bunco scheme. There is no question, we are in the era of ‘fake news’, an odious phrase grifters use in an attempt to discredit the truth and confuse people into putting reason aside. How did we get into this spot?

Just repeat things

Repetition is an old and surprisingly effective brain hack, well known in marketing and politics alike.  Just say the same thing over and over again. Fox News repeats the same talking points and chyrons all day long, word for word. If everyone is saying it, it must be true – right? It’s easy to see why this works and why it’s largely independent of authenticity. It takes advantage of brain systems that govern attention, the same systems explain why a cat will follow a red laser dot to exhaustion. Psychologists learned in the 70’s that repetition enhances acceptance and agreement. Low levels of message repetition over an extended period creates consensus. There is art to it, for example moderate repetition is effective, but too much can create aversion.  I think we are seeing the latter effect with messaging coming from the WH. Gretchen Schmelzer wrote a blog on the neuroscience of repetition that I think you will enjoy.

Repetition is a great tool for memorizing things and improving performance in anything that requires expertise. It creates long term memory by strengthening the synaptic connections between neurons in discrete pathways. It also allows us to tap into connections that already exist by association, and in that way strengthen existing beliefs and biases. We have a very hard time identifying disinformation if it is presented repeatedly and reminds us of a cherished narrative.

A review of how the brain makes memories helps explain why practice and repetition is so effective. Information received through our senses is routed through two brain pathways, one serving emotion and the other serving the storage system for explicit memories. Every memory has both emotional content and explicit or autobiographical content. At the level of the synapse, a self-perpetuating protein, a prion, keeps the connection between neurons going as long as the pathway is active. The strength of this feedback system increases with use, enhancing the connection. In addition, repeated activation stimulates the growth of new synaptic terminals, again  strengthening the neural circuits encoding specific memories. I know that sounds wild, but it’s the current state of our understanding. Biologically speaking, it’s the way we are designed to learn. One other thing is very clear, memories with strong emotional content are by far the most resilient and most readily recalled. This is the neurobiology behind why politicians crave air time, love campaign rallies and memes and make calculated references to fearful worries and emotion packed topics like race and religion. Elite con artists understand this principle.

There is another quirk of human nature that gives cons an advantage. We often rely on intuition, or gut feelings, to decide whether a claim is true or false. It’s what we do when critical thinking and the search for corroborating evidence just seems too hard. Repetition bias feeds into this. We tend to mistake what is familiar for what is true. This is sometimes called the illusory truth effectFrequency of occurrence is one criterion we use to judge the validity of a claim. Only a small degree of plausibility is enough to convince us to accept a statement as valid and even a single prior exposure increases the perception of accuracy even if there is a low level of credibility, or if the story has been declared bogus by fact-checkers, and surprisingly even if the story is inconsistent with one’s political ideology. This thread will take you further. 

Nassim Taleb pointed to narrative fallacy in his book Black SwanIt refers to our tendency to construct stories connecting unrelated facts in an attempt to weave an explanation into events as they unfold.  It appears that we must always have a narrative of some sort, even if its phony, just to make sense of the world. We don’t like to be wrong, feel tricked, or admit that what we believe might be false, so we make up stories to hide our ignorance.   Besides, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”( McCaffrey from Seinfeld). Mariam Kiparoidze, writing in, points out another awkward feature of human psychology.

Diversion and  distortion

In the global cyberspace, information spreads lightning fast and a con man can put this to advantage. To camouflage a con, simply tuck it into the background of a big holiday, or a sporting event so the fraud is less obvious or seems unimportant in comparison, at least temporarily. The confusing background overwhelms the senses and overloads cognitive processing. Magicians rely on misdirection to mask the obvious, the ‘gorilla in the room’ stunt being a fine example. Test your awareness skills here.

News feeds and viewer attention slow down on weekends, creating a time window when things are less likely to attract attention.  The WH released a frightening government report on climate change but delayed release until Black Friday in hopes of lessening the impact. They continue to use this old trick, although everyone is onto it by now.    

Myside bias

Myside bias refers to our abiding tendency to search for, interpret and favor information in ways that confirm our preexisting beliefs while giving little credence to alternative views.  People will interpret ambiguous or even blatantly false data as supporting their favored position because it is just easier that way.

Mental exhaustion sets in when confusing information consumes the energy we need to sample our own thoughts. That’s one of the reasons that reasonable people are sometimes totally irrational. Motivated reasoning is a coping tool we use to maintain self-esteem and avoid cognitive dissonance by ignoring troubling information that contradicts our core beliefs. It is much easier to dismiss a contradiction than to examine it.

In their book The Enigma of Reason, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber contend that reason is a trait that emerged on the savannas of Africa and should be understood in that context. They argue that humans’ biggest advantage is our ability to cooperate. Reason developed not to solve abstract problems but to resolve the problems posed by living in social groups.  From this perspective, myside bias is about adopting a narrative that identifies us as a member of the tribe in good standing. Our fractured culture is tribal in nature.

The biological basis of myside bias includes the fact that people experience genuine pleasure, and a rush of dopamine, when presented with information that supports their beliefs. This is unconscious and driven by emotion. It feels good to stick to the party line, wear the costume and identify with the group. We see this acted out at political rallies where the chants and funny hats create a tribal ritual in a circus atmosphere and with a script. The audience waits for a cue to join the chant “lock her up”, a powerful call to embrace the comfort of the clan. Have you noticed that during “lock her up” everyone is smiling?  To be sure tribal bonding at its core is a great thing, think of the group euphoria people experience at Burning Man or at a rock concert or soccer match. All play on what gives us a sense of belonging, joy, and pleasure and I think they all involve the same neurochemical rush and activation of the default mode network.  But, this wonderful quality of being human is also open to manipulation by a propagandist.

Images make strong memories, and fake images make fake memories

We use visual memory to construct a living narrative and perform even the simplest computations. Moreover, visual memory capacity is correlated with our highest cognitive abilities, our emotions, and our general comprehension. Pictures have a powerful impact on how we remember things and the context in which an image is presented makes all the difference.

Doctored images are a key feature of any good confidence scheme. And, if fake images are a problem, consider the impact of doctored video. Brian Resnick wrote a disturbing piece on the topic of deepfakes for VOX. He notes that realistic remodeling of photos and videos is easily done with free software. Scary isn’t close to the right word, and we are seeing this kind of thing a lot in the political realm. I remember one particularly amateurish doctored video posted by the WH.

Memory hackers

Julia Shaw is a ‘memory hacker’, she is a neuroscientist who studies how to plant false memories in people’s minds to make them think they did something that never happened.  Her methods are based on images and repetition. She describes how to do it in her book, The Memory Illusion, Remembering, Forgetting and the Science of False Memory. It is the same stuff grifters use but from a neuroscience perspective.

Writing in Motherboard, Kate Lunau recounts a conversation with Dr. Shaw who explained that a memory is a network of brain cells that stretches across different regions of the brain.  The network is constantly being updated, an important feature that allows us to learn new things and to problem-solve, among other skills. This plasticity means that memories are malleable, not static, and can be manipulated. “Each time you tell a story, you change the memory, maybe dropping in new details, weaving in tidbits you actually heard from somebody else in some other context, adding new emotional content, or forging completely new, and possibly inaccurate or misleading, connections.” She explains, for example, that if you think you remember anything from before you were about two-and-a-half years old, and many of us think we do, that’s a false memory. Before that age, our brains aren’t developed enough to store memories, a phenomenon called childhood amnesia. So, a memory attributed to a very young age was either acquired through photos or someone told you a story that you internalized.

Quoting Shaw; “I think that reality is purely your perception. And its a completely personal experience. The world as you know it only exists for you, as you are right now. Every day you wake up a new person, with a different brain, and a different set of memories to guide you. I like to say that all memories are essentially false, they’re either a little bit false, or entirely false. There are entire experiences that never happened.” False memory is certainly something to think about. This link will take you further. And here is a link to the entire Memory Hackers NOVA documentary.

When cons make mistakes

Grifters tend to slip up in the accelerated world of social media and cable news. It seems that in the rush for publicity they speak without thinking or out of arrogance. Kellyanne Conway famously coined the term “alternative facts” and Rudy Giuliani cemented his reputation as a buffoon with the phrase “truth isn’t truth”.  Two breathtaking examples of self branding that proved the two of them utterly unworthy of your attention.  A cunning grifter would not make such errors. Often it seems that things start to go south for the con when narcissism turns to grandiosity. He starts to fall when he tries to run the ‘long con’ and asserts that he alone can do what has never been done, win what’s never been won, meanwhile life goes on outside all around him. And for us, there is this advice; “It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge” (Bob Dylan, It’s Alright Ma).


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