What Con Men Can Teach Us About Trust

Regular Trust Matters readers know I speak positively about trust. But there is no trust without risk. Trust can be misplaced, or abused. Bad consequences ensue.

Thanks to prodding from regular reader Martin Dalgleish, I think it’s time to explore the dark side of trust. Trust can be violated at a personal level; at an institutional and societal level; and, of particular interest to this blog, in the realms of advice-giving and sales.

Let’s start with the personal level in this post.

“Clark Rockefeller” was in the news this summer for kidnapping his own daughter. Turns out his real name wasn’t Rockefeller. In fact, very little that people thought about him turned out to be real.

Rockefeller is one version of a con man. The Boston Globe’s does a nice job of explaining how it is that he fooled so many people—two wives, the social elites of Greenwich and San Marino, California, brokerage firms—into believing that he was a wealthy heir of the Rockefeller fortune.

But how?

From the article:

We size up someone’s trustworthiness within milliseconds of meeting them…it’s the first thing we decide about a person, and once decided, we do all kind of elaborate gymnastics to believe in people….As in other cognitive shorthands, we make these judgments quickly and unconsciously.

Yet human society would not exist without trust…The art of the con is based on a variation of this idea: that trust is more reflexive than skepticism. Once people form an initial impression of someone or something, they seem to have a hard time convincing themselves that what they once believed is actually untrue.

More bad news: research suggests our “trust" is based on things like cheekbone shape and eyebrow arc.

You can fake trust. It’s not easy, but it can be done. There are plenty of slicksters slinging get-rich-quick schemes—the same names appear in boiler-room stock sales, then in death annuities, then in condos, then in no-doc loans. These con men are talented cynics.

Hollywood romanticizes the con man in movies like The Sting and Paper Moon; like the whore with a heart of gold (Pretty Woman), it’s a Hollywood fairytale feel-good staple.

The feel-good myth here is that once we uncover everyone’s true motives, the con will be revealed. It was either a real con by a black-hat Evil One; or a pseudo-con by the true white hat who is simply avenging a deeper wrong (Batman, Zorro). Motives determine all in this fairy-tale view of trust.

But here it gets tricky. In truth, the best con cons the con artist as well as the mark.

Most actors try to find a part of themselves that can relate to their character—then act from that deeply-felt affinity. Most salespeople are good at believing in what they’re selling. Most demagogues are true believers.

What we learn from the movies—and from politics, and religion—is that revealing true motives will reveal the con. Ah, so sorry, not true. The best con incorporates sincerity.

A fool who believes he can trust a sincere con is simply a misguided fool. Sincerity may be a necessary condition for trusting someone; it surely is not a sufficient condition. Worse yet, it’s not even a high hurdle to overcome. It ain’t that hard to believe.

The best way to be trusted is still to be trustworthy. And if you’re looking to trust, be careful of using sincerity as a shortcut. As George Burns once said, “The most important thing in life is sincerity; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” And the easiest way to fake sincerity is to simply believe your own con.

(Any political parallels the reader chooses to draw are entirely the reader’s own responsibility).