Published April 14, 2022
Would you recognize a con artist? Many people fail to realize they’ve been unwittingly cast in a deceitful drama that, if successful, will put them on the losing side of a swindle, according to UB faculty member Mark Frank.
And he would know.
Frank is an internationally recognized behavioral scientist and expert in nonverbal communication, emotion and deception who recently contributed that expertise to Curiosity Stream, which has produced a six-part docuseries titled “Inside the Mind of a Con Artist.” The series is currently available for streaming.
A three-member panel that included Frank, along with Kerry Daynes, a forensic psychologist, and Moran Chef, a neuroscientist, explored in each episode the psyche of a convicted con artist who had voluntarily agreed to a series of tests, interviews and analysis in an attempt to understand the complicated minds behind the confidence games that defrauded thousands of people out of millions of dollars.
From Ponzi schemes to inflated mortgages to phantom investments, the con artists who participated were even able to prey on banks, like Barclays and JP Morgan, as well as individual marks. In some cases the con artists were masquerading as noblemen or art dealers. One had an audience with Pope Francis. Another went so far as to assume the identity of a child who went missing years before, affecting a portrayal that convinced for a time — both the police and the missing boy’s family — that this man was in fact who he claimed to be.
But how does anyone fall for this? It all seems implausible. Who gets caught in these outlandish plots?
“Not me,” you say?
Don’t be so sure, says Frank, a professor in the Department of Communication, College of Arts and Sciences.
“We’re all susceptible because con artists play on basic human interaction,” he says. “They’re not doing anything extraordinary, but instead using basic social psychology: How do you get people to trust you? How do you get them to change their attitudes? These are things we all do in day-to-day life, but the con artist puts them in the domain of criminality and takes those abilities to the extreme. The irony is that their skillset could be valuable if only it were steered in the right direction.
“I was surprised by the degree to which that was central to the con.”
Cons work because of our own vulnerabilities, Frank explains. It’s what’s inside of us. He uses the familiar horror movie plot line that has the authorities suddenly realize a killer is actually pretending to be among the potential victims who are all trapped in the same isolated and inaccessible place. Just as the killer is inside the house, it’s the vulnerabilities inside of us that cons identify and exploit.
“A lot of this relates to the con artist’s ability to tap into desires and wishes in ways that get us to do things beyond what we would ordinarily do,” says Frank.
But ability, which might in a sense be called “natural,” also requires an appropriate environment in order to flourish, and the con artist’s repertoire, which includes the ability to read and judge people, often develops in response to trauma.
“This is consistent with research that suggests that children who have experienced abuse are better at reading people than children of the same age who have not been abused,” explains Frank. “These skills develop because incorrect identification can have terrible consequences.”
And half of the six participants in the docuseries had upbringings that followed this pattern. But all of them have developed an ability to read others, as well as manage their own behavior in ways that create the intended impression.
For example, Christophe Rocancourt, who at one point passed himself off as a Rockefeller heir, watched 10 roughly 60-second clips that had been prepared by Frank and the other expert panelists. Rocancourt’s task for each clip was to determine who was lying and who was telling the truth.
“He knew right away who was being deceitful, within seconds, in six of those 10 examples,” says Frank. “In the other four examples he watched the entire segment and was correct in two out of the four cases — thus his 80% overall accuracy was way above the norm of 54%.”
That ability, combined with iterative learning and a deft hand for stage managing reality through their clothing and other accoutrements, raises questions about how people might protect themselves from cons.
“We all need to develop a ‘circuit breaker,’” says Frank. “And that’s the one element that ends the engagement for us, but it’s not always easy. It might be any request for money, or personally identifying information. But you can get caught up in the experience. There’s a comfort level. It might be fun, but it’s critical to realize when to throw that breaker that has you stop, and pull away from the action.”