Why Our Hearts and Minds Are Easy Targets for Con Artists, Holy Men and Cult Leaders

Psychologist and writer Maria Konnikova looks at the mechanisms of human nature that have allowed con artists, religious authorities, and cult leaders to prevail for thousands of years.

Maria Konnikova: I think humans really have a deep desire for meaning. And it's something that is really hardwired into us. So if you look at an infant who is just learning about the world, that infant needs to learn rules of cause and effect. What happens – you sometimes see babies and they keep dropping objects so you think it's so incredibly annoying. You say stop dropping that, you know, I just picked it up for you. They're learning about physics. They're actually really curious to see that every time they drop it it falls. That is a totally amazing and mesmerizing new concept if you think about it. So we start looking for cause and effect right away. That's how we make sense of the world. And as you grow older you're still looking for that cause and effect that same if I cry mommy comes back. Cause leads directly to effect. An event leave directly to what that event causes.

We are really uncomfortable when that's not the case. And the world is really, really messy. It's not all about the dropping a ball and it falls. The world really is all about uncertainty. It's ambiguous. Causes don't lead to effect, things just happen without any action on your part. Sometimes you take an action and nothing happens, even though you want it to happen. So there are lots of gaps in meaning because that meaning that we want to be there it's not there and we still search for it. And so we still want that meaning to be there. We want certainty. We want to resolve that ambiguity. And con artists that's what they do they resolve it for us. They give us the meaning.

That's why I think the same principles that underlie cons are the principles that organized religion follows because you have spontaneous organized religion in societies throughout the world. You see it throughout history over and over. Religion just keeps popping up because, once again, it also gives meaning and explains things and gives people a purpose. And that's what con artists do they sell meaning; they sell purpose.
There's a saying that's kind of out in the ether and there are lots of varieties of it but it goes something like this: “Religion emerged when the first scoundrel met the first fool.” And this has been attributed to Voltaire, to Mark Twain, to Carl Sagan, I mean it's been attributed to just about anyone who had a problem with organized religion. 

And it seems to make a lot of sense because here you have someone who wants meaning, who wants some sort of depth to life. And then you have someone who sees that and says uh-huh that's an opportunity for me. I'm smart. I know that life is meaningless. I know that all this stuff doesn't mean anything. I know that there's no afterlife, there is no this, others know that, let me see what would make this person feel better. And if that person feels better you know what's going to happen? That person is going to give me money because he's going to be so grateful for feeling better that I'll be able to elicit donations. I'll be respected. I will be a person of great esteem in society and there you have an opening and there you have the first priest, and I say priest in a very broad way, priest of any religion or any spiritual movement or a cult leader, by the way.
Cults are the most profound and terrifying cons there are because that's your spiritual con. That's someone who tricks you into joining something that's going to take over your life, even though you have no idea that that's what you're joining. 

It's very clear what the intentionality behind that original quote is because if there' s an opening someone is going to take that opening. Most people are not scoundrels but there are plenty of scoundrels out of there. And it certainly doesn't help us that we are all basically hardwired to trust other people. We're really bad at spotting deception. And you actually see, over the course of history, that societies with greater levels of trust end up being societies that develop more; that are economically sounder; that have better social institutions. And on an individual level you see people with higher levels of trust. You see them usually being smarter, getting ahead more in terms of their professional careers, being happier, being healthier. And it makes a lot of sense because for society to get ahead you need to build that society. How does society get formed? Through human connections, through bonds, through people trusting one another working together actually building institutions. How do people get ahead? Once again, through social connections. You don't get ahead on your own. And so we end up trusting and that plays into our wanting to believe even more. And so con artists just have a field day.


What is the difference between a cult and a religion? Perhaps not much. There are a lot of questions in this world, and people start asking at a young age. When a baby with a rattle bangs it on the table, it learns that the rattle makes noise. The baby is fascinated by cause and effect. That’s why they like to pull your hair and feel the tension in the strands. It’s why they are always throwing things from their high chairs.

Not everything is quite as simple – the older you get, the larger and more complicated the world becomes and as psychologist and writer Maria Konnikova points out, cause doesn’t always link up with effect. The world is often arbitrary in its motions, and there isn’t always meaning to be found. This gap in meaning is where con artist, cult leaders and spiritual advisors walk in. Konnikova has spoken before about con artists, and how they work. One big thing she pointed out is that con artists listen, and "solve" people’s problems by giving them what they desire.

That is a cult leader’s method too. These are people who seek out opportunities in others. Cults are as scary and as morbidly fascinating as it gets, because rather than losing mere money in a scam, people who fall into cults can lose everything about themselves – and then a fair amount of money, too.

Konnikova points out that organized religion works on the same psychological principles. People in the world have questions. Big ones, that have been around for thousands of years. And the scoundrels of the worlds have been around just as long, coming up with the answers, getting rich and powerful thanks to the hard-wired trust within humans. Surely many of the world’s religious and spiritual leaders are honest and good, and they truly believe in their cause. But the foundations of religion may be where one can find the deviants, who are still swimming around in organized religions up to this day.

Maria Konnikova's book is The Confidence Game.

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