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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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.