Part 2—The stories we long to hear: In one way, Maria Konnikova's essay in the New York Times conforms to a sad pattern.
On its face, its topic isn't hugely important. Despite this fact, it was the featured piece this weekend in the Times' high-profile Sunday Review.
The high-profile weekly section tends to serve plenty of piddle. On the average Sunday, these pieces will be tricked out with pointless academic pieces designed to drive the New York Times brand as our smartest newspaper.
Across the country, consumers seem to buy this con. In one major way, Konnikova's piece seemed to conform to this general pattern.
Given events around the world, Konnikova's 2400-word essay asked a relatively trivial question: Why do otherwise sensible people fall for the stories of "con men?"
For the record, con men are sometimes women. In the course of her essay, Konnikova explained the derivation of that familiar old term. Along the way, she offered four examples of people who fell for con people's cons:
Robin Lloyd, college student: As a college student on her first trip to New York, Lloyd got taken for all her money in a game of three-card monte. Lloyd went on to get her Ph.D. in sociology. "She was, until recently, the news editor at Scientific American."Given the sweep of events around the world, these incidents aren't gigantically important. That said, they involve true crime and failed romance, topics which seem to be pleasurable even to brainy Times readers.
A woman named Joan (not her actual name): Joan, described as a "savvy New Yorker," learned "after not only dating but living with her boyfriend, Greg (also not his real name), that she had fallen for an impostor." Uh-oh! "Everything he'd ever told her about himself was a lie."
Paul Frampton, physics professor: Frampton, a University of North Carolina physicist, "became convinced that he was corresponding with the model Denise Milani" through an on-line dating site. He "proceeded to fly to South America for an in-person rendezvous and ended up jailed for smuggling cocaine."
Ann Freedman, high-end art dealer: The former president of art gallery, Freedman "became embroiled in one of the largest art forgery scandals of the 20th century." For over a decade, she sold work on behalf of an art dealer whose collection "was made up entirely of forgeries." According to Konnikova, Freedman had no idea.
Why do people who aren't fools fall in love with impostors? Why do people with high IQs fall for three-card scams?
Why did Freedman fail to see that one of the Pollocks in her collection was signed with this name: "Pollok?" These are the questions Konnikova tackles in her piece.
Given the sweep of world events, these questions don't seem hugely important. That said, when Konnikova began to explain why sensible people fall for cons, her analysis seemed to connect to some topics which really are hugely important.
What skills do successful con men possess? According to Konnikova, "good con men...are exceptional creators of drama, of the sort of narrative sweep that makes everything seem legitimate." They're skilled at telling convincing stories--but "the stories the grifter tells aren’t real-world narratives...they are tales that seem true, but are actually a manipulation of reality."
That may be what the con man does, but what makes otherwise sensible people believe their tricked-out stories? Konnikova's answer to that question made us think of the questions we've been asking for perhaps the past ten years.
Why do sensible liberals and progressives seem to want to believe spectacularly simplified versions of the real world? When we're offered highly simplified stories, why do we (in Konnikova's words) "become blind to inconsistencies that seem glaring in retrospect?"
Alas! Tribalized culture has grown among liberals in recent years. And along the way, we've shown that we can ignore the inconsistencies (and falsehoods) in our simplified stories even after these falsehoods are revealed.
What makes otherwise sensible people want to believe stories and claims which are spectacularly simplified, even to the point of being false? As liberals and progressives have become aggressively tribalized, this has become an important political question.
Konnikova discusses people who fall in love with impostors and people who fall for three-card games. But as we read her essay, we found ourselves thinking about different types of simplified stories and cons—the kind which may appear in best-selling books, sometimes to critical praise.
Why do liberals and progressives want to believe such stories? As she discussed thrilling love with impostors, Konnikova seemed to provide an answer.
Tomorrow: You gotta believe