THREE-CARD MONTE, TRIBAL SCRIPT: Why do (non) fools fall in love?


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."

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.
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.

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


  1. Hands up don't shoot! We badly wanted to believe a black man was gunned down while trying to surrender. We were so disappointed when the truth emerged and an innocent black man was not murdered, that we tried very hard to hide the truth with lies, and we call every subversive who accepted reality "racist."

    1. Of course, in your telling, you have generalized and exaggerated, like a good con man commenatator on a con man's blog.

    2. Somerby is not a con man.

    3. I am less concerned with Somerby than I am with his true believing readers. What makes otherwise sensible people believe his tricked-out stories?

      Why do sensible readers seem to want to believe spectacularly simplified versions of the media and even of themselves? When offered highly simplified stories about people acting out of simple greed or tribalism, why do they become blind to Someby's glaring demonstreation of every flaw in others he literarily flogs to death?

      Alas! Intellectually raped culture has grown among some liberals in recent years. And along the way they've shown that they don't ignore, but defend inconsistencies.

  2. Motivated reasoning is confirmation bias taken to the next level. Motivated reasoning leads people to confirm what they already believe, while ignoring contrary data. But it also drives people to develop elaborate rationalizations to justify holding beliefs that logic and evidence have shown to be wrong. Motivated reasoning responds defensively to contrary evidence, actively discrediting such evidence or its source without logical or evidentiary justification. Clearly, motivated reasoning is emotion driven. It seems to be assumed by social scientists that motivated reasoning is driven by a desire to avoid cognitive dissonance. Self-delusion, in other words, feels good, and that's what motivates people to vehemently defend obvious falsehoods.

    1. " ... that's what motivates people to vehemently defend obvious falsehoods."

      Project much?

  3. Somerby says:

    [QUOTE]>>> 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?" <<<[END QUOTE]

    Why would that be or even at first glance seem to anyone to be "a relatively trivial question," especially in the light of events around the world?

  4. This post is kind of the equivalent of TV shows that keep trying to hook you and stretch the time by showing promos of what's going to happen on the show once we get back from commercials.

    1. Like the Rachel Samhill Show. I know a blogger who used to really hammer her for that.

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