4 Powerful Things Con Men Can Teach You About Persuasion

9 minute read

Frank Abagnale impersonated Pan Am pilots and doctors, traveled the world and scammed people for millions.

And he was 17 years old at the time.

Via Catch Me If You Can:

I wasn’t a Pan Am pilot or any other kind of pilot. I was an impostor, one of the most wanted criminals on four continents, and at the moment I was doing my thing, putting a super hype on some nice people.

I was a millionaire twice over and half again before I was twenty-one. I stole every nickel of it and blew the bulk of the bundle on fine threads, gourmet foods, luxurious lodgings, fantastic foxes, fine wheels and other sensual goodies. I partied in every capital in Europe, basked on all the famous beaches and good-timed it in South America, the South Seas, the Orient and the more palatable portions of Africa.

How can some people be so incredibly persuasive?

Looking at what’s been written by and about con men, it’s not because their marks are dumb.

Via The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man:

It is not intelligence but integrity which determines whether or not a man is a good mark.

In fact, sometimes smarter people are more gullible and dumber people are harder to cheat.

Via The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man:

Stupid or “lop-eared” marks are often played; they are too dull to see their own advantage, and must be worked up to the point again and again before a ray of light filters through their thick heads. Sometimes they are difficult or impossible to beat. Always they merit the scorn and contempt of the con men.

I’ve posted many times about the psychology and techniques of persuasion (even interviewing the influence master himself: Robert Cialdini.)

So what can we learn about convincing people from those who do it most brazenly: con men?

I’m not teaching anyone to be evil. But we need to understand what works at the highest level: those who survive due to influence.

This is what Bob Cialdini did in his groundbreaking book about influence: he studied used car salesmen, multi-level marketers and other less savory characters who needed the most effective methods.

So what four ethical tips can we take away from a study of the scams and cons of grifters?


1) Forget Silver Tongued – Have Silver Ears

You think of con men as smooth talkers but just as the psychological research recommends, they bond with others by listening.

Via Social Engineering: The Art of Human Hacking:

Probably not one skill exists that can be as encompassing as listening. Listening is a major part of being a social engineer.

Social Engineering: The Art of Human Hacking is a book about the methods computer hackers use.

But these tricks don’t involve tech. This is how hackers fool people into giving up their passwords.

What’s the book say? Pay attention, provide proof you’re listening, don’t interrupt, repeat what they said in your own words…

This is the same set of methods that FBI hostage negotiators use tobuild rapport.

Former head of international hostage negotiation for the FBI, Chris Voss, recommends just that:

The idea is to really listen to what the other side is saying and feed it back to them.

What about with the old school con men? Same techniques.

Via The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man:

“I couldn’t say what you must have to be a good roper, but I can tell you some of the traits you better not have. Never permit yourself to be bored. If you gander around you will always find some mark you can trim. But some heel-grifters think it is smartly sophisticated to appear languid or condescendingly wise. That is really stupid. Tie into any mark. He may have it in the jug… Never interrupt a fink while he is talking. Be a good listener and he will immediately conclude that you are a young man of some note.”

More on effective listening here.


2) Confidence

They’re called “confidence men” for a reason. They exude confidence, gain your confidence and then exploit that trust.

Now some of this is plain thrill-seeking fearlessness on their part.

Afraid of asking your boss for a raise? Frank Abagnale took the helm of a 747 — and he didn’t know how to fly a plane.

Via Catch Me If You Can:

I promptly put the giant jet on automatic pilot and hoped to hell the gadget worked, because I couldn’t fly a kite.

I’m not suggesting you give that a shot.

But we’re often too cautious and not realistic about the downside of failure — usually all we face is embarrassment.

Research shows confidence — real or not — is extremely powerful.

Don’t project confidence to lie and steal but think about what you do on job interviews and first dates.

We all need to overcome our irrational doubts and fears to be our best. “Fake it until you make it” is powerful.

Via Catch Me If You Can:

Top con artists, whether they’re pushing hot paper or hawking phony oil leases, are well dressed and exude an air of confidence and authority. They’re usually as charming, courteous and seemingly sincere as a politician seeking reelection, although they can, at times, effect the cool arrogance of a tycoon.

(More about the psychological techniques used by Navy SEALS to develop fearlessness here. And here is how to be more confident.)


3) Social Proof

The author of Social Engineering was busted with a full set of lockpicks, bump keys and hacking tools. What got him out of it?

A simple business card.

It identified him as a security professional. And nobody knew he had printed it himself.

Via Social Engineering: The Art of Human Hacking:

The only difference was that I had given him a business card. Granted, my business card is not the $9.99 special from an online card printer, but I was amazed that what seemed to have happened was that a business card added a sense of license to my claims.

How did Frank Abagnale fly around the world on Pan Am planes while only in his late teens? Simple. He got a uniform.

Via Catch Me If You Can:

What if I were a pilot? Not an actual pilot, of course. I had no heart for the grueling years of study, training, flight schooling, work and other mundane toils that fit a man for a jet liner’s cockpit. But what if I had the uniform and the trappings of an airline pilot? Why, I thought, I could walk into any hotel, bank or business in the country and cash a check. Airline pilots are men to be admired and respected. Men to be trusted. Men of means. And you don’t expect an airline pilot to be a local resident. Or a check swindler.

Don’t fake who you are. But there’s a lesson here for all of us.

Often we think about proving we’re right by the facts but we really don’t consider the actual shorthand most people use to determine “truth.”

They don’t get formal verification; they trust business cards and uniforms.

Don’t neglect to do the simple things that project trustworthiness even if they are, in reality, less accurate.

Dress nicely, reference mutual friends and similarity, and convey social proof markers like affiliations with impressive institutions.

Social proof is one of Cialdini’s six fundamental principles of influence. Don’t ignore it.


4) Do Your Research

My friend John Richardson, MIT lecturer on negotiation, notes:

Success in negotiation is strongly correlated with time spent preparing.

And even impulsive criminals like con men agree.

Via Catch Me If You Can:

The third factor is research, the big difference between the hard-nosed criminal and the super con man. A hood planning a bank holdup might case the treasury for rudimentary facts, but in the end he depends on his gun. A con artist’s only weapon is his brain. A con man who decides to hit the same bank with a fictitious check or a sophisticated check swindle researches every facet of the caper. In my heyday as a hawker of hot paper, I knew as much about checks as any teller employed in any bank in the world and more than the majority. I’m not even sure a great many bankers possessed the knowledge I had of checks.

How did Frank Abagnale research his Pan Am pilot impersonation?

He called Pan Am pretending to be a student.

Via Catch Me If You Can:

In the past I’d found my best sources of information on airlines were airlines themselves, so I started calling the various carriers and pumping their people for information… A lot of the things I felt I ought to know, however, were not in the books or magazines I read. So I got back on the pipe with Pan Am. “I’d like to speak to a pilot, please,” I told the switchboard operator. “I’m a reporter for my high school newspaper, and I’d like to do a story on pilots’ lives— you know, where they fly, how they’re trained and that sort of stuff. Do you think a pilot would talk to me?”

Across so many professions — legal or otherwise — we see the best work very very hard at what they do.

(More on effective work habits and becoming an expert at anything here.)


So What’s Next?

For more tips on persuasion from scientific research and experts in the field, check out:

  • 6 hostage negotiation techniques that will get you what you want
  • Top 10 FBI Behavioral Unit Techniques For Building Rapport With Anyone
  • Robert Cialdini explains the six ways to influence people
  • For more helpful tips, join 45K+ other readers and get my free weekly update via email here.

    This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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