Every one, 

given the 

right circum-

stances, can 

be manip-

ulated by 






Scams, Schemes & Swindles
Cons and the Nature of Deception
 By Jeanine DeNoma 
Participants at the Skeptic’s Toolbox in Eugene, Oregon, spent four days in August 1998 learning about the nature and psychology of deception. Everything from medical quackery to media misrepresentation and pranksters to paranormal peddlers was examined. The following articles are based on talks by Dr. Ray Hyman, psychologist at the University of Oregon, and Dr. Barry Beyerstein, physiological psychologist at Simon Fraser University. Additional information is from reading lists provided by conference faculty.

The deceiver may be motivated by money, love, fame, amusement, or to win a war or overthrow a government, but his quest is always for power over his victim. Getting a victim to donate to a bogus charity or buy the Brooklyn Bridge requires special skills. The successful con-man must be an artist, in every sense of the word, just as is a magician or an actor.

     In any deception there are at least two perspectives and two states of affairs. There is a victim who is unwittingly acting on a false set of assumptions, and a deceiver who knows the true state of affairs but who intentionally presents a false state. The con-artist invents an imaginary world and then convinces his victim, without the victim’s knowledge, to participate in this false world. He elicits this participation by creating a believable, but false, context or set of conditions. This may involve staging an event, creating an elaborate set, or taking on a false identity. To the extent that the con-artist knows how his victim interprets and responds to situations and to the extent that he can manipulate the victim’s perception and interpretation of what is transpiring, he controls the victim’s actions.

     Norman Moss, in his book The Pleasures of Deception, gives a humorous illustration of a how con-artist manipulates his victim. His character, Reginald Jones, a physics student, bragged to fellow graduate student, Gerald Touch, that he could “persuade a highly intelligent scholar to do the most outlandish things simply by talking to him on the telephone.” When pressed, Jones agreed to come good on this brag by demonstrating his abilities the following evening when Touch was to visit a pro-fessor’s home. That evening as Touch waited, the phone rang and, as Moss tells the story:

Touch’s host answered the telephone, looked puzzled for a moment, and then hung up.

“Who was it?” asked Touch.

“Don’t know,” was the answer. “Nobody at the other end.”

It was Jones, who hung up as soon as the telephone was answered. He rang again several times, and each time he hung up. Then a little later, he telephoned again and pretended to be a telephone engineer. He said they had had a report that something was wrong with this telephone. The scholar said something did seem to be wrong, since people had been trying to get through to him without success.

“Hmm, I see,” said engineer Jones. “We’ll send somebody around to look at it in a week or so.”

“A week?” repeated the scholar. “Can’t you do better than that?”

“Afraid not. We’re short-staffed. People off ill.”

“But can’t you do anything? I don’t want to be without a telephone for a week.”

“Don’t see how...I’ll tell you what though. It may just be a leak to the earth. In that case, we could fix it from here. It might be possible to find out, if you’d like to cooperate.”

“Oh yes, please. What can I do?”

“Well first, tap the telephone with something...”

     From here Jones led the professor through a series of antics, including removing his shoes, standing on one foot and tapping the phone with a piece of rubber, and culminating with having the professor submerge his telephone in a bucket of water.

How we are fooled

     Staging or creating the context within which the victim interprets an event is clearly a crucial element of the con. Jones was not likely to have been successful had he simply phoned the professor and asked him to place his telephone in a bucket of water. But, in a different context, one falsely created by Jones, that is exactly what the professor willingly did.

     We all interpret and respond to events based on context, although we often don’t realize how strongly context influences our actions. The con-artist, however, does. In a large and elaborately staged con, such as that portrayed in the movie The Sting, the big secret of the con is not that the victim is being taken by another person, but that the entire social situation surrounding the victim has been created specifically for the con.

     “We can be fooled simply because our perceptions are dulled by habit, and we look at things through half-closed eyes,” writes Moss. “We see half a picture, and assume that the rest is there.”

     Magician Jerry Andrus points out, however, that we are fooled because we must make certain assumptions to function efficiently. Imagine, says Andrus, that if every time you saw a car, you needed to say to yourself, “I see one side of that car. I wonder if the other side, that I can’t see, is there too.”

     We always operate with incomplete information. This is true at several levels. The human mind can only handle a limited amount of information at any one time, so even when all the information is available, one cannot attend to it in real time. We must select what seems relevant. In deceptions such as those used by stage magicians, not only can one not attend to all the relevant information, but one doesn’t know what one should attend to. The incoming information is polluted with wrong and irrelevant information. The successful con-artist also provides polluted, incomplete, and wrong data to his victim. By distorting information, selecting what his victim attends to, and hiding what he doesn’t want seen, the con-artist guides his victim’s actions.

Deception theories

     Deceptions range from simple lies to elaborately staged confidence games, from magician’s tricks to medical scams. Every deception is forged from concealment, falsification and/or fabrication. For example, take the lies of the unfaithful husband who meets his lover for a liaison downtown over the lunch hour. He may conceal the affair by telling his wife he went downtown for lunch; he may falsify it by saying he went downtown shopping; or he may fabricate a story by saying he was in a meeting with his boss.

     There are, of course, many perspectives from which to study deception, but there is no comprehensive theory of deception such as exists for the psychology of perception or memory. In the early 1900s, a few psychologists attempted to develop a comprehensive model for deception. Each based their model on conjuring and focused on principles such as attention, suggestion, association, unconscious inferences, and the roles knowledge and experience play in correcting perceptual errors. The conjuror presents an attractive model because his audience knows it is being deceived and yet cannot identify how. These early psychologists felt that if the conjuror could fool people under these conditions, he must have captured the most important elements of deception.

     Ray Hyman, however, points out that conjuring may not be the best model, for the very reasons that made it attractive to early researchers. The magician must convince the audience it has been deceived-that’s what it paid the admission price to see. The con-artist, however, has failed if the victim realizes he is being deceived.

     A comprehensive study of deception would also include such things as self-deception, how children’s understanding of deception develops, and non-human deception. Some researchers have proposed deception has a genetic basis. The fact that deception equalizes power differences by giving weaker individuals a means to gain the advantage, suggests that deception has adaptive significance and lends credibility to the argument that it is favored by evolution. This argument is further supported by examples of “apparent deception,” such as camouflage, mimicry, and decoying, among animals. Few scientists accept the idea that animals deliberately deceive, although some maintain that apes have this capacity.

     Deliberate deceptions require a factor which psychologists term “intentionality.” Intentionality refers not to what occurs, but to how actions are perceived. There are different levels of intentionality. Animals, for example, have first-order intentionality-they know what they want. Humans have higher order intentionality; for example, we can think about our thoughts. Successful cons require at least third-order intentionality. The con-artist must not only to think about the deception, but must also understand the other person’s perspective.

     Most recent examinations of deception have not been based on general theories, but on the fields in which the deception occurs, such as art, business, or consumer scams. Deception might also be examined from the following considerations: Who is being deceived and why? What is the motivation for the deception-is it to keep from hurting someone’s feelings, to demonstrate lax security, or to steal someone’s life savings? What is the social acceptability of the deception-is the deceiver keeping a “poker face” in a game of cards or embezzling money from his employer? How long is the deception intended to last-the time it takes to tell a joke or an entire lifetime? To what extent does the person being taken realize he is being deceived-is the victim participating in an illusionist’s trick or being taken in a game of three-card monte?

Con games

     Confidence games provide an excellent model for many kinds of deception. Ray Hyman uses the example of a street game called “three-card monte.” He describes the game as a skit-but one with a twist: The victim and the con-artists have been given different scripts. Hyman, using his skill as a magician, gives a wonderful enactment of this game. While this element of showmanship is lost on paper, the three-card monte example still demonstrates the elements of many confidence games, especially big cons.

     Cons come complete with their own language. This language is described by David Maurer, a professor of linguistics, in his book The American Confidence Man, first published in 1940 under the title The Big Con. Actors in the con-game include the “mark” or victim, the “roper” who is responsible for recruiting the mark, and “shills” who appear to be other gamblers but who are really other con-men. In the course of the scam, the con-artists describe “roping the mark,” “taking off the touch,” “blowing the mark off,” and the optional step of “cooling the mark out.” Using Hyman’s three-card monte example, let’s follow the “mark” and examine how he sees events unfold.

   What the mark reports: I had just arrived in town when I bumped into a guy who, it turns out, came from my grandmother’s home town. We got to talking and, since my convention wouldn’t start until the next day, we decided to go out for a drink. On the way, we encountered a street game called three-card monte. Players place bets that they can pick the “money card” from a deck of three cards. We watched people play awhile then my friend decided to put some money down. He lost on his first bet. Then, he and the dealer got into an argument. I think the dealer was trying to cheat him. Anyway, when the dealer wasn’t looking, my friend marked the money card. When he resumed playing, he was able to win back all the money he had lost. With the money card marked, winning was a sure bet, so I put down all the money I had on me. But when the operator turned the marked card over-it wasn’t the money card! I lost everything! Just then some guy started shouting, “Police, police!” and everybody ran off in all directions. I was spitting mad, but my friend pointed out that I had made a stupid mistake. He said these guys were always out on the street and if we returned later we could probably pull the same trick again. I could win back everything I had lost and more. We agreed to meet later. I went over to the bank to withdraw some money.

     As you will see, three-card monte is not a game of chance and the mark has no chance at winning his money back. The mark’s narrative is not an accurate description of what is really occurring. Let’s examine Hyman’s three-card monte script as it is performed by the con-artists.

   Scene 1: Roping the mark. The roper identifies a likely mark and determines that he has money. Next the roper “plays the con” for the mark (gains his confidence) and steers him to the game. It’s common to rope new arrivals by striking up conversations.

   Scene 2: Playing the game. The mark watches the game and sees some players (possibly other marks) loosing and some players (always the shills) winning. The roper marks the money card, letting the mark see, and then wins big.

   Scene 3: Taking off the touch. The mark bets all his money on the marked card. The operator turns it over and shows him it is not the money card.

   Scene 4: Blowing off the mark. The mob gets rid of the mark as quickly as possible. In this case, it was done by having a shill shout “Police!” while everyone runs away.

   Scene 5: (Optional) Cooling the mark out. The roper consoles the mark to prevent him from going to the police or making a fuss, and possibly sets him up to be taken again.


     Deceptions and scams come in so many colors and flavors-there’s one for everybody. In 1920, Charles Ponzi roped thousands of people into a “get rich quick” pyramid-like investment scheme. “Love bandits” steal money and property under the guise of offering companionship and love. Bogus medical treatments promise to restore health-at a high price, which may include not only money but the patient’s life. There are dishonest stock brokers, car repairmen, and home repair service businesses. There is the lying spouse, friend or child. And there is the playful student who just enjoys pulling a prank. The take-home lesson is that anyone is vulnerable.

     “Every one, given the right circumstances, can be manipulated by deception,” writes Ray Hyman. “To believe otherwise is to make it even easier for a deceiver to succeed.”


Bulgatz, Joseph. 1992. Ponzi Schemes, Invaders from Mars & More Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Harmony Books. New York.

Maurer, David. 1940. The Big Con.: The Story of the Confidence Man. Bobbs-Merill. (Reprinted in 1974 as The American Confidence Man. CC Thomas. Springfield, IL.)

Moss, Norman. 1977. The Pleasures of Deception. Readers Digest Press. New York.

Hyman, Ray. 1989. The psychology of deception. Ann. Rev. Psychol. 40:133.

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