Good con-men are
politicians or record execs excellent intuitive psychologists. Just like magicians they understand enough about how the mind works to exploit its vulnerabilities. Our fascination with hustlers is insatiable and, despite being criminals, they are frequently portrayed by Hollywood in a flattering light, in films like The Sting, Catch Me If You Can and the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy.
Of course the reality is nowhere near as romantic, especially if you’ve fallen for one of the cons. Frank Stajano, a security expert at Cambridge University, has been working with Paul Wilson, a scam artist and author of BBC TV’s The Real Hustle to identify the 7 major psychological principles used in short cons to part people from their cash (Stajano & Wilson, 2009; PDF, 308K).
Attention is like spotlight, which means when it’s pointing in one direction it pretty much ignores everything else.
Except people don’t realise how little information coming in from the outside world we actually process. Naturally you don’t notice what you don’t notice, plus the mind is designed to fill in the gaps for us. But Hustlers do know and almost every con uses some kind of distraction.
The classic example is ‘Three-card Monte’ sometimes called ‘Find the Lady’, a rigged card game in which the aim is to find one card out of three after the hustler shuffles them around.
At the heart of this hustle is the orchestration of a crowd of onlookers who the mark (that’s you and me) thinks are all fellow punters, but who are actually in on the game. Marks are distracted by the situation in the street — the banter, laughter and excitement — and don’t realise the whole thing is a setup: no matter what the mark thinks they know, there is no way to win. The hustler is always one step ahead.
Stajano and Wilson call Three-card Monte ‘polite mugging’.