Big lies, clever cons, and TOK ways of knowing, Part 3: Is critical thinking utterly futile?

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160222 mirrorDoes everyone really fall for con artists? Everyone, always? That’s the subtitle of Maria Konnikova’s book: The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It…Every Time. No, I’m not going to fall for taking a catchy title literally! But if potential victims are so very vulnerable, is it utterly futile to try to develop skills of critical thinking in our own defense?

This post is the third in a series on the deceptions of “the confidence game”:

  1. Does it matter to tell the truth? (ethical perspectives on telling the truth) February 8, 2016.
  2. What does storytelling do to knowledge?  February 15, 2016.
  3. Is critical thinking utterly futile? February 22, 2016.
  4. On guard against scams! February 29, 2016.

This week, I’d like to look more closely not at the perpetrators of scams and frauds, but at the victims. Interesting though con artists may be to many people (“How do they do it?”), the victims may be even more fascinating (“Why did they fall for it?”) – especially if even smart, experienced people are vulnerable. Konnikova assures us that even con artists can be conned!

I’d also like to look more closely at what we mean by “thinking critically”, and the several TOK ways of knowing that have to be involved.

What ways of knowing do we need for thinking critically?

Too often, people associate thinking clearly and critically only with reasoning, as if it operates on its own without its constant companions – such as intuitive connecting, feeling, imagining, and remembering. Thinking clearly, however, demands self-awareness that goes beyond reasoning alone – and we need to be attuned to all of our TOK ways of knowing as we attempt to deal with attempts to persuade us. After all, knowledge claims come at us from all sides, often embedded in tactics to capture our belief. So how can we think clearly, with awareness of persuasion, as we filter the claims on our belief?

Maria Konnikova, based on her extensive investigation of con artists, insists that we have to lay aside any notion that we can’t be fooled ourselves, that we’ve somehow immune. We should never assume, either, that we can immediately recognize a fraud or see it coming. Indeed, human beings in general are not at all good at detecting lying, especially when the liars are so untroubled by lying that they exhibit none of the signals we might expect.

I thought of her comments last week when I had coffee with a friend who is a retired police officer. “Scams!” he exclaimed, when we got onto the topic. “You wouldn’t believe how easily police officers, even experienced ones, fall for scams – if they’ve been given a tip by another officer.” He described an investment scheme through a bank in the Caribbean, which promised excellent returns. “One of the guys was retiring and invested his entire severance pay in the scheme. It turned out that the bank didn’t even exist. And you know what his job was? He was a fraud investigator!”

Thinking critically, it seems to me, demands facing up to our own fallibility, and preparing ourselves to filter knowledge claims with greater self-knowledge. We need to apply both self-awareness and reasoning.



 But how do we bring these ideas into our TOK classes to engage our students? If they have been dealing already with ideas of ethics, truth telling and deception, and with the ways of knowing involved in storytelling – as in my previous two posts with their discussion activities – they may already have raised the questions and ideas I propose ahead. If so, ignore this activity and move on. If not, though, you may want to give them a nudge – not necessarily to build a full class around this activity, but to use it to pull together ideas still floating and insufficiently processed.

What I suggest today is totally straightforward:

  • give students the three passages I excerpt below to stimulate their thinking,
  • give them the discussion questions to think about while reading, so that they formulate their thoughts in preparation for discussing them together
  • and then, in class discussion, encourage students to articulate their thoughts on being aware of various TOK ways of knowing, not just reason, in trying to evaluate knowledge claims we are given in the real world.

Questions for discussion

In the three passages you have read, what are the roles of the following TOK ways of knowing:

  • TOK way of knowing, faith. One of the definitions of faith is a trust we place in others or in particular sources of knowledge. Trust in each other is fundamental to being able to work together in a society and create happier lives. But what do we have to be aware of as we place our faith in others? What are the characteristics of a source of information that is unreliable? What are the characteristics of a source of information that is reliable?
  • TOK way of knowing, emotion. In what ways is an understanding of our own emotions important for clear and critical thinking? If emotional vulnerability makes us more likely to be fooled, does emotional stability make us completely safe? Does emotion simply get in the way of critical thinking, or can it act truly as a “way of knowing” and help us reach more reliable conclusions?
  • TOK ways of knowing, intuition and reasoning. Why is it important to distinguish between the fast judgments of intuition and the slower judgments of reasoning? Would it be fair to say that reason is essential to being able to reach sound conclusions? In real life, does reason act alone?
  • self-knowledge: What is the role of knowing ourselves in trying to know about other people and the world?

Passage 1: moments of vulnerability

from Olga Khazan, “Can you Spot a Liar?” (interview with Maria Konnikova), The Atlantic, January 12, 2016. 

Khazan: Why are we more likely to fall for cons when we’re feeling isolated and lonely?

Konnikova: Emotional vulnerability is one of the things that unites victims of cons, in the sense that it’s not so much a personality trait, as where you are in your life. Because what happens when you’re down, when you’re vulnerable, there’s change going on, and your world no longer makes sense the way that it used to, so you’re particularly vulnerable to people who make sense of it for you. You want that meaning. You want that sense of connection and con artists are very happy to supply it for you. One of the things that I found really interesting is that it transfers across domains. So, for instance, if you lose your job, you’re not just more vulnerable to finance frauds, you’re more vulnerable to romance frauds, you’re more vulnerable to every single thing even if it has nothing to do with money, just because you’re in an emotionally susceptible position.

Passage 2: misplaced trust

from John Wasik, “Inside the Mind of Madoff: When Did Scam Really Begin?”, Forbes. October 3, 2012.

“Why did Madoff get away with his scam for decades? His false success fed on itself. Investors who claimed he was achieving new heights in finance told others. His referrals were legion: Foundations, banks, other brokers. In truth, he was a legend in his own mind….

“What can we learn from the time when Madoff — and now allegedly his associates — perpetrated this crime?

“We know that con artists often have a religious zeal and charisma that makes us suspend disbelief. It’s like we are interacting with movie icons in the flesh. We believe that they can do heroic things, so we hand over our money and repress our doubts.

“And if we do have reservations, we can engage in denial for decades. They are like cult leaders or politicians. First, they gain our trust and confidence, then we just disengage our critical thinking skills. When that happens time — and reason — stand still while we lose our shirts.”

Passage 3: self-deception

from Olga Khazan, “Can you Spot a Liar?” (interview with Maria Konnikova), The Atlantic, January 12, 2016. 

“Khazan: One thing I found surprising was that cons are underreported. Why is that?

“Konnikova: Part of it is that people really value their reputations, so they don’t want others to know that they fell victim. The other thing is that they value their reputation so much is that they don’t want themselves to know. They would much rather believe that they were the victims of bad luck than that they were victims of a con artist. Our self-deception is incredibly powerful, because we have this very strong protective mechanism where we want to think of ourselves in the best possible light. No one wants to think of themselves as a sucker or as someone who falls for some con artist, who to someone else might seem obvious.

“You want to think of yourself as someone who’s smart, as someone who’s savvy, as someone who would know better, and so that’s exactly what you do, you say, ‘Oh, bad luck, luck of the draw, it was just a bad investment decision or this person just wasn’t ready for a serious relationship,’ whatever it is. So the funny thing is, most people don’t learn from their mistakes because they don’t acknowledge that they made them.”



 Through the activity above, I hope that students will put into their own words, for themselves, some sense that self-awareness and self-knowledge are extremely important in being able to evaluate what knowledge claims are believable.  I would hope, too, that they will recognize that what we identify as “TOK ways of knowing” work together and influence each other as we attempt to filter knowledge claims most reliably.

Next week, in my fourth and final post in this series on scams and the confidence game, I’ll apply the ideas raised so far to actual scams students may encounter.


Nicola Davis, Iain Chambers, and Maria Konnikova. “What makes a good con artist?” podcast, Science Weekly, January 29, 2016. 30 minutes

Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, and Mimi Bick. Theory of Knowledge. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Diana Henriques, “Examining the Ponzi Scheme Through the Mind of the Con Artist”, Dealbook, New York Times, August 20, 2012.

Olga Khazan, “Can you Spot a Liar?” (interview with Maria Konnikova), The Atlantic, January 12, 2016.

Maria Konnikova. The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It…Every Time. Viking, January 2016.

Maria Konnikova, “How Stories Deceive” , The New Yorker. December 29, 2015.

Maria Konnikova interviewed by Julia Galef. “Why everyone falls for con artists”, Rationally Speaking podcast #151. January 26, 2016.   Conveniently, a downloadable transcript is provided for the entire interview.

John Wasik, “Inside the Mind of Madoff: When Did Scam Really Begin?”, Forbes. October 3, 2012.

Stephanie Yang, “5 Years Ago Bernie Madoff Was Sentenced to 150 Years In Prison – Here’s How His Scheme Worked”, Business Insider, July 1, 2014.

image: mirror, Kaz, creative commons.