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.
How can some people be so incredibly persuasive?
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Looking at what's been written by and about con men, it's not because their marks are dumb.
In fact, sometimes smarter people are more gullible and dumber people are harder to cheat.
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.
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…
What about with the old school con men? Same techniques.
More on effective listening here.
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.
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.
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.
How did Frank Abagnale fly around the world on Pan Am planes while only in his late teens? Simple. He got a uniform.
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:
And even impulsive criminals like con men agree.
How did Frank Abagnale research his Pan Am pilot impersonation?
He called Pan Am pretending to be a student.
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.)
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