Peter Edgar

Florida Southern College hosted Maria Konnikova to speak about the psychology of deception as the first installment of the Child of the Sun Distinguished Speaker Series on February 13.

Dean Hollingshead introduced Konnikova after providing context for the series, “a post-truth era,” and expressed concern regarding the “levelling out of truth and falsehood.”

“If all we have are narratives [and no facts], then anything goes,” Hollingshead said.

Konnikova, an author and columnist who earned her doctorate degree in psychology from Columbia University, attacked the issue of the “post-truth era” from her field’s perspective.

She began by discussing the Canadian doctor Ferdinand Waldo Demara, one of the greatest
con artists in history. Over the course of his career, Demara founded a religious college, got a contract for a bridge in mexico, was a schoolteacher, a cancer researcher, and a military doctor.

He earned the title “The Great Imposter,” and even after appearing on the Johnny Carson Show he continued to con people. Konnikova used Demara as a launching point for her talk, asking: “How is this possible? What is it that makes people fall for someone like DeMaro?”

Konnikova asserts that the flaw is in the idea of “story.” Stories, being fundamental to communication and the social world, also are fundamental to deception.

She cited a number of psychological studies in which participants still hold to lies they hear even when they are conscious they heard it from a fiction novel, and referenced repeating phenomenons documented by other psychologists.

Konnikova drove to the point that everything we hear or read or watch must be evaluated: that because lies are so hard to dispel, the beliefs we come in contact with–and especially our own–must be continually interrogated.

When Ferdinand Waldo DeMara was exposed for one of his identity thefts, people were so
convinced by his arguments that the person whose identity he stole was almost imprisoned for tarnishing their own reputation.

“Con artists give you the version of the world that you already believe in,” Konnikova said.

Through her research and interviews with con artists, Konnikova realizes that what con artists appeal to is not a specific personality trait of any target, but the self-serving bias and emotional weaknesses of their “mark.”

She paraphrased David Moore in saying, “We should do well to remember that con artists are just a fraction removed from people who we call the pillars of society,” and she insists that we continue to question the narratives we are faced with.

“Stories are also a force for good,” Konnikova said.

A short question-and-answer session followed the talk, and Konnikova reinforced her earlier statements about vigilance and thoughtfulness.

The next Child of the Sun Distinguished Speaker Series events will host NPR All Things Considered co-host Audie Cornish and former White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on March 15 and April 10, respectively.


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