How to Spot a Con: Start with the heart


Samuel Damren

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth piece in the five-part series “How to Spot a Con.”

By the 1760s, as a result of his inventions, renown as a publisher and success in business, Benjamin Franklin was an international celebrity. England showered him with honorary degrees from its prestigious colleges and accorded him entrée into select circles. The attention turned Dr. Franklin’s head but more importantly, it turned his heart.

America was Franklin’s birthplace. It was in America that he achieved his wealth, influence and made the discoveries that brought him fame. But after residing in the grandeur of London for nearly a decade, Franklin began to think of it as the “home” across the “waters” where he desired to live out his days.

Franklin recognized the strong emotional pull that the English Isle exerted on him. In 1762, before departing for Philadelphia to wind down his affairs in America, he confided to a London friend, “The Attraction of Reason is at present for the other Side of the Water, but that of Inclination will be for this Side. You know which usually prevails.”

Some 200-plus years later, political psychologist Drew Westen would reformulate the preference for Reason over Inclination: “If you want to win hearts and minds, start with the heart.”

Con artists capitalize on this preference. It is the bedrock of their trade. In this series, I have described some con-artist techniques. But if you anticipated that I might be plugging a new App that magically brings to view the con-artists amongst us, prepare for disappointment.

If logic were solely involved in the endeavor to identify the con artist mid-stream, this objective could be significantly advanced through the exercise of the due diligence that businesses routinely employ to assess proposed transactions. It is business 101 and you don’t have to attend business school to learn the subject. First, determine if the numbers set forth in the proposed transaction add up and whether the projections that accompany it are credible. Next, analyze the individuals on the other side of the transaction. The “red flags” to watch out for are familiar. What is their track record? Who vouches for them? What are their roots in the community? And so on.

Con artists who specialize in “one off” transactions usually pop up out of nowhere. They have no friends, only associates, and no roots. Of course, they have explanations for these shortcomings. The explanations will not hold up under objective analysis. But if you are a “mark” and the con artist has already worked into your “blind-spot,” you will never engage in dispassionate analysis. You will already be under the sway of Inclination, not Reason.

Prior to the 2004 presidential election, Drew Westen undertook a clinical study to examine the degree to which strong political affiliation could cloud an individual’s objectivity in examining opposing candidates. Westen recruited two groups for the study: one, diehard Democrats; the other, diehard Republicans. Electrodes were attached to each individual to measure activity in the positive and negative emotion regions of the brain.

Westen presented the groups with a series of slides. The slides paired statements made by George Bush and John Kerry in which each candidate undeniably contradicted himself. The Republicans readily identified the contradictions that Kerry made and with equal alacrity the Democrats identified the contradictions that Bush made. But when it came to assessing the self-contradictions committed by their own candidates, the results were different.

Each group initially reacted negatively. As the slide show continued and the contradictions piled up, however, the diehards recovered by finding creative ways to reconcile their candidates’ contradictions.
 By the end of the slide show, activity in their brains indicating positive emotions were in high gear. The diehards were pleased with themselves.

The study demonstrated that where called upon to do so, Inclination can actually task Reason to its desired ends in the short term. Under the sway of Inclination, a mark – just like a diehard in the grip of pollical fever – has little chance in the short term of breaking free from a con-artist’s deception. With time, the clouds of Inclination can be dispersed. The consequence is what is lost in the interim. In the case of a con-man’s swindle, it is pretty easy to measure. In other circumstances, not so.

By 1775, the attraction that England once had for Franklin was gone. Heightened discord between the  Colonies and mother country made him feel for a period of time like a man without a home. The British thought he was too American based on his proposals that Americans be allotted certain seats in Parliament to check its ability to unilaterally enact laws governing the Colonies. The Americans distrusted Franklin’s continued fealty to the Crown and would not entertain nuanced proposals to remain in the Empire.

In the end, Reason won out for Franklin. He returned to America. Franklin cast his fate with the Revolution as a Founding Father and became a relentless and deeply committed proponent of its success. We all know how that worked out. But what is not much appreciated is the fact that the clouds of emotion that prevented either “Side” in the conflict from dispassionately considering Franklin’s proposals to resolve the discord did ultimately clear. It just took 150-plus years.

In 1931, England enacted the Balfour Declaration. The Declaration was predicated on “common allegiance to the Crown” by the United Kingdom and the Dominions, but it also expressly stipulated: “No Act of Parliament … shall extend … to a Dominion as part of the law of that Dominion … unless … the Dominion has requested, and consented to, the enactment thereof.” And so was born the modern British Commonwealth of Nations. The design of the Balfour Declaration was another Franklin inspired invention. What was lost in the period between invention and implementation can be speculated but is impossible to assess.


Samuel C. Damren is a retired Detroit lawyer and a periodic contributor to The Legal News. This introduction is the first of several pieces on “How to Spot a Con.”