Monday, June 11, 2012

How to Spot a Con Artist: Part 1

In the last post, I described a situation in which a postdoctoral scientist fabricated data, lied about his degree (didn't have one), jeopardized a major research project, and disappeared leaving the PI in a pickle.  Although this event actually happened in a lab where I once worked, it is not common. Nonetheless, it's worth examining because it reveals something about how vulnerable we are to people who are unscrupulous.

I suggested that this postdoc was a con artist.  He fooled everyone into thinking that he was trustworthy, hardworking, and qualified for the job he was hired to do.  How do you spot someone who is skilled at social manipulation?  It's not easy, as victims will probably attest.  According to Gavin De Becker, a security consultant and author of the book The Gift of Fear, con artists and social manipulators use similar tactics and therefore exhibit similar behavior in their interactions with others.

Forced Teaming

De Becker uses the David Mamet film House of Games (see previous post) to discuss how con artists work and, in particular, use a behavior known as "forced teaming".  Forced teaming is a strategy designed to establish a premature trust between strangers: being stuck in an elevator or waiting for a bus. The con artist uses this manipulation to create a sense of "togetherness", which is actually false because it is intentionally created by the manipulator.  In House of Games, one of the cons depicted involves forced teaming: two men waiting at a Western Union office for a money order.  The two commiserate over their respective predicaments involving money, and the con artist says to the other man, "Hey, if my money comes in first, I'll split it with you so you can buy your bus ticket in time; you can send the money to me later when you get your money.  I'm sure you'd do the same for me." Of course, the con artist has no money order coming in, so the other man's money is the only one to arrive; he insists on giving a portion to the con artist.  Note that the con artist, played by Joe Mantegna, is actually setting up his female companion, a psychologist played by Lindsay Crouse, for a bigger con by showing her some of his techniques.  Here's the scene from that film:

In a work situation, a social manipulator might use phrases such as "We're some team!" or "How are we going to handle this situation?" or "I see you are in the same boat as I am; we need to work together."  I can think of at least three people I have known in my career who used this manipulation to try to impose a relationship (with me) that I did not want.  Now, some instances in which someone voices such statements might be totally innocent.  Your gut will tell you whether they are being helpful or manipulative: if you feel uncomfortable and want to have nothing to do with them (but don't want to appear to be rude), be alert.  A key test is how that person reacts to a clear refusal to follow along with a fictitious shared experience or problem.  If you politely decline to play along and simply say that you are not in need of help or advice but the other person persists, even trying to make you feel guilty, then you are dealing with a manipulator.

Outside of work, I've encountered strangers (male) who tried "force-teaming" on me and then turned nasty when I politely declined their insistence that we are having a "shared experience".  Women are particularly vulnerable to this strategy because we hate to be accused of being rude.

In the next post, I will continue with the warning signs of social manipulators and con artists.

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