Think you’re too smart or savvy to fall into somebody’s trap? You probably aren’t, and it’s that very belief that makes you vulnerable. In her new book, The Confidence Game, psychology writer Maria Konnikova explores why we fall for scams and schemes. Victims of cons, she argues, aren’t just the foolish and the ignorant. They’re often regular people who happen to be desperate or emotionally compromised by their circumstances.
For leaders, who largely pride themselves on being rational, strategic thinkers, the deception Konnikova’s research warns us about begins with that very emotion: pride.
Last year, when I looked at data around history’s best- and worst-ranked U.S. presidents, I found a rather interesting trend: Historically, the most ineffective presidents have been the most stubborn.
They often had a lot of political experience and so were typically less open to admitting when they were wrong. This pride seemed to hamper their decision-making. The best presidents, on the other hand, tended to be much more humble and honest about their weaknesses.
Interestingly, Konnikova points out, “Con artists [themselves] are often the best marks because they think themselves immune.” The more we think we know, the more easily we can fall into the trap of self-deception, and thereby be deceived by others.
In The Confidence Game, Konnikova tells the story of one of the world’s greatest con artists, Fred Demara, a man who impersonated everything from priests to businessmen. He even once posed as a trauma surgeon on a Canadian destroyer during the Korean War—and performed surgeries using a manual he convinced a real doctor to write for him.
In fact, Demara commissioned a biography to be written about him and then stole the identity of the person writing it. But things got even weirder: The biographer went on to spend years defending Demara! The very people whom Demara deceived went to bat for him, over and over again. In large part, this was due to their unwillingness to admit that they’d been conned—a tendency Demara wasted no time taking advantage of.
The business implications are clear. Studies by Startup Compass and Harvard University (which I wrote about in-depth in my book Smartcuts, and the relevant section is available to read free right here) suggest that unwillingness to deviate from a business plan makes a company much less likely to go public. Time and again, leaders do their companies and employees wrong by prioritizing the perception of strong leadership over reversing a strategy or decision that will help their businesses fare much better.
Each of these decisions comes down to pride. And pride is how even extremely competent leaders con themselves. As the Arbinger Institute writes in Leadership and Self-Deception, “Self-deception obscures the truth about ourselves, corrupts our view of others and our circumstances, and inhibits our ability to make wise and helpful decisions.”
Leaders who get fooled are the ones who first manage to fool themselves.
Pride, like most emotions, is part of human nature. But because it’s often treated as a favorable trait (taking pride in your work, etc.), it opens us up to being conned—first by ourselves, followed by other people.
So how can we combat these tendencies as leaders?
Admit you might be wrong. In his famous autobiography, Benjamin Franklin writes of his decision to start admitting that he could be wrong when he put forth arguments. He said that by doing that, and by hearing people out when he disagreed with them rather than jumping in with his own point of view, he reduced his fear of being wrong:
I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradictions to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbade myself the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as “certainly,” “undoubtedly,” etc. I adopted instead of them “I conceive,” “I apprehend,” or “I imagine” a thing to be so or so; or “so it appears to me at present.”
When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing him immediately some absurdity in his proposition. In answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appeared or semed [sic] to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engaged in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I proposed my opinions procured them a readier reception and less contradiction. I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevailed with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.
This strategy basically made Franklin less prideful. Based on Konnikova’s research, it’s reasonable to assume that he was fooled less—by himself and others—because of it.
Be willing to change your mind completely. Our motivation to maintain a good reputation opens us up to being conned. Writes Konnikova, “Even after, despite our best efforts at self-delusion, it becomes apparent that we’ve been taken for a ride . . . our reputational motivation will be strong enough to keep us quiet.”
In a Fast Company article last year, I wrote about how Elon Musk possesses an uncommon combination of leadership traits: opinionated enough to move people, yet adaptable enough to be innovative. Musk doesn’t seem afraid of looking bad if he’s wrong about something. He frames such errors in terms of information availability: If he’s wrong about something, it was because his understanding of the world has changed, and that’s perfectly okay.
Leaders who are willing to chance positions in light of new information—regardless of the social consequences—are less likely to fall into the pride trap.
As the Arbinger Institute writes, “Self-deception . . . blinds us to the true causes of problems, and once we’re blind, all the ‘solutions’ we can think of will actually make matters worse.” There may be short-term political ramifications to admitting our errors, but the job of a good leader is to persuade people to do the right thing.
To do that, we need confidence—not to fall for it.