October 31, 2002

· Sociology

Teresa Nielsen Hayden has a post today about the The underlying forms of fraud, making the point that there really are only a few basic types with many variants. A little like jokes, I suppose. She gives a list of types and a lot of case law to illustrate them.

We're reading about Trust this week in my Economic Sociology Seminar. Con-Men (and Confidence Tricks) are very interesting sociologically, because they often exploit the very tools we usually use to determine whether someone is trustworthy. Erving Goffman, one of the most brilliant sociologists of the 20th century, had some interesting things to say on this point. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life", he notes that

we find that confidence men must employ elaborate and meticulous personal fronts and often engineer meticulous social settings, not so much because they lie for a living but because, in order to get away with a lie of that dimension, one must deal with persons who have been and are going to be strangers, and one has to terminate the dealings as quickly as possible. Legitimate businessment who would promote an honest venture under these circumstances would have to be just as meticulous in expressing themseves, for it is under just such circumstances that potential investors scrutinize the character of those who would sell to them. In short, since a con merchant must swindle his clients under those circumstances where clients appreciate that a confidence game could be employed, the con man must carefully forestall the immediate impression that he might be what in fact he is, just as the legitimate merchant, under the same circumstances, would have to forestall carefully the immediate impression that he might be what he is not. (Penguin Ed. 218-9)

In a classic paper from 1952, called “On Cooling the Mark Out: Some aspects of adaptation to Failure", Goffman looked at the endgame of a confidence operation. Here's a summary from an article published in The Docket, the Law School paper at GMU:

About fifty years ago, Goffman published an article called, “On Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure.” The author, later to become the President of the American Sociological Association, was known for his observations on the social arrangements of insane asylums and other institutions. As a starting point, Goffman described how those practitioners of criminal fraud known as “confidence men” would operate their racket. The “mark” would be allowed to win a little money in a rigged game and then be convinced to invest a larger amount. Suddenly, there would be some “accident,” the mark would be left penniless, and the “operators” would disappear.

This is familiar ground for anyone who has ever watched a “sting” movie. Yet, Goffman observed that the con men had a further strategy to deal with the mark who was not willing to keep quiet about the whole embarrassing affair and “squawked” or “beefed” to the police. When the con men were confronted with such an angry mark, an additional step called “cooling the mark out” was added to the game: “one of the operators stays with the mark and makes an effort to keep the anger of the mark within manageable and sensible proportions … and exercises upon the mark the art of consolation.” This “cooler” tries to define the situation for the mark “in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home. The mark is given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss.”

Goffman abstracted the “cooling out” concept from the setting of the confidence game and applied it to human interactions more generally. He noted that, although there are relatively few victims of the con game in our society, there are plenty of persons in other social settings who need cooling out. Typically, cooling out is called for when a person is involuntarily deprived of a role in some circumstance that implies he was not capable of it. Examples of such assaults on sense of self are abundant. At the non-institutional level, there is the person who considered himself “lover” but is involuntarily relegated to the status of “friend.” In a bureaucracy, there is also the long-serving bureaucrat who believed herself entitled to a promotion but who is passed over by management. If the institution does not provide a means to pacify the humiliated person in such situations, the victim may make a scene, become violent, or sue.

Goffman was especially concerned with how face-to-face interaction is managed in situations like this. Such cases are fundamentally more interesting than, say, most Nigerian 419 emails (very well discussed in this post by D-Squared), though it is worth asking whether people are more likely to fall for schemes delivered via a medium they're not familiar with. In the early days of the Internet, and perhaps still, people seemed far more likely to fall for scams solicited online that they never would have fallen for in person, or even over the phone. I'm not aware of any research on this, though. The more personal interaction is required, the more interesting the strategies people use to pull off the con become, and the harder it is to successfully pull those tricks. From a sociological point of view, Nielsen-Hayden's first, and largest, category “Simple Misrepresentation”, isn't nearly so simple.

Finally, I have to link to this sharp bait and switch that happened to an unfortunate Yale student earlier this year.

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I am Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m also affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics. Read a brief overview of my work or my Curriculum Vitae.



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