“What am I doing?”

My interest in the art of persuasion, as often described by Scott Adams, has led me to the book “Influence” which I am now reading. First published over 30 years ago, the book is an examination of the psychological ploys people like salesmen use to influence people’s decisions. The first chapter describes an obvious ploy called the reciprocity rule. Basically, if you want someone to do something for you, you do something for them first and then ask.

I have always been wary of unwanted gifts and favors for this very reason: I feel they involve some kind of obligation on my part. (Though in recent years I’ve taken up the habit of taking the gift and then refusing to do the favor asked.)

Part of what I like about “Influence” is that the author freely admits to being a patsy, the kind of guy salespeople and con-men can take advantage of. He often uses his own experiences to make a point.

Reading the book got me thinking of a few times I’ve been approached by a con artist. One stands out for the pure audacity of the con. At the time, I was living in an apartment in Sacramento. I saw, once or twice, a fellow around the complex and chatted with him enough to learn that he was the boyfriend of someone who lived in of the units. It was all friendly, meaningless chatter.

One day I got a knock on the door. It was this guy and he had a favor to ask. I was in the middle of cooking something, some kind of vegetable I think. Before he got to the favor he basically invited himself in and showed me his recipe for cooking this vegetable, grilling it in tons of butter.

The he asked his favor. (You’ll notice, of course, that he engaged the reciprocity rule by first grilling my food.) His girlfriend needed money for something, maybe some kind of doctor’s visit I can’t recall. Did I have 40 or so bucks I could loan her? (I remember the context of the loan was not to him, but to her.) She was off somewhere and he would get her the money. (It dawns on me that I don’t know if I ever saw this girlfriend—maybe she never existed.)

Now, of course I did not want to lend her the money. But I also didn’t want to appear to be a dick to this basically nice guy whom I’d had some chats with and had just cooked my food. So I said something like, “I’d like to, man, but I don’t have any cash on me.” (This was basically true.) But he countered with something like, “Can we go to your ATM?” At this point, I had trapped myself, hadn’t I? I hadn’t said, “I don’t WANT to give you the money,” merely that I didn’t have access to it. So, sure enough, we drove the ATM and I got him some cash*. Of course, I never saw him again.

*I was trapped because I needed to look consistent, a need discussed in the chapter of “Influence” I am reading now. I hadn’t refused to give the cash, I’d basically implied I would give it if I had it. And the con man pointed out that I easily could.

Now there’s one thing I haven’t pointed out and that is that this con artist was a black man. I think part of my deference to him goes back to another con experience I had years before that, in my late teens at a Greyhound bus station in Seattle. There, I was approached by a black man who described to me the predicament he was in. He was owed a certain amount by the government (for military service I think) but before they would give it to him he needed to pay some kind of payment for something. If I could loan him the money for the payment he could pay me back and more once he got paid.

Now, even at my relatively young age I recognized that as a con and declined. His faced turned down and he sadly said something like, “This is a black thing, isn’t it?” I was, at that point, basically a guilty, white liberal and was aghast at being thought a racist. I still declined to give him the money but basically pleaded with him not to interpret the events the way he was.

In hindsight, it’s pretty clear that the guy’s comment was just one in his playbook of con artists lines. But, I suspect it stayed with me, and years later when I met the other black con artist, I was sensitive to not appear racist and thus acceded to his demands.

I should note, I don’t fault either of these guys and have generally favorable feelings toward them—which is pretty odd when you think about it. But from what I’ve read, this is what good con artists do: make you like them.

In the book “Influence,” the author describes human behavior as a series of programs that can be triggered by outside stimulus. Good con men just know the right triggers with which to activate the behaviors they want. And that seems to be what happened to me in Sacramento. I even recall a sense, as I pulled the money from the ATM, of “what am I doing?”

  1. No Comments