The more confident we are, the easier—and harder—we fall

Cruisin’ for a bruisin’?
Cruisin’ for a bruisin’?
Image: AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson
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Paul Frampton met Denise Milani online, on a popular dating site, He was sixty-eight, divorced, and lonely, a theoretical particle physicist whose work had devoured much of his personal life. But he wanted more: children. A rewarding home life. Love. And there she was, his perfect mate.

Milani was gorgeous. A Czech model who, at 32, was 40 years his junior, she had been crowned Miss Bikini World several years before. Why would someone like her fall for someone like him? In his mind, it made perfect sense. She liked older men, she told him, and photo shoots had grown draining over time. People always ogling her, seeing her as nothing more than a body; it could all be a bit much. She was ready for a change.

For 11 weeks, Frampton and Milani corresponded. Their messages, the New York Times reported in a lengthy profile, were frequent, intimate, and passionate. Often, she told him that she loved him. He asked to speak on the phone. She put him off. Why not just go all the way and meet in person? She was going on a photo shoot to Bolivia, she told him. He could meet her there. At long last, they would be united.

On Jan. 13, 2012, Frampton arrived in Bolivia. He checked into the Eva Palace Hotel and awaited word from his love. Alas, she had been called off to Brussels on another shoot. But in her haste, she’d forgotten a bag—these whirlwind engagements, they really mess with your head; one of the reasons she couldn’t wait to leave it all behind and start a new life in Raleigh. Could he bring the bag with him on his way to see her? Frampton was only too happy to oblige. That evening, in the darkened streets outside the Eva Palace, a man approached him with a nondescript black cloth suitcase. Frampton took it inside, found it empty, promptly stuffed it full of dirty laundry, and went to bed.

The next day, he flew to Buenos Aires. From there, Denise promised, she’d send a ticket to Brussels. For the next 36 hours, Frampton sat in the airport, Ezeiza International, awaiting instructions for the next leg of his trip from his future wife. (He’d calculated the chance of their getting married, and found it to be a near certainty.) The promised airfare never came. Instead, a friend bought him a ticket home. Disappointed but sure that he and Denise would soon reunite in North Carolina, Frampton checked his bags for his new flight and sat down to await boarding. It was now Jan. 23, ten days after he had arrived in Bolivia.

His name was called over the loudspeaker. He later told the New York Times that he was expecting it to be about an upgrade to first class. Who else, if not him? Distinguished scholars deserve distinguished treatment. Instead, it was a police summons. That nondescript suitcase was descriptive enough. Inside the lining: two kilograms of cocaine. After a brief questioning, Frampton was promptly arrested and taken to prison. How could Denise have betrayed him so? Maybe the man in the street had betrayed her, too, jealously stuffing the drugs inside to keep them from their perfect happiness. At this stage, anything was possible.

Frampton was placed in the Villa Devoto jail.
 It took some time for the severity of the situation to dawn on him. He and Denise were still practically engaged, as far as he was concerned.

“Paul is a charming man, but he has the emotional maturity of a child,” his ex-wife, who had always remained a close friend, remarked. He even laughed as footage of the model appeared on the television, alongside news of his current predicament. “ The other prisoners burst into cheers and shouted ‘bravo’ and treated Paul like a hero when they saw her,” Anne-Marie said.

He also continued to think of himself as the true standout of the prison’s inmates. Everyone else who was there with him, he said, was guilty. He, however, was the exception. “Some people will say they’re innocent, but when I talk to them further, it becomes clear that they were somehow involved,” he said. “I think people like me are less than one percent.”

*  *  *

One of our fundamental drives is the need for self-affirmation: we need to feel worthy, to feel needed, to feel like we matter. But how do we attain that reality? Throughout the first part of the twentieth century, psychologists saw the self as a realistic entity. They felt that it was somehow crucially important for us to have an accurate representation of our selves and our place in the world. In his seminal 1950 paper, “Self-Actualizing People: A Study of Psychological Health,” Abraham Maslow, a founder of the humanist school of psychology and famous for his eponymous hierarchy of needs, argued that the fully realized, or “self-actualized,” human being must perceive reality “efficiently” and accept herself, with all her quirks and ways, no matter how much that reality might deviate from her ideal vision of herself. Only then will she reach her fullest potential as a person.

Starting in the 1970s, though, that emphasis on accuracy started to shift. As it turns out, not only are we not particularly accurate at how we see ourselves, but that accuracy would be self-defeating: brutal honesty likely wouldn’t allow us to reach our goals. The self we most want to affirm isn’t the self a stranger would describe if he were to simply observe us for an hour, or even a minute. Instead, we want to affirm our best, most deserving self: the skewed ideal, not the unvarnished original. And so we systematically represent ourselves and our reality in a way that favors our preferred version. In the things that truly matter to us, the core characteristics that we view as central to our identity, we exhibit the greatest bias of all. We all become, in a sense, Frampton’s “less than one percent.” Each one of us is exceptional in our own minds

And exceptional individuals are not chumps. Exceptional individuals are in charge. They don’t get conned. Which is precisely why the tale works as well as it does. We are ready—eager, even—to believe we will personally benefit, no matter what. Exceptional people, after all, have good things coming to them.

*  *  *

It goes by many names. The Lake Wobegon effect. The better-than-average effect. Illusory superiority. Superiority bias. Whatever you call it, it means the same thing: we believe we are singular, whatever the circumstances. It could be that we’re especially attractive and brilliant, in the case of Frampton, or that our family legacy is unique in history. Regardless of the specifics, we hold an unwavering commitment to the notion that we are special—and not just special, but more special than most anyone else.

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Of one million students who took the SATs in 1976, 70% thought they were above average in leadership ability and 60% in athletic ability. 85% of students put themselves above the average in their ability to get along with others—a full quarter going so far as to place themselves in the top 1%. In 1977, a full 95% of the faculty of the University of Nebraska thought they were better than average at teaching; over two thirds placed themselves in the top quarter. In a survey that behavioral economist Richard Thaler performed on his own students, he found that less than 5% of the class expected to do below average, and over half thought they would be among the top fifth of performers. And, of course, almost all of us are better-than-average drivers, far more skillful and less risky than the next guy. In one study, researchers asked drivers who had been hospitalized after a car accident—which over two thirds of them had caused—to rate their driving skills. They said they were better than average—and the ratings were identical to those of similar drivers who had no accident history.

Professionally, we are also all better than our colleagues at our jobs, despite any potential protests to the contrary. (We’re not egotistical braggarts like Bill in the next cubicle over.) Would-be managers and actual executives think their future or current firms will overtake competitors quickly. In self-evaluative performance reports, we tend to rate ourselves above average on the skills that matter for our job. And where we are asked to list areas for improvement, we tend to focus on areas that matter only peripherally, if at all, to our main job. (As a writer, I might tell my editor that I need to improve on, say, my public speaking abilities—hence shielding my writing talents from self-critique. That’s a hypothetical example, though. I’m an exceptional public speaker. One of the best, really.)

In fact, on almost all desirable categories, we rate ourselves better than the majority of those around us. On almost all undesirable ones, we rate ourselves below average. In six studies, Cornell University psychologist David Dunning and his colleagues demonstrated that people overestimated how they fared on socially desirable characteristics, like accepting social norms, liking knowledge for its own sake, reading widely, being imaginative, and being willing to take a stand on important issues. At the same time, they dismissed any potentially negative tendencies, like aloofness and submissiveness. What’s more, even among positive attributes, they rated traits that they had earlier described themselves as possessing as more desirable than those they hadn’t considered.

When we’re asked to select which words better match our personalities and key characteristics out of a list of possible contenders, we overwhelmingly select more positive than negative options. We are better at remembering the good things we’ve done than the bad, and the positive attributes we possess rather than the negative. Our memories for events, too, are skewed: we are worse at recalling the details of failures than successes. That’s why the good con artist is able to plant false memories so easily: it was my idea all along. I was the one who thought to make the investment or place the bet. I was the one who decided to go to South America to meet my future wife. No one forced me to. It was all my idea. Of course it was. The tale almost tells itself: we know we’ll personally profit. We are savvy like that.

As for when the events are actually happening, we tend to attribute the good aspects to our own prowess and dismiss the bad as environmental consequences—something known as the locus of control, or where we see control residing. In one study, people who worked in pairs were told that they’d collectively done below, at, or better than average. When the score was good, both members of the team individually accepted the credit. If the score was below average, each team member blamed the other. And when the score was average, the above-average performance was, without fail, assigned to oneself. We also tend to dismiss the skills we’re not that good at as not particularly important in the first place—a tendency con artists love, as most people are not particularly skilled at things like financial management, nuanced statistical analysis, or whatever the con of the day happens to be.

The confidence artist will do everything in his power to bring our better-than-averageness front and center. Grifters appeal to our vanity, not about just anything, but about the things that are most central for us—after all, they’ve spent the entire put-up casing our psychology.

And we believe it. Not because it’s plausible—a supermodel is on a dating site and she targets me?—but because we want it to be. The more exceptional we see ourselves, the easier we may be to con.

This post is an adapted excerpt from The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time by Maria Konnikova, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Maria Konnikova.