What is it about con artists of Delvey’s ilk that we find so captivating? Even with her eventual conviction for theft of services and grand larceny in 2019, there seems to be a dearth of contempt for her. Sure, we wouldn’t actually do it, but there was a general feeling of admiration for her, even celebration.
Perhaps, in a world where we are plagued with reads of women as victims, depictions of female agency – and arguably, inner rage – seem almost defiant, anti-establishment. Cons such as Delvey’s, reframed as rebellion, offer access to a fantasy world. If we weren’t impeded by our morals, would we be able to do what she did? If we were less obedient, would our limits know no bounds?
In her book, The Confidence Game, psychologist Maria Konnikova explores the mindset of the scammer, asserting that “it feeds on the desire for magic, exploiting our endless taste for an existence that is more extraordinary and somehow more meaningful”. She suggests that scammers “aren’t actually seeking deception”, just “a reality that is somehow greater than our everyday existence”.
There is an element of seduction and magic in the scam, a delicious quality that allows us to simultaneously absorb the fantasy of the narrative and appreciate the performative nature of the con. Fuelled by the dominant ideology that wealth is the ultimate path to success, the pull of these women lies perhaps in their sheer audacity: as much as we think we could do it, these women have actually gone through with it. And more to the point, got away with it – for years.
What can we learn from the psychology of these ‘celebrity’ con artists? Former FBI agent, psychologist and intelligence consultant Jack Schafer has spent years conducting interviews with con artists. He suggests that women may have an inherent advantage due to certain neurological differences.
“There’s a left and the right side of your brain,” he says, “and in the middle there’s something called corpus callosum that is a bundle of nerves that transmits info from left to right, and scientists have found that women have a denser corpus callosum than men.” This neurological super highway integrates our emotional thinking and logical thinking, making for smarter, speedier, more sophisticated decision-making — what we might call women’s intuition.
A successful con also relies on highly attuned powers of persuasion and the ability to gain someone’s trust.
“It’s a matter of building rapport with people,” says Schafer. “If I get someone to like me, they will be willing to do things for me, maybe even go out of their way for me. The job of a con artist is to set an illusion of a friendship.”
And, he says, there’s a literal formula to it: proximity x (frequency + duration) x intensity = friendship. Any relationship you’ve ever had follows this formula, Shafer argues. “If there’s no proximity, you have to increase frequency, duration and intensity.”
Many of the techniques scammers use to create a sense of connection are taught in executive coaching, such as ‘mirroring’ (whereby subtly mimicking someone’s body language makes them feel closer and more similar to you) or simply sustained eye contact.
“One of the intensifiers is intense mutual gaze, I hold my eye contact and turn my head but maintain eye contact,” explains Schafer.
Konnikova argues that we commit these minor social cons every day, subconsciously feigning shared affinities or dislikes to create a sense of common ground and friendship. Schafer agrees we’re all scamming our way through life to an extent: “Think about going on a first date, what do you do? Present your ‘best’ self. That’s a form of manipulation.”
Female success has also become synonymous with ‘the hustle’, which only exacerbates the scam mentality. An evolution of the girl boss narrative of the 2010s, we’re encouraged to regard ourselves as a commodity and develop a marketable personal brand. Isn’t that what Anna Sorokin did – to an extreme – when she created her alter-ego, Delvey?
Con artists like Delvey ascend rapidly in worlds often far removed from the ones they grew up in; they succeed by creating an illusion of a lifestyle. It’s a game we’re all playing on social media: we present ourselves as simultaneously successful, pretty, likeable and productive, against a reality that is actually increasingly demanding and precarious.
Participating in modern womanhood, we’re required to tap into a scam mindset, cultivating a carefully judged persona and keeping it alive with just the right amount of self-belief and narcissism. The truth is, there’s a little bit of Delvey in all of us.
Header image by: Gong Jian