What can researchers learn from con artists?
Building trust and rapport are key as we invite others to share, yet we must remain vigilant and combat confirmation bias
Trust, empathy, relationship building, and information gathering are all part of a good user research session. They’re also the cornerstones of a good con.
As I watched Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art, a documentary on Netflix about the largest art fraud in American history, I was struck by the parallels between user researchers and con artists. While their goals and outcomes are very different, they rely on similar skill sets.
Building trust and rapport is essential to honest conversations
Good con artists identify and study their victims, learning who they are, what motivates them, and what they want.
Con artists need to build an emotional foundation, based on empathy and rapport, in order to gain their targets’ confidence.
Once this trust is established, the target is more likely to open up and freely share their honest thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
Similarity and familiarity are powerful psychological tools that can influence how we view and interact with others — making us feel more trusting, comfortable, and positive towards them.
“Both similarity and familiarity can be faked, as the con artist can easily tell you — and the more you can fake it, the more real information will be forthcoming,” explains Maria Konnikova, a best-selling science and psychology author exploring “the minds, motives, and methods of con artists”.
Konnikova continues, “The confidence game — the con — is an exercise in soft skills. Trust, sympathy, persuasion. The true con artist doesn’t force us to do anything; he makes us complicit in our own undoing.”
While researchers (hopefully) don’t have nefarious motivations, soft skills are crucial to our craft.
The hallmark of a great research session is one where the discussion simply flows, with the participant feeling comfortable, freely and readily sharing their true perspective, experiences, and challenges.
Listening is more important than talking
“A con artist isn’t a good talker, a con artist is a good listener”. They don’t reveal too much or too little — they reveal just the right amount of information.
They ask thoughtful questions and invite their target to carry the conversation and share about themselves.
Neuroscience research has confirmed what we all likely know — people love to talk about themselves. On average, we spend 60–80% of conversations talking about ourselves.
Con artists recognize this and simply sit back and listen, collecting invaluable information. As an added bonus, being a good listener can make you more attractive, making it truly a win-win.
Through conversations, con artist are able to read people and uncover what they want. Using this information, con artists can offer easy solutions — at the right time and in the right way.
Similarly, in good research we ask open ended questions and let participants monopolize the conversation. We’re not paying them to listen to our thoughts after all.
We listen closely, uncovering their pain points, wants, and needs, and then we use this information to try to build better, more relevant products and services.
Confirmation bias is powerful — and dangerous
Human beings are hardwired to trust — often to our peril. When we’re born, we’re entirely reliant on others. In order to increase our chances of survival, we’ve evolved to trust others and make social connections.
Not too surprisingly, we’re more likely to trust others who are similar to us. “We trust routinely, reflexively, and somewhat mindlessly across a broad range of social situations.”
In addition to defaulting to trust, humans generally fall prey to confirmation bias — the tendency to seek information that supports, rather than refutes, our hypotheses or opinions.
When we want to believe something, we can easily convince ourselves it’s true, whether it’s that our new friend has our best intentions at heart or that our product idea is brilliant.
These tendencies us can make us vulnerable — con artists recognize and exploit them in order to achieve their goals.
Researchers need to do the opposite. Instead of relying on confirmation bias, we need to actively combat it. We must recognize our vulnerabilities and purposely seek out counterfactual information in order to stress test our hypotheses before we invest significant time, money, and resources into them.
Similar methods, very different outcomes
Both con artists and user researchers understand psychology and apply it to learn about people. Building rapport up front allows them to connect with their audience and gain their trust.
Then, con artists and researchers move into listening mode, opening the conversation up and inviting their audience to candidly share their mind.
Understanding psychology is a tool, neither inherently positive nor negative. While con artists and user researchers employ similar tools, they have antithetical intentions and results.
Con artists seek to exploit and use, while researchers seek to understand and advocate for.
Researchers can use con artists to remind them of the perils of confirmation bias. We typically seek information that supports our hypotheses, but we need to consciously design studies that can surface results that challenge our hypotheses as well.
We need to maintain a more scientific and analytical mindset where we identify the problem, develop falsifiable hypotheses, conduct rigorous tests with specific metrics and clear thresholds to prove or disprove them, and make decisions based on this information.
Let’s keep using our skills to support and enable our audience, instead of manipulating and entrapping them.
As a User Researcher and Strategist, I help companies solve the right problems and build more relevant, efficient, and intuitive products. I started my UX career at a Fortune 500 company, and I've since helped established the research practice at three B2B startups. I'm currently a Senior User Researcher at Unqork, the leading enterprise no code platform.