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Conmen, cognition and social scripts

December 26, 2008


Dan Sperber blogs about cultural practices that can reveal ‘cognitive capacities and mechanisms that cognitive scientists would be unlikely to stumble on in the lab’, e.g. conjuring or ‘magic’ done for entertainment.

I would suggest that another interesting, related cultural practice is that engaged in by conmen around the world – the practice of confidence trickery. While living in Bucharest I was stopped numerous times by conmen who tried but failed to pull the so-called Maradona (also know as “the hand of God”) trick on me – trucul Maradonei.

First, a friendly conman looking like a lost tourist approaches the intended victim (typically a Westerner) in English asking where he can change money and shows him a wad of dollars. At this point two burly accomplices spring out of nowhere and introduce themselves as policemen demanding to see both ‘tourists” passports as well as their wallets, under the pretense that they appear to be engaging in the illegal practice of exchanging foreign currency in the street (I’m going back 10 years now, the practice may have died out by now). While the victim is distracted by the passport controller, the other fake cop swaps his hard currency notes for bits of paper (“the hand of God”) and returns the wallet in a matter of seconds. It is only later that the victim realises he or she has been conned.

Would schema or social script theory be of use to understand such practices?

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