"How Stories Deceive"

Fascinating New Yorker article about Samantha Azzopardi, serial con artist and deceiver.

The article is really about how our brains allow stories to deceive us:

Stories bring us together. We can talk about them and bond over them. They are shared knowledge, shared legend, and shared history; often, they shape our shared future. Stories are so natural that we don’t notice how much they permeate our lives. And stories are on our side: they are meant to delight us, not deceive us—an ever-present form of entertainment.

That’s precisely why they can be such a powerful tool of deception. When we’re immersed in a story, we let down our guard. We focus in a way we wouldn’t if someone were just trying to catch us with a random phrase or picture or interaction. (“He has a secret” makes for a far more intriguing proposition than “He has a bicycle.”) In those moments of fully immersed attention, we may absorb things, under the radar, that would normally pass us by or put us on high alert. Later, we may find ourselves thinking that some idea or concept is coming from our own brilliant, fertile minds, when, in reality, it was planted there by the story we just heard or read.

Posted on January 8, 2016 at 12:54 PM20 Comments


q January 8, 2016 1:54 PM

Interesting article, but… I wonder how many of those fascinating psychological studies in the article– which tell some great stories, don’t they? — have been replicated or even thoroughly, skeptically analyzed.

Just noting the irony, there.

Jon January 8, 2016 3:24 PM

Many have, q, and they show over and over again that beautiful people always get the benefit of the doubt.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro January 8, 2016 4:22 PM

There are many more genuine victims of these sorts than there are deceivers. If you start treating them all with suspicion, then the base-rate effect kicks in, where you are likely to start turning away those in actual need.

I think we have to stick with “innocent until proven guilty”—that is, always try to help those who look like they need help. But if little clues turn up later that things may not be what they seem, by all means pay some attention to them. That seems to be what has happened in all the cases recounted in the article.

quixote January 8, 2016 5:27 PM

Isn’t there a well known quote from a conman, “You can only con people who want to be conned”?

As the anthopologist Ruth Benedict said years ago (only she said it better) the small-time cheating of identified criminals is almost nothing next to the cons of the elite and socially powerful. That’s true even when they’re named Madoff.

The elites use the exact same tactics: dangling what we hope for to get what they want. There was, very recently, a hope-and-change politician who brought neither even when his party controlled both Houses of Congress for two years. There’s a Category 5 Blowhard right now who promises people to get rid of all the “Mexicans,” who’s too obvious for anyone reading this blog, and who knows perfectly well there’s no way to make good on that promise even if he wanted to. But his con does get him what he wants.

Considering how many people get killed and ruined by our elites, awareness of conmen’s methods and our own part in them could do a lot more for us than just stop a few small crimes.

mndean January 8, 2016 5:36 PM

Funny that this appears in The New Yorker, a magazine which has been caught out on some manifestly untrue stories in its pages over the years.

Martin January 8, 2016 6:37 PM

A former United States president said, “Trust but verify.” I have benefited numerous times by following that advice.

meta January 9, 2016 12:21 AM

coincidentally the New Yorker explanation on stories used for deception is communicated through stories.

@Martin “trust but verify” is indeed sound advice. I know of a famous security researcher that has been saying the same thing about crypto.

Sam January 9, 2016 1:22 AM

The exploit-by-story psychology is the main thrust of the article, but I’m really confused about what exactly she was trying to accomplish. None of her schemes seemed like they were to net significant money. Was she just trying to start over with a new identity?

Don Key January 9, 2016 1:28 AM


There was, very recently, a hope-and-change politician who brought neither even when his party controlled both Houses of Congress for two years.

Really? In the context of your comment, right next to bringing up Trump, you are going to imply that Obama has brought no significant change or fulfilled hope? Let me review the pre-Obama statistics for you- POTUS(white male vs non(white male)):43-0. Now, 43-1. Something feels pretty changed to me. In fact it was something I had been hoping for for just about forever.

Dave January 9, 2016 2:29 AM

@Sam: The description is pretty minimal so it’s hard to tell, but my immediate reaction based on a number of triggers in the description would be “someone with a cluster B personality disorder”, more commonly (if inaccurately) known as sociopaths and psychopaths (who for the most part aren’t anything like what Hollywood makes them out to be). The reason why she did it: Because she could, she was smart enough to make people spend huge amounts of time and money on something that she’d just made up. That’s all the motivation that’s necessary.

The “clean bill of mental health” in the story doesn’t mean much. Psychopaths are very, very good at doing that, they’ll emulate whatever behaviour they need to to get by. Unless they’re being checked by a skilled forensic psychologist, they can readily appear to be either neurotypical or have whatever disorder they think will be most advantageous.

We’ll hear about her again in the future, doing exactly the same thing, again and again.

Jeroen January 9, 2016 4:50 AM

@ Don Key,

What if skin doesn’t matter? Imagine a world where its irrelevant what kind of skin color one has, and where the actions and deeds matter instead. What good has Obama done there? That is what matters IMO. Imagine a world where 43-1 or 44-0 is just a distraction. Disclaimer: Yes, I’m caucasian white.

ianf January 9, 2016 8:59 AM

@ mndean “Funny that this appears in The New Yorker, a magazine which has been caught out on some manifestly untrue stories in its pages over the years.

Any medium is only as trustworthy as its writers. Any non-fiction writer is only as truthful as the researchers and background info-feeders that s/he relies on, and own ambition to stay factual. Any hard copy, i.e. non-transient, medium has to weight the plausibility of (claimed facts in) a story vs. the time, cost and effort involved in checking all its, incl. truly minor, facts (and it’s the minor ones that usually are protested). Holding The New Yorker, with hundreds of thousands printed factoids during its 90 years’ existence, to some imaginary highest ideal of always concrete 100.00% veracity is a fool’s game.
                         Any other such by-the-by complaints against it or other media that you’d care to bring up now that you-have-posted-therefore-you-definitely-exist?

Curious January 9, 2016 3:41 PM

I am inclined to believe, that once a person deem society as such untrustworthy in general, being honest about anything might perhaps be thought of as undesirable if there are gains to be had by being dishonest. So I am not a fan of people being pathological liars, as if was some kind of illness.

paul January 11, 2016 8:59 AM

Something of a conundrum, because stories (or schemas, or whatever you want to call them) are one of the primary ways we organize our understanding of the world. If we don’t use some kind of organizing tool we face an incomprehensible muddle of disconnected facts and/or waste huge amounts of time verifying that some particular sparrow is not stuffed, dead, nailed to a perch or a cunningly disguised penguin.

Maybe a little more self-awareness about the stories we’re fitting things into, but we’re all using stories.

Chase Johnson January 11, 2016 3:45 PM


Imagine a world where its irrelevant what kind of skin color one has, and where the actions and deeds matter instead.

If it were irrelevant what kind of skin color one has, it wouldn’t have been 43-0 in the first place. So, since we know that we don’t live in a world in which skin color is irrelevant, your hypothetical is pointless.

Snowy February 7, 2016 3:24 AM

People, to tell you the truth, ive been reading what you all have to say about this girl and I think your all wrong. You see you can not make an analiys about anyone unless you have walked in her shoes. All these theories you have are way off base.
I believe she may of had an intrigue about movie stars growing up. I believe she probably studied them and studied them until she thought she knew her. I would think she probably had movie stars hanging up on her wall believing that they were her family.
I believe she probably started lying when she was old enough to understand stories were her greatest weapon. And now in the real world she is screaming out for attention to the wrong people. I believe she just wanted to be publicly known to every one. It didn’t matter the consequences she just wanted to pull off a scam so the world would believe her and it didn’t work as it probably did in the years growing up. I also believe that one or both parents knew when she was lying and couldn’t do anything about it. I believe she just wanted a prevligded life and she landed parents that were not so prevliedged.
This poor girl can be given so many different life styles from the likes of all you people out there and think you know her that you don’t know her. You don’t know how she grew up and you have no idea of who she really was or what conditions she grew up under. but keep going. because the only people who can tell you her story is the girl herself and her parents. The only person in the lime light has been her. Not her family and just a couple of so called friends that say they knew her and probably did, and just wanted there 15min of fame but good luck with your guess work. She may of done a few things wrong and for what reason you cant guess. So let her find herself and let her work out where she is going. And most of all stop lime lighting her wrong doings. its what she wants.

ianf February 12, 2016 11:34 AM

@ Snowy • February 7, 2016 3:24 AM,

It’s interesting that you, a fly-by-nite visitor of to this site’s regulars’ unknown reasoning ability, castigate the collective “us the people” for erroneous analysis of the con-woman fantasist Samantha Azzopardi’s motives, as per her portrait in The New Yorker magazine. As “we have not walked in her shoes,” so we must be “way off base” [a CLICHÉ, then a BASEBALL METAPHOR = SHALLOW THOUGHT ALERT].

This contrasting with your own DIY psychologick [no typo] theories anchored in “what you believe” (here 7 different hazy thoughtlets), and/or what you conjured up to the degree of convincing yourself of the righteousness of, and superiority, of own analysis. This is good, you have a future in the snake oil evangelizing trades, if not yet the qualifications needed for prime time TV.

You are so blinded by it, that you don’t allow for a possibility that there might actually exist psychopaths, individuals who (due to some specific mix of genetic-, upbringing-, psycho-, environmental-, and other accumulated “baggage,”) have chosen manipulation and defraudation of others for their own mental and material benefits AS THEIR WAY OF LIFE. One who “has walked in such shoes,” the writer John Le Carré, has written up a memoir of his well-known conman and swindler father “In Ronnie’s court” without needing to prop him up with your brand of justifications [long, might be firewalled; and anyway requiring ATTN—which your ADHD might consider TL;DR].

Or perhaps you’d like to explain to us IN DEPTH what intangible/ immaterial benefits were there in it for that Steph playacting a fellow afflictee to cancer-stricken Diane in this empathy-wrenching true story RHETORICAL QUESTION, stay away from the keyboard and that’s an order.

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