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Cooling the mark out

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 18, 2015

Earlier this month, the NY Times ran a piece about a NYC psychic who bilked a man out of more than $700,000. But, says Louis Menand, aren’t psychics always ripping people off?

But was there any point at which Ms. Delmaro’s services were legit? Is the distinction between crooked and uncrooked psychics meant to turn on the eye-poppingness of the sums involved? If I told you I was going to build a gold bridge to the other realm and charged you fifty bucks, would that not constitute fraud? There are no bridges to the other realm. If you charge a man to build him one, you’re taking money under false pretenses.

Where the psychic went wrong though was in failing “to cool the mark out”, aka insure that he accepted his loss so he didn’t run to the police.

The classic exposition of the practice of helping victims of a con adapt to their loss is the sociologist Erving Goffman’s 1952 article “On Cooling the Mark Out.” Like everything by Goffman, it’s worth reading if you want to know what much of life is really all about. (If you don’t, you can skip it.) “After the blowoff has occurred,” Goffman explained, about the operation of a con, “one of the operators stays with the mark and makes an effort to keep the anger of the mark within manageable and sensible proportions. The operator stays behind his team-mates in the capacity of what might be called a cooler and exercises upon the mark the art of consolation. An attempt is made to define the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home. The mark is given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss.” What happened stays out of the paper.