Why we fall for cons
There may be times and places where it’s a good idea to talk back to a military officer — but Germany in 1906 wasn’t one of them. So the young corporal didn’t. The corporal — let’s call him Muller — had been leading his squad of four privates down Sylterstrasse in Berlin, only to be challenged by a captain. Captain Voigt was in his fifties, a slim fellow with sunken cheeks, the outline of his skull prominent above a large, white moustache. Truth be told, he looked strangely down on his luck — but Muller didn’t seem to take that in. Like any man in uniform, Captain Voigt appeared taller and broader thanks to his boots, smart grey overcoat and Prussian-blue officer’s cap. His white-gloved hand rested casually on the hilt of his rapier.
“Where are you taking these men?” he barked.
“Back to barracks, sir,” replied Muller.
“Turn them around and follow me,” ordered Voigt. “I have an urgent mission from the “all-highest” command.”
Direct orders from the kaiser himself!
As the small group marched towards Putlitzstrasse station, the charismatic Captain Voigt saw another squad and ordered them to fall in behind. He led his little army on a train ride towards Köpenick, a charming little town just south-east of the capital.
On arrival, the adventure continued: bayonets were to be fixed for inspection. It had been an extraordinary day for Corporal Muller and his men. But it was going to get a lot more extraordinary: what they were about to do would be the talk of newspapers around the world.
Captain Voigt’s impromptu strike force burst into Köpenick town hall and into the office of the mayor, a man named Georg Langerhans. Langerhans, a mild-looking fellow in his mid-thirties with pince-nez spectacles, a pointed goatee and a large, well-groomed moustache, stood up in astonishment and demanded an explanation. Voigt promptly placed him under arrest, by order of the kaiser.
“Where is your warrant?” stammered Langerhans.
“My warrant is the men I command!”
Voigt ordered the town treasurer to open the safe for inspection: fraud was suspected. The safe contained three thousand five hundred and fifty seven marks, forty-five pfennigs. Captain Voigt was punctilious about the count, confiscated the money, and handed over a receipt to be stamped.
It was nearly a quarter of a million dollars in today’s money.
Captain Voigt sent a pair of soldiers to find and detain Mayor Langerhans’s wife. She, too, was a suspect. He then searched the town hall office while his men kept the officials under arrest. Failing to find what he sought, he decided to wrap up the mission. The officials were to be driven to a police station where they would be detained and interrogated.
Captain Voigt himself walked to Köpenick railway station. He collected a package from the left-luggage office, and stepped into a toilet cubicle. A minute or two later, he stepped out again — and he was almost unrecognisable, having changed into shabby civilian clothes. He ambled, bandy-legged, across the station concourse. This anonymous fellow boarded the train back to Berlin, with his uniform neatly folded under one arm, and a bag of money under the other. Just like that, the “Captain of Köpenick” was gone.
Meanwhile, Corporal Muller dutifully presented his prisoners at the police station in central Berlin. The situation quickly became baffling to all concerned. Nobody had heard anything about the “all-highest” demanding the interrogation of the Mayor of Köpenick — nor his wife. After a phone call to headquarters, the head of the German general staff himself, General Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, arrived to resolve the situation. But nobody had received any orders from the kaiser. Nobody could see any reason to detain the mayor, or his wife, or his treasurer. And nobody could recall ever having met a “Captain Voigt” before. No wonder. Except in the minds of the bemused soldiers and their civilian prisoners, Captain Voigt never existed. They met instead Herr Wilhelm Voigt, an ex-convict, an ex-shoemaker, a nobody, who possessed nothing more than a confident manner . . . and a very nice uniform.
The tale I just told you is a famous one in Germany. It became a play, and an Oscar-nominated film. (The most comprehensive English-language account I could find is by the historian Benjamin Carter Hett.) When the Germans tell the story they tend to linger on the prelude to the heist. What kind of a man does this? Who was Wilhelm Voigt, and what inspired his audacious confidence trick? Voigt was a crook, no doubt about it — his crimes included armed robbery. But the judicial system had treated him harshly, stuffing a legitimate appeal into a filing cabinet. In this version of the story, Voigt was persecuted by a cruel bureaucracy, driven to ransacking the mayor’s office looking not for money but for the paperwork he needed to get a job. No wonder he became seen as a sympathetic figure in German literature.
The English-speaking world drew a different lesson from the reports that filled their newspapers: that the Germans are a sucker for a shouty man in a uniform. The Morning Post named Voigt “the most humorous figure of the century”. The writer GK Chesterton could scarcely contain his glee upon reading the “comic” reports from Köpenick of the “absurd fraud (at least, to English eyes)”. An Englishman, mused Chesterton, would have seen through the bluster immediately.
Yet four years later, a group of young upper-class pranksters including the novelist Virginia Woolf and the artist Duncan Grant managed to arrange for a tour of the Royal Navy’s flagship, HMS Dreadnought, by putting on turbans, brown make-up and fake beards, and claiming to be from the royal family of Abyssinia.
“Bunga bunga!” they boomed as they greeted each other, and when they had to improvise further, they spoke scrambled fragments of ancient Greek poetry they’d learnt at school. Faced with this ridiculous, and to our modern eyes profoundly offensive prank, the Royal Navy responded with a commensurate display of ignorance: it treated the visitors with all the honour it could muster, including the flag and anthem of the nation of Zanzibar rather than Abyssinia. That was apparently close enough to satisfy everyone.
It’s easy to laugh — as GK Chesterton did — when it happens to someone else. But the closer I looked at the story of the Captain of Köpenick, the less funny it looks. Faced with the right con, we’re all vulnerable. Any one of us could have been the hapless Corporal Muller. And if we don’t understand how the trick worked, Wilhelm Voigt’s modern-day successors will do far more damage than he could ever have imagined.
Since Wilhelm Voigt persuaded people to obey orders that they should not have obeyed, you may already be thinking about Stanley Milgram. Milgram is the psychologist who, in the 1960s, conducted the most famous and controversial psychological experiment of all time — an experiment that I think we tend to misunderstand. Milgram recruited unsuspecting members of the American public — all men — to participate in a “study of memory”. On showing up at the laboratory, in a basement at Yale University, they met a man — apparently a scientist, just as Voigt had apparently been a Prussian army captain — dressed in a tie and grey lab coat.
“Very straightforward and professional, just what you’d expect from Yale,” one participant recalled. (Gina Perry’s book Behind The Shock Machine is an authoritative account of the experiments.)
The man-dressed-as-a-scientist supervised proceedings. Participants would be assigned the role either of “teacher” or “learner”. The learner was then strapped into an electric chair while the teacher retreated into another room to take control of a machine with switches labelled with terms including: “slight shock”, “moderate shock”, “danger: severe shock” and, finally, “XXX”.
As the learner failed to answer questions correctly, the teacher was asked to administer steadily increasing electric shocks. Although the teachers had received a painful shock themselves as a demonstration and had witnessed the learner complaining of a heart condition, many proved willing to deliver possibly fatal shocks while listening to screams of pain from the other side of the wall. Of course, there were no shocks; both the screaming “learner” and the scientific supervisor were actors. The true experiment was studying the “teachers”: how far would they go when following direct orders?
In the best known study, 65 per cent of experimental subjects went all the way to 450 volts, applying shocks long after the man in the other room had fallen silent. Under the guise of science, Stanley Milgram had perpetrated yet another of these grim hoaxes.
Milgram’s research agenda was influenced by the shadow of the Holocaust and a desire to understand how it had been possible. He made the link explicit, and argued that his experiment was all about “obedience to authority”. But modern scientists no longer see Milgram’s research in quite that way.
There’s a lot we could say about those experiments — about their ethics, and about the more than 20 experimental variations. But the most fundamental objection is that these experiments may not be about obedience at all. Alex Haslam, a psychologist who has re-examined the studies in recent years, found that when the man in the lab coat gave direct orders, they backfired. One pre-scripted instruction produced universal disobedience: “you have no other choice . . . you must continue”. Experimental subjects concluded that this was simply untrue; nobody continued after that order. People need to be persuaded, not bullied, into participating.
So if these experiments weren’t about blind obedience, what were they about? Here’s a detail that is usually overlooked: Milgram’s shock machine had 30 settings, fine increments of 15 volts. It’s hard to object to giving someone a tiny 15-volt shock. And if you’ve decided that 15 volts is fine, then why draw the line at 30 volts? Why draw the line at 45? Why draw the line at all?
At 150 volts, the “learner” yelled out in distress. Some people stopped at that point. But those who continued past 150 volts almost always kept going to the full 450 volts. They were in too deep. Refusing to administer a shock of 225 volts would be an implicit admission that they had been wrong to deliver 210. Perhaps Stanley Milgram’s experiments weren’t a study of obedience so much as a study of our unwillingness to stop and admit that we’ve been making a dreadful mistake. We’re in too deep; we’re committed; we can’t turn back.
Think back to that day in Berlin, in 1906. Voigt stopped Corporal Muller in the street and demanded to know where he and his men were going. What was Muller to do? Demand proof of identification? Of course not. Muller didn’t want to risk a court martial over answering a simple question.
Voigt then asked Muller’s squad to follow him. That’s a bit more of a stretch, but Muller had already obeyed one order, already addressed this stranger-in-a-uniform as “sir”. Marching down the street behind him was just one small action further.
The pattern repeated itself with the second squad: when they first saw Captain Voigt, he was already at the head of half a dozen men; that was the evidence he was who he said he was. Why not fall in? Why not get the train to Köpenick? Why not fix bayonets for inspection? It’s really only at the moment that they burst into the town hall that the doubts might occur.
But by then, the whole business was already well beyond the 210-volt mark. They had travelled all the way across Berlin. They had been following Wilhelm Voigt’s instructions for a couple of hours. It would have been very late in the day for Corporal Muller, or anyone else, to have the presence of mind to stop, think and challenge their new captain.
Georg Langerhans, the young mayor, saw the situation very differently — he immediately demanded to see a warrant. Langerhans, of course, was effectively being asked to apply a 450-volt shock without preamble. No wonder he was sceptical.
At first glance, then, Wilhelm Voigt’s con and Milgram’s shock experiments are evidence for the idea that we’ll do anything for a figure of authority wearing the right outfit. But look deeper and they’re evidence for something else — that we’re willing to help out with reasonable requests, and that step by step we can find ourselves trapped in a web of our own making. Each small movement binds us more tightly to the con artist. We become complicit; breaking free becomes all but impossible.
That said, the right outfit matters. And here I want to think bigger than the world of the con artist. Yes, we fall for cons. But we fall for all kinds of other superficial things that shouldn’t matter, like a nice uniform, and those superficial things are constantly influencing our decisions — including decisions that we may later come to regret.
Almost exactly 110 years after Wilhelm Voigt’s audacious heist, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump squared off in one of three televised debates. You might remember it. In a town-hall format, the candidates were able to roam the stage. And Trump certainly did roam, following Clinton around as she answered questions, looming behind her, always on camera, clearly visible over the top of Clinton’s head.
After the debate, that was all anyone could talk about. Was it an attempt at intimidation? Perhaps. But there’s something else about that footage of Donald Trump stalking Hillary Clinton: he towers over her.
Voters were being offered all kinds of choices in that election but one that was never really articulated was this: would you like to elect the third-tallest president ever, or the shortest president since James Madison two centuries ago?
There’s not much doubt that some voters were influenced by the disparity in height. The US does elect a lot of tall presidents. Trump was taller than Hillary Clinton. Obama was taller than McCain. Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr were the same height — towering over tiny Ross Perot, the feisty independent challenger they beat into third place. Bush Sr was taller than Dukakis. Reagan was taller than Carter, Nixon was taller than Humphrey, Kennedy was taller than Nixon, Truman taller than Dewey. Lyndon Johnson was taller than pretty much everyone. Are we electing a president here, or picking a basketball team? Of course there are some exceptions to the rule: when Carter beat Ford, it was a victory for the little guy.
But serious statistical analysis concludes that taller presidential candidates are more likely to win the election, more likely to win re-election, and more likely — unlike Donald Trump — to win the popular vote. Since the dawn of the television age, the only person ever to have overcome a height deficit of more than three inches was the incumbent George W Bush running against John Kerry.
Hillary Clinton would have been the first female president, true. She would also have been the first president to win despite a 10in height disadvantage since 1812. Americans may not have elected any female presidents over the years — but they haven’t elected any short men, either — not in a long, long time.
This isn’t just about presidential elections and it isn’t just about height. Across the world, voters favour candidates based on the most superficial characteristics imaginable. For example, one study — by economists Daniel Benjamin and Jesse Shapiro — found that people were fairly good at predicting the victor of an election for state governor after being shown a brief piece of video of a gubernatorial debate with the sound turned off: just looking at the candidates seemed to be enough to judge who voters would pick. In fact, giving people audio too actually made the predictions worse, presumably because it distracted them from what mattered: appearances.
We hairless apes seem to go for simple proxies when judging someone’s capacity for leadership. That 400-page manifesto? We’re not going to read it. But we pay close attention, whether we realise it or not, to the fine details of a candidate’s posture, styling, clothes — and, of course, height. Corporal Muller and his men were completely taken in by Wilhelm Voigt’s appearance and mannerisms. But they’re not the only ones to pay attention to appearances.
Consider the advertising classic, “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV.” And then, as though it was the most natural thing in the world, the man who admits he isn’t a doctor goes on to tell us what brand of cough syrup to buy. Even Wilhelm Voigt would not have been quite as audacious as to announce: “I’m not a captain, I’m just wearing the uniform.”
And yet the advertisements work. We buy the cough syrup from the man who tells us, “I only look like a doctor”. That’s how powerful appearances can be. And what about “I’m not a successful businessman, but I play one on TV?” Oh — I think I know that guy.
Fraudsters using the playbook of Wilhelm Voigt trick people every day. First, they get the appearances right. Maybe it’s a text message that looks like it’s from your bank — the phone number is right, after all. Maybe the doorbell rings and the man is standing there with an official-looking ID; he wants to come and check your electricity meter. That ID does look genuine. Maybe it’s a smooth-talking politician with a good suit. Milgram well understood the need to get the clothes right. In a variation where the experimenter didn’t wear a lab coat, few people went to 450 volts.
Second, fraudsters put people into what psychologists call a “hot state”. We don’t think so clearly when we’re hungry, or angry, or afraid. Wilhelm Voigt yelled at Corporal Muller. A politician who wanted to put people into a hot state might announce that the country was being taken over by gangs and terrorists, and that his opponent should be locked up. Whatever works.
Third, they pull the heist one small step at a time. They start with the request for information: where are you taking these men? You are Ms Jane Doe, aren’t you? I’m sorry to report that your bank account has been compromised, Ms Doe. Just enter your password and username — just like you usually do — and we’ll sort it out for you. Give us someone who looks or sounds the part; apply a bit of fear, anger, lust or greed; and then proceed in salami slices from the reasonable to the insane, so smoothly that we don’t stop to think. That’s how Wilhelm Voigt fooled Corporal Muller. But it’s how he would have fooled any of us, if he caught us at the wrong moment.
At first it looked as though Voigt would enjoy the fruits of his acting skills in peace. But as he relaxed with his money, a former accomplice of his saw the reports of the daring heist in all the newspapers and remembered a prison conversation in which Voigt had dreamt of such a coup. He promptly reported Voigt to the authorities.
When four detectives burst in to his apartment at six o’clock in the morning, they found Voigt enjoying breakfast. He protested that the timing was inconvenient. “I should like a moment to finish my meal.”
So the detectives watched him break open another crusty white roll, spread on a thick layer of butter, and wash it down with his coffee. You can’t help but admire the audacity.
At trial, Voigt became a folk hero. The judge sympathised with the way he had been treated, gave him an unexpectedly short sentence, then took off his judge’s cap and stepped down to clasp Voigt by the hand. “I wish you good health throughout your prison term, and beyond.”
The German authorities felt that — in light of the popularity of the Captain of Köpenick — even more ostentatious clemency was required. They pardoned him after less than two years in jail. The kaiser himself was said to have chuckled, “amiable scoundrel” at the deed.
Statues of Voigt were erected and waxworks made of him — including one in Madame Tussauds in London. He was paid to record his story so that people could listen to him recount his deeds. He went on tour, posing in his uniform and signing photographs of himself for money.
A local restaurateur begged him to come and dine as often as he wanted, free of charge, knowing that his presence would attract other customers. A wealthy widow gave him a pension for life. Never let it be said that the Germans lack a sense of humour. But while the comedy is undeniable, we should not be too fond of the Prussian prankster. Perhaps Wilhelm Voigt’s adventure did little harm in the long run. The same cannot be said for some of the con artists who followed in his footsteps. It is exciting to read about a fraud — from a distance. It is not so funny to live through one.
Published in FT Magazine, 16/17 November 2019.
The best English-language account I could find of the Kopenick story is by Benjamin Carter Hett. “The ‘Captain of Köpenick’ and the Transformation of German Criminal Justice, 1891-1914,” Central European History 36 (1), 2003.
I first read about the story in Nigel Blundell’s The World’s Greatest Mistakes. Other accounts are at Strange History and The Rags of Time. Koepenickia offers various contemporary German newspaper accounts. There are many small differences in the accounts but the overall story remains just as remarkable.
An overview of the evidence on tall presidents is Gert Stulp, Abraham P. Buunk, Simon Verhulst, Thomas V. Pollet, “Tall claims? Sense and nonsense about the importance of height of US presidents” The Leadership Quarterly Volume 24, Issue 1, 2013.
The study of gubernatorial elections is Daniel J Benjamin & Jesse M Shapiro, 2009. “Thin-Slice Forecasts of Gubernatorial Elections” The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 91(3), pages 523-536, 02.
Daniel Hamermesh’s Beauty Pays looks at the overall evidence that appearances matter – including in politics.