Manti Te’o’s words didn’t sound filled with confidence when he explained what happened in an interview with ESPN: “I even knew, that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn’t meet, and that alone —people find out that the girl who died, I was so invested in, I didn’t meet her, as well. So I kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passes away, so that people wouldn’t think I was some crazy dude.”
The word “confidence” is key here because it’s where our words “con man” and “to con” come from. The original confidence man was one William Thompson, an apparently polite and well-dressed chap who, according to an account in the New York Herald in 1849, would engage total strangers in conversation and then ask them a question: “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” He was astonishingly successful, as it happens; the newspaper writer opined that perhaps the mark assumed that Thompson was someone he actually knew, an acquaintance he should remember but couldn’t somehow place. Of course, the clever phrasing of Thompson’s question helped too; if the stranger didn’t hand over his watch, then he’d be saying that he had no confidence in Thompson. He might as well have called the natty Thompson a liar or a thief which might not have been genteel, but certainly accurate enough.
Judging from the notes Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel released last week from his interview with Manti, he was in more or less the same position as Thompson’s mark. Sure, there were some strange lapses —if you’re besotted with someone, aren’t you likely to be able to recall the year you met? —and other red flags (Stanford had no record of a Lennay Kekua, there didn’t seem to be a record of a DUI accident in which she was involved, etc.) but, still, this young man was a great football player and, besides, why would he make this up? As Thamel writes, “ For the interview on Sunday afternoon Te’o and I sat in the linebacker meeting room in Notre Dame’s football facility and he looked straight at me as he spoke. His eyes welled up at times. The only time he didn’t speak with confidence was when I asked him when they met. I didn’t press him, as it was clearly something he didn’t want to share. I suspected they may have met online, understood he wouldn’t have wanted that public and moved on.”
In other words, Thamel and everyone else who heard the story had confidence in it and Manti. So, for that matter, did Manti; after all, he chose to “tailor” it, not abandon it. It’s interesting how the older Thamel came up with a reason for Manti’s lack of confidence too; meeting someone online is hardly a Scarlet Letter nowadays but never meeting her is.
So, was he conned or a con man? Maybe we’ll know tomorrow when Manti sits down with Katie Couric or maybe we won’t. But perhaps the truth about Manti lies somewhere in-between. In their wonderful book, The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons detail the many ways our memories trick and deceive us. Is it possible that Manti came to believe an oft-told story so thoroughly that he forgot the girl was made up to begin with? As strange as it sounds, it’s not impossible. Human memory isn’t anything like what we picture it to be —a video cam in our heads, believable and accurate — which is why “eyewitness” accounts are so notoriously unreliable. Take, for example, the recollection of Father Paul Doyle, whom Thamel interviewed: “I think I had met the girlfriend. I think she had been here visiting the year before. He might have even asked me to pray for a health condition that she had. That sounds vaguely familiar but I know she was a beautiful person.”
Father Doyle’s recollection is what Chabris and Simons call the “illusion of memory” at work. As they point out, people use the vividness of detail and the emotionality of a memory to judge how accurate a memory is; as they put it, “Those rich details you remember are often quite wrong —but they feel right.” Moreover, the more confident we are in someone else’s memory —think of all the details Te’o gave Thamel, the hours on the phone, the girl’s godliness and spirit —the more likely we are to believe it.
Did Manti fall victim to a con or did he con himself into a life narrative, a love story, that served to aggrandize him and make him more newsworthy? Stay tuned.
Chabris, Christopher and Daniel Simons. The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intutions Deceive Us. New York: Broadway Book, 2009.