How Trump University Relied Heavily On The Craft Of Con Men

The goal was to separate people from their money.
Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

Among psychologists there is a fairly well-known Polish study that looked at the persuasive power of fear. In it, researchers placed fake parking tickets on car windshields. On other cars, they put advertisements that looked like parking tickets. And on other cars, they put the same advertisements on the doors rather than on the windshields.

After the drivers found and inspected the ticket or advertisement, the researchers went up to them and asked a favor. The idea was to measure the levels of receptivity to that favor among the anxious (those who received tickets), the relieved (those who received a ticket that turned out to be an ad), and the unaffected (those who received ads on their doors). The results, as described in Maria Konnikova's book The Confidence Game, were what you might expect:

The single most persuadable type of driver: the one who had just experienced a wave of relief following anxiety. The second: the one who'd experienced only anxiety. The least: the one who'd felt nothing. The authors concluded that the emotional drain of anxiety followed by the wave of emotional relief created a state of relative mindlessness.

I was reminded of this study as I rummaged through 400 pages of documents released in a case brought against Trump University, Donald Trump's for-profit institution which has been widely criticized as a “fraudulent scheme." The documents show it had little resemblance to an educational opportunity for those looking to master the real estate market. More precisely, Trump U appears to have been an ATM machine for its titular leader -- a series of seminars held in hotel ballrooms that offered get-rich-fast potions to attendees.

Trump U, accused of having “preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money," may not technically have been a con job, but the persuasive techniques used by its agents share many qualities with those used by con artists. They're certainly recognizable in the pages of Konnikova's exhaustive work.

Playing on the same emotions examined in that Polish experiment, Trump U officials made use of people's anxiety and relief. In one document, for example, officials were told to be "very aggressive" in conversations with prospective students "in order to push them out of their comfort zone." Yes, the playbook noted, these people may be scared off by the cost of the course, which could be as high as $34,995. But they'd quickly be relieved to know the riches on the other end.

If they complain about the prices, remind them that Trump is the BEST!!! This is the last real estate investment they will ever need to make!! Remind them that TU teams are only looking for those students who qualify and have a positive attitude. We are the best of the best. At the end of the session, use positive reinforcement in order to calm their fears.

This is Persuasion 101. As Konnikova writes in her book, cons excel at creating "a sense of fear, and then the feeling of relief (not to worry! There's a solution!)." But the con, or sale, starts well before fear is induced and relief subsequently offered. It begins at the moment a person steps in the door.

Indeed, con artists are expert at making their marks feel as if they know them personally. "In one series of experiments," Konnikova writes, "people were more likely to buy something from a relative stranger if that relative stranger happened to recall their name. They viewed the mere recall as a compliment; clearly they were important enough to note, and if that person thought so, then it was a very discerning person indeed."

Trump U officials placed a heavy emphasis on familiarity. The guidance encouraged agents to introduce themselves and establish a rapport, to shake hands and make eye contact, even to "congratulate" attendees for being there. In one playbook, organizers were told:

Collect personalized information that you can utilize during closing time. (For example: are they a single parent of three children that may need money for food? Or are they a middle-aged commuter that is tired of traveling for 2 hours to work each day?)

Donald Trump during a presidential debate. He has been dogged about sales tactics at Trump University, with greater scrutiny as the general election has approached.
Donald Trump during a presidential debate. He has been dogged about sales tactics at Trump University, with greater scrutiny as the general election has approached.
CNBC via Getty Images

But good cons don't layer it on too thick. They give their marks a sense of empowerment, too. Konnikova notes that fraud victims often don't question the legitimacy of the reward they're being offered, let alone the person who offers it. They believe that they're "dealing with someone to be reckoned with (legitimate power), and that someone is in a position to reward you, be it financially or otherwise."

The Trump U playbook instructed officials to provide attendees with that sense of empowerment and to make them believe that that ballroom session was the simple, missing key to life's riches.

If you're like most people, you spend most of your time just trying to keep your head above water, waiting for life to get easier. But if you don't put your dreams into action, no one's going to do it for you! You just need someone to show you how to get started.

Finally, con artists rely on trust. And often the best way to establish trust is through a respected figure: a community member, a well-dressed financier, a religious leader. "Someone like you," Konnikova writes, "Someone you would like to become."

For Trump U, the trusted figure's name is right there on the sign. Though he admitted in a deposition that he had minimal involvement in picking the instructors or curriculum at his "university," Trump clearly served the function of the proverbial rope. Attendees were promised "Trump style" success, a Trump mentor, and, quite literally, "every single resource" that Trump himself "has at his disposal."

"You will see that when you're in the Trump family, you have absolutely nothing to fear!" read one playbook.

Donald Trump being honored at a university (not his own) in Scotland.
Donald Trump being honored at a university (not his own) in Scotland.

Once con artists gain some familiarity and establish a rapport, they prefer to move swiftly. People tend to make big decisions quickly, often unconsciously, Konnikova writes. And if you apply pressure in that moment, they are all the more vulnerable.

In the Trump U documents, timeliness and pressure are constant themes for salesmen. They're encouraged, for example, to interrupt prospective students if they start expressing more than one concern or ask for more time.

Does Tiger Woods say 'let me win a few tournaments first and then I'll hire swing coaches?'

An entire bullet point in one playbook outlines how to convince someone not to bring his or her concerns home to their spouse.

I have been doing this for a long time, and the only thing your wife will say at the end of Friday is, 'why did you wait so long to get this training, I can't believe how much money we've missed out on in our own backyard! We have a lot of catching up to do!!'

The mention of money also serves as a powerfully persuasive tool. It may seem obvious, but its psychological impact can't be underestimated. Studies at the University of Minnesota, for example, have shown it tends to distract people. Trump U instructors found it to be useful bait.

"Put your million dollar check on your mirror, look at it every day, and believe you will cash it! Stay positive!'" read the playbook.

“Put your million dollar check on your mirror, look at it every day, and believe you will cash it! Stay positive!”

- Trump University playbook

Of course, Trump U was geared as much -- probably more -- toward separating people from their money than fulfilling the vision of the million-dollar check. Officials went to great lengths to achieve that separation. "Students" were encouraged to go into credit card debt or to borrow from retirement plans. ABC News reported that Trump U "advised students to try to boost their credit card limit by inflating their annual income by $75,000." In the playbooks, Trump U officials were advised to get prospective clients to show them their credit card statements to see if they could find ways to help them save money on interest payments -- money that could then be used to pay for the seminars.

"Again," the playbook reads, "we are trying to build a mental picture of what will happen to give them confidence in spending the money."

In the end, Trump U proved modestly successful in its mission. As the Washington Post reported, during its four years of operation "more than 80,300 people attended the free introductory sessions" but "only around 6,000 people paid between $995 and $1,995 to attend three-day seminars" and just "572 people paid the full $34,995 for the top-level Trump University mentorship." Attendees subsequently accused the university of being a racket designed to prey on their vulnerabilities. Even instructors conceded that the goal wasn't to educate but to convince people to pay for the most expensive products.

Trump has gone to great lengths to defend the enterprise, not just questioning whether an American judge of Mexican heritage can impartially oversee a lawsuit on the case, but also trotting out former students to attest to just how valuable the experience was.

But this also has its parallels to cons. Konnikova explains that even marks who are presented with evidence they've been duped will give a post-facto rationalization for how and why it happened. Some refuse to admit that a con took place at all.

"It's a kind of confirmation in reverse," she explains. "[W]e marshal evidence that makes our decision seem well reasoned even when we didn't actually use any of that evidence in reaching our choice to begin with."

Trump U may have given some attendees the experience, insight and connections to understand the real estate market and make money off of it. But that doesn't mean it didn't use predatory psychological techniques to persuade vulnerable individuals to part with their money.

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