More than any year in recent memory, 2022 felt like the year of the scam.

January kicked off with the conviction of disgraced ex-Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes, and the year ended with the arrest of FTX founder and CEO Sam Bankman-Fried.

At each turn, cultural producers pounced on these stories of deception and greed, eagerly detailing the rise and fall of brazen characters like Holmes, Bankman-Fried, “Tinder Swindler” Simon Leviev and Russian-German con artist Anna Sorokin — not to mention the travails of ex-president Donald Trump, who continues to raise millions of dollars off the lie of a stolen election, and who has recently resorted to hawking digital tokens of his likeness.

It’s like watching a car wreck in slow motion: You can’t look away. Yet through it all, I started to wonder how much of American cultural and economic life has become saturated with deception. What is it that makes us so easily succumb to promises of a better future, whether it’s through love, riches or power? In what ways are we all susceptible to becoming marks?

In a provocative essay, Texas State religion scholar Joseph Laycock sees connections between the unregulated “Wild West” of cryptocurrency and various religious movements. Many of bitcoin’s most devoted adherents, he writes, “view bitcoin as not just a way to make money, but as the answer to all of humanity’s problems.” Like millennialism — the belief in a coming collective salvation for a select group of people — “some Bitcoiners believe in an inevitable coming ‘hyperbitcoinization,’ in which bitcoin will be the only valid currency.” The “bitcoin believers” will be saved, while those “who shunned cryptocurrency will lose everything.”

Cornell University social psychologist Vanessa Bohns explains how scammers like Leviev and Sorokin exploit “the very essence of what it means to be human.” She points to research showing that people tend to default to trusting others; in our social interactions, there’s a presumption of sincerity, despite the fact that we tend to assume that we’re skeptics by nature.

Artists have long been fascinated by the theme of deception. University of Tennessee art professor Beauvais Lyons tells the story of a little-known artist named Norman Daly, who, 50 years ago, convincingly exhibited a fake Iron Age civilization, with an invented language, a contrived oeuvre of music and artifacts made to look like they’d been unearthed in archaeological excavations. Lyons finds Daly’s work especially relevant in today’s culture, which is “saturated with misinformation.”

“Fact-checking outlets and algorithms help people spot deception,” he writes. “But art that tests your perceptions of what is real — allowing you to suspend your disbelief, while also giving you the opportunity to recognize the tools of deception — can play a role, too.”

In this newsletter, I’ve also included three of the Arts and Culture section’s most popular stories from the past year: a window into Bob Dylan’s creative process, a study exploring a false memory phenomenon called “the Mandela Effect” and why women in Western countries have been traveling to South Korea to find love.

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Also today:

Nick Lehr

Arts + Culture Editor

Editor's picks

Some Bitcoin evangelists see the currency as an answer to problems that plague society. mustafa akman/iStock via Getty Images

Why are people calling Bitcoin a religion?

Joseph P. Laycock, Texas State University

With mantras, a mysterious founder and promises of societal salvation, there are echoes of religious traditions in the cryptocurrency.

Anna Sorokin, better known as Anna Delvey, during her trial in April 2019. Sorokin is the subject of a new Netflix miniseries. Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

How scammers like Anna Delvey and the Tinder Swindler exploit a core feature of human nature

Vanessa Bohns, Cornell University

Despite the belief that people are deeply skeptical of strangers, study after study shows that humans are primed to trust one another.

‘Trallib (Oil Container),’ by Norman Daly, 1970. Daily made this object with an orange juicer. Photo by Marilyn Rivchin

50 years ago, an artist convincingly exhibited a fake Iron Age civilization – with invented maps, music and artifacts

Beauvais Lyons, University of Tennessee

Norman Daly’s 1972 exhibition, ‘The Civilization of Llhuros,’ presented fiction as fact – and reminded viewers of just how easily they could be duped.

Held aloft as the embodiment of the beautiful game. Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Pelé: a global superstar and cultural icon who put passion at the heart of soccer

Simon Chadwick, SKEMA Business School

The Brazilian soccer great died on Dec. 29, 2022 at the age of 82. His record as a goal-scorer – and the delight he gave millions – means he will go down as one of the greatest.

Reader favorites

Dylan’s complex creative process is unique among contemporary singer-songwriters. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

How Bob Dylan used the ancient practice of ‘imitatio’ to craft some of the most original songs of his time

Raphael Falco, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Because Dylan draws from songs from the past, he has been accused of plagiarism. But this view has been colored by a distorted understanding of the creative process.

When asked to recall the popular children’s book series ‘The Berenstain Bears,’ many people make the same error by spelling it ‘The Berenstein Bears.’ Stephen Osman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

New study seeks to explain the ‘Mandela Effect’ – the bizarre phenomenon of shared false memories

Deepasri Prasad, Dartmouth College; Wilma Bainbridge, University of Chicago

People are puzzled when they learn they share the same false memories with others. That’s partly because they assume that what they remember and forget ought to be based only on personal experience.

Actor Seo Kang Joon poses with a fan at an autograph signing. Visual China Group/Getty Images

Why some women are traveling to South Korea to find boyfriends

Min Joo Lee, Wellesley College

Inspired by the sensitive, handsome men they see on TV in their favorite K-dramas, they travel abroad in pursuit of a ‘soft’ masculinity they say they can’t find at home.

The Conversation Quiz 🧠

  • Year in review

    Fritz Holznagel, The Conversation

    This week, test your memories with a special 2022 quiz.