How does a person become gullible and why? How can you tell if you are? How can it be corrected?
What will you do if you are requested to sign a petition that reads as follows:
Ban "Dihydrogen Monoxide" Now!
- is called "hydroxyl acid", the substance is the major component of acid rain.
- contributes to the "greenhouse effect".
- may cause severe burns.
- is fatal if inhaled.
- contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape.
- accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals.
- may cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes.
- has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients.
Despite the danger, dihydrogen monoxide is often used:
- as an industrial solvent and coolant.
- in nuclear power plants.
- in the production of Styrofoam.
- as a fire retardant.
- in many forms of cruel animal research.
- in the distribution of pesticides. Even after washing, produce remains contaminated by this chemical.
- as an additive in certain "junk-foods" and other food products.
Does this sound like a dangerous chemical to you? A student, in 1997, asked 50 people, and 43 said they will support the ban of this chemical.
Guess what, they just agreed to ban... H2O, or water. Did you fall for it too?
That student was doing a science project on gullibility, and his work got him top prize.
What was REALLY surprising is plenty of people since have fallen for this hoax. In 2007, New Zealand National party MP actually sent a letter to the associate minister of health asking him about when will a ban on this drug take place. And "DHMO" have entered the "classic hoax hall of fame" on Snopes: The Urban Legends Reference, and it seems every year or so someone famous dusts it off as their April Fools Day joke.
While the incident is amusing, it illustrates a deeper problem. Why is the "general public" so... gullible?
What is "gullible" and "gullibility"?
Gullibility can be best described as a "tendency to be duped / deceived / defrauded, repeatedly". It is often confused with a related concept: credulity, which is best described as "tendency to believe in ideas or things that lack adequate supporting evidence / are ridiculous".
The main difference is being gullible generally requires some sort of action, such as handing money to a scammer. A credulous person simply believes in a lot of things without evidence. In the DHMO hoax above, being gullible means the person actually signed the petition, having taken action to confirm their belief.
Most scams exploit the gullible by taking advantage of victim's credulity. The most famous scammer of all, Charles Ponzi (for whom Ponzi scheme was named after), took advantage of the immigrants' credulity that his money-making scheme will work.
Part of credulity is about trust. Gullibility can even be described as giving trust when one should not have, or misplaced trust, not just once, but repeatedly.
Gullibility in itself is somewhat amusing for the observers. However, gullibility CAN do harm, not just to the gullible individual (such as getting scammed), but also to other people.
What Damage Can Gullibility Cause?
While one may argue that it is harmless for people to believe whatever they want, as it is indeed their freedom to do so, the problem is gullibility is never limited just a few beliefs, but rather is a pervasive pattern in that person's life, including politics and social interactions, and that affects other people.
Gullibility and health
People make decisions about health based on their credulity, not always their own health, but those of their relatives and children. Belief in untested medicine often prevents that person from obtaining REAL treatment. While sacrificing one's own health for one's belief is one's freedom (the guy will merely get a Darwin Award), problem arise when it's NOT about oneself.
In an extreme case, an 11-year old girl in Australia suffered permanent brain damage when her father refused to take her to the hospital when she grew sick. Instead, he simply force fed her Mannatech's Ambrotose, a nutritional supplement, for TWO WEEKS, hoping she will be cured that way. She was only brought in after she is no longer responsive, and was rushed into open heart surgery for valve replacement. She is now confined to a wheelchair due to brain damage suffered during those two weeks when her heart can't pump enough blood to the brain.
In another example, vaccine deniers based their suspicion and hate of vaccine on unscientific evidence, and breaking herd immunity threatens the youngest children, who cannot be vaccinated. Recently, some parents were found to be mailing INFECTIOUS MATERIAL THROUGH REGULAR MAIL, which is a felony, all in the name of DELIBERATELY infecting their children with chicken pox just to avoid the vaccine!
Gullibility and Finance
While most scams simply have the gullible victim willingly handing over money, and thus does not affect other people, one particular type of scam stands out: the pyramid scheme.
A pyramid scheme takes advantage of gullible people by turning them into scammer's accomplices to recruit even more victims. Instead of the scammer defrauding dozens of people personally, the scammer merely need to find two gullible people to pay and join up, convince them each to find two more gullible people to pay and join up, and repeat ad infinitum. The gullible people are turned into "willing" accomplices of the scammer. Variations of the theme, such as the 8-Ball Scheme (aka the Airplane game) have the same mechanics: recruit gullible people and convince them this illegal scheme will make them a lot of money, and have THEM recruit even more victims to keep the game going.
Gullibility and Religion
Are religious people more gullible? The evidence is unclear, but there are signs that religious people have a "positive" bias, in that they believe fellow members will not be out to hurt them. Scammers often take advantage of this "blindspot" by pulling an "affinity scam", where they join the church and all that to get close to the pastor and/or members in order to scam them later. However, this is not unique to religion.
NOTE: Affinity scam can be used on any sort of relationship, from religion to community to race to professional organization, even love, so it's NOT unique to religion.
Sometimes, it is the church members that got scammed, and sometimes it is the church itself (and the donations that members put up) that got scammed.
Bernard Madoff, head of the largest Ponzi scheme in US history, had started his career trolling the Jewish community for investments. Several Jewish Organizations was forced to close when they discovered the money they invested with Madoff was lost in that huge Ponzi scheme.
What Causes Gullibility?
In the book "Annals of Gullibility", Professor Stephen Greenspan wrote that Gullible Action has four components:
- Situation -- victim was influenced by social situation, such as friends
- Cognition -- victim does not recognize the danger signs of a con man
- Personality -- victim is susceptible to "being led" or "being told"
- State -- victim is too incapacitated to make rational decisions
A gullible action can be caused by merely one of the four factors outlined here, but usually involves two, sometimes more, according to Professor Greenspan.
Children are gullible because they have not developed the cognitive abilities to discern danger signals. They are also learning and thus their personality has not fully developed. Adults, hopefully, have developed their cognitive abilities and personality so they are less vulnerable to these factors, but some have not.
Cognitive Tricks Scammers Use
Scammers use a variety of tricks to influence your thinking / cognition. Many of them involve logical fallacies, and others involve misdirection, half-truths or outright lies. Here are a few you need to be aware of (this list is NOT meant to be a comprehensive list).
"Priming the Pump"
Fundraisers and scammers both use this trick: when you put an offer in front of people, few if any would volunteer to be first. Those who are wavering between yes and no often will want to see someone else go first, put their money in, THEN they will join the crowd and jump in.
Fundraisers have known for a long time that if you put up a counter that shows how much money have been raised, how many people have donated, and so on, people will donate moer once they realize they are not alone. Scammers know this too, and they often have "shills", who pretend to be normal participants, jump up first and rush to the table to buy up whatever it is they are selling. This is often enough to force the undecided into action.
People are swayed by dominant personality, and that is a fact. Just because a group agreed with a decision doesn't mean the decision was actually MADE by the group. Scammers use this by presenting in a seminar where they are actively pushing this idea upon you, the passive audience. When they are sufficiently fast-talking nobody will be asking questions, esp. if they push the right emotional triggers and dominate your decision making abilities.
Sometimes, they may even have a shill member dominate the stage.
When people are unsure about some things, they generally "follow the crowd" and "follow the authority". By presenting oneself as the authority on the issue (no matter the validity of this claim) one automatically gain some sort of recognition, as if others are recognizing that if one is willing to put oneself in front of the group, one must have conviction about whatever it is he or she is pushing.
Scammers often take advantage of this by hiring fake experts or have the experts present a completely one-sided argument, and because that's the "expert", nobody questions the "expert". For example, a certain pyramid scheme, already kicked out of US and convicted in Australia, was found in Philippines at a seminar where they had a court clerk claiming "this is not a scam, it's legal (and I know what I'm talking about)". The problem is, a court clerk is not a judge or a lawyer and thus is not qualified to judge what's legal and what's not. Yet she sounded authoritative, and many people signed up for this scam.
How to Fight Gullibility
Following are active things you can do to minimize your own gullibility, by exerting control over the four factors named earlier.
Avoid Temptation -- if you know you're vulnerable to certain situations, simply don't go there. Much like alcoholics avoid parties with booze, so you should avoid situations where you're forced into making decisions that you will regret later.
Time Out -- refuse to commit to one side or another, go home and think about it. Do NOT make impulsive decisions. This also works when you are exhausted, either emotionally or physically and thus not capable of making proper decisions.
Counter-attack -- instead of being pushed (such as high-pressure sales pitch), you push back, by countering with a question (what did you call me for?), demand a quick summary (You have 15 seconds), interruption (just get to the point), and so on. Instead of them pushing you, you push them. This disrupts their "script" and puts them on the defensive.
Escape clause -- find a way to get away, get out, avoid having to make a decision before you gathered all the info. Have a "rescue call" from a friend, think of some excuse.
Sanity Check -- bring a friend, a relative, and so on so they can "check" your impulsiveness. Just make sure you bring someone who are "wiser" and calmer than you are.
Critical Thinking -- learn what is critical thinking, preferably as early as possible, This would also cover logical fallacies (i.e. how to make something that seem logical but isn't) so you can spot those being used on you.
Healthy Skepticism -- not cynicism, but understanding the source of the information, what bias it may contain, and how much of it is real raw information, and how much of it is "spin" and "opinion". Just because someone say so doesn't make it so, unless there's evidence.
General Education -- the dihydrogen monoxide hoax is a great example of lack of chemistry knowledge in the American general public. In that research, only ONE person out of 50 surveyed realized that dihydrogen monoxide is just a fancy name for water.
The biggest hurdle in overcoming gullibility is to admit that you don't know enough.
"I know one thing: that I know nothing." -- Socrates
Thus, it's a three step process
- Admit Ignorance: I don't know enough to decide what to believe
- Healthy Skepticism: I refuse to believe either side until I know enough
- Deliberate Action: I refuse to act until I know what I believe
If you can do all three, you are no longer gullible.
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