Gullibility in a Post-Truth Era

The Annals of Gullibility, written by Stephen Greenspan about a decade ago, is a summary of research into how to avoid being duped. Two days after he published it, Mr. Green discovered that Bernie Madoff, his financial advisor, was a fraud and he had lost a third of his retirement savings.

We live in an especially precarious time where lies and “fake news” are ubiquitous. We witness the battle for truth almost every day and it becomes more intense when opinions are given the same weight as fact. Trump, in particular, uses his podium (Twitter) to fit reality to his politically motivated fabrications. In his world, what constitutes a fact depends on the power and intention of those who profess it. So different vacuous and misleading messages are crafted for different audiences.

Gullibility is not a modern phenomenon. But the consequences are exacerbated in our age of social media, where misinformation and disinformation is electronically contagious. The surge in intellectual egalitarianism has altered the landscape of debates and made “fact” a subjective term. This is called the post-truth era, a time when all voices are equal and our news arrives in incessant, helter-skelter fragments. Both the truthful and the fraudulent come at us in a relentless torrent that is rarely objective, chronological or comprehensive. The democratization of information dissemination is creating an army of ill-informed citizens.

Expertise falls along a continuum. Some things are unknowable; some are unverifiable. The more information we acquire, the more we think we know. When we presume we don’t know, we’re more willing to listen to those we believe may have the answers. When we think we do know, but really don’t, we cobble together what seems to be the best possible answer. The result is confabulation – distorted and misinterpreted conclusions about the world, though not necessarily with the intent to deliberately deceive.

Virtually every field of endeavour or set of human interactions is replete with examples of fraudsters willing to exploit others. And some are ready and willing to be taken advantage of. It’s not always ignorance that moves us to accept the claims of politicians, salesmen, academics or lawyers as proof without a shred of valid evidence. It’s also a failure to ask the right questions.

To survive in this post-truth world, we need to be more sceptical – not cynical, but more willing to challenge the source. We need a healthy dose of enquiry to probe and separate the salient and meaningful from the specious and irrelevant. We need to be cognizant that we rarely see things the way they actually are; we perceive them the way we are. So, we need to pay attention to what matters and ignore what doesn’t.

Statistics are not facts; they’re just interpretations of data selected and framed by human beings. There’s a mountain of evidence revealing how data is cherry picked to fit the hypothesis. Among other pertinent questions, we need to ask how credible is the expert? How plausible is the conclusion? Or, might there be another explanation?

Understanding data is crucial. Median is more important than average (on average, humans have one testicle). Correlation does not equal causation: many people brush their teeth before going to work but that doesn’t cause them to go to work. Is the sample representative (without randomness, all surveys are biased)? How accurate are the results? Some may not have understood the question and some may have lied. What’s the margin of error?

A lot of people dupe themselves because of their naive trust in others. Our innate biases are, once again, the cause of our misfortune. We bind to the views of those we admire but are blind to what runs counter to our own beliefs. Our brain instinctively discerns patterns from random events, as when we perceive constellations among the stars. It tends to affirm what it hears first, “anchoring” and entrenching initial feelings whenever disconfirming evidence arouses dissonance.

The Dunning-Kruger effect states that people who lack knowledge in a particular field tend to massively overestimate their abilities because they don’t know enough to recognize what they don’t know. So hugely unqualified people erroneously believe they’re perfectly qualified to judge what they don’t understand. (This is the opposite of the imposter syndrome which describes why qualified people worry they aren’t qualified.)

Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, said “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they are finished.” Dunning’s research highlights how we repeatedly fool ourselves into thinking we know more than we do and thus more easily convince ourselves that our opinions and choices are the right ones, even when there’s no evidence to support such conclusions.

The false confidence we have in our own beliefs deters us from asking for advice or, in some cases, to even know whom to turn for guidance. To recognize superior expertise requires at least a base knowledge of that expertise. And since people like to feel smart, they rarely ask for advice even when it’s needed. No one is smart enough, objective enough or experienced enough to consistently know what to do or how best to do it. The trick in life is to access the best of what other people have already figured out.

The antidote to gullibility is to critically assess our own capability for evaluating evidence. The same questions we ask when determining whether to trust another person should apply to ourselves: Might I be the unwitting victim of my trust? Have I done the necessary due diligence? Am I in over my head on this one? You can’t question every fact or live in a world of self-doubt, but you can question situations where the stakes are high and the outcomes important.

Learn the lessons of those who have paid the price of their naivete. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t rush big decisions – sleep on them. Walk away from (or just hang up on) high-pressure tactics. Learn how to say “no” or use magical phrases (like “Sorry, not today” or “Let me think about that”) to disengage from forceful tactics or stressful situations. Ask for proof – trust but verify. Be sceptical, not cynical. Acknowledge and accept your limitations – no one is an expert in everything. Admit when you don’t know. Seek counsel from trusted friends.

We are all vulnerable to being deceived but some are more gullible than others. Being duped is part of the human condition. That said, we can learn to better protect ourselves from charlatans and frauds. To function in the post-truth era, we must balance our trust with a healthy dose of doubtfulness, know the difference between good advisors and snake-oil salesmen, and understand the fundamentals of critical thinking. In short, while generally lacking in society today, we need to become less confident in what we think we know and more open to discovering and learning what we don’t actually know.