This article is a reprint from the Illumination eZine on Medium.com
Psychology professors know it…Marketers know it…Sales people know it…Politicians know it…Heck, we all know it…All humans are gullible! Including me… and including you!
Just think about it: around 30% of the world’s population identify as Christians. That means that Christians would agree that 70% of the world are gullibly wrong about a pretty fundamentally important issue. Muslims (25% of the world) would think the other 75% of the world’s people are gullibly wrong; Hindus 85%, and; atheists would think that almost 90% of all humans are gullible. So a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu and an Atheist might walk into a bar and disagree about many fundamentally important things. But they would all agree that the vast majority of humans are gullible because they would all agree that the majority of humans have allowed themselves to be duped about at least one “really important thing”.
So if the majority of people can be hoodwinked into displeasing the universe’s most powerful being(s) (or spending a lot of their time trying to please a non-existent one — a nod to the atheists there), then what else can us humans be hoodwinked into believing? And if so many can be hoodwinked into believing false things, then what real-world consequences are there for this “mass gullibility”?
Throughout most of history, the majority of humans have believed some true whoppers despite little to no evidence. Most humans believed the earth was the centre of the universe; almost no-one thought the earth was a globe and, instead, believed it flat with edges; white Europeans believed they were a superior race; many thought that evil spirits caused sickness and could be drained from the body through blood letting; almost everyone believed in magic and that there existed practitioners of magic like witches and shamans. No evidence…doesn’t matter.
Unfortunately reality does not care a whit about what humans believe or disbelieve: The pollution will spread where the wind blows; the fresh water will simply flow to the next lowest point; the contagious virus will leap from host to host; the sun will shine all the spectra, both the harmful and the helpful; carcinogens will interact with the body’s cells and the natural resources will simply run out when there’s no more left. So acting based on an accurate understanding of reality is a fundamentally important thing to do in a great many situations. Climate change, natural resources, pollution, economics, politics, science, engineering and many other spheres of human life; these are hard enough when we have access to all the facts. But when we are acting with incorrect information (especially if we sincerely believe it’s true), our chances of achieving good outcomes are greatly diminished.
Worse still, what if nefarious individuals decide to deliberately abuse our penchant for gullibility by convincing us of untruths for their own benefit? Perhaps they could peddle false stories like “that evil country has weapons of mass destruction, we need to invade” or “smoking our cigarettes doesn’t cause lung cancer” or “putting extra money in the hands of the job-creators through tax cuts will grow the economy and benefit everyone who works” or “taking our patented drug will modify this number which means you are less likely to get a bad disease; that’s much easier than exercising and giving up fast food ”. There is big money to be made by taking advantage of our innate human gullibility!
In politics it is even worse; What people believe to be true, actually is more important than reality. If a politician can convince voters that something is true that makes those voters more likely to vote for the politician, then whether that something is actually true is unimportant. Once a politician realises how gullible humans (and therefore voters) are, they realise they can simply make things up; “there is a caravan of armed enemies about to invade our country and the other political party wants to welcome them in” or “there are not thousands dying from that pandemic, they are just dying of normal causes”. Then the gullible human voters will vote based on their mistaken beliefs, potentially achieving the opposite to what they intend their vote to achieve.
But each of us individuals does not have enough time or expertise to check every single thing out. We are forced to rely on trusted others to verify what we cannot. And this creates yet another opportunity for the nefarious. Corrupt the trusted… and you get lots of people believing what those trusted people are telling them. We used to trust journalists…they were so ethical they would go to jail rather than reveal their sources, and some would even risk being murdered (and some even were) to get the truth out.
But in 2016, Professor Benkler of Harvard Law, found that 60% of statements on Fox News are either entirely or mostly false and an earlier 2011 study by Fairleigh Dickinson University showed that Fox News viewers believed more falsehoods than any other surveyed group, including people who watch no news at all! This becomes more important when it’s noted that Fox News is currently the most watched Cable News channel in the US, and has been for years.
We all trusted scientists and doctors. But more and more of them are working directly or indirectly for self-interested profit maximising corporations. How do we know when they are telling us the unvarnished results of unbiased scientific research and when, instead, are they twisting the message or the research itself to benefit their benefactors? Dr Ben Goldacre outlined a myriad of ways that seemingly independent scientific studies and publications have been corrupted and Stanford Professor John Ioannidis concluded in 2017 that medical practitioners are still treating patients as if all research was uncorrupted. Our local doctor is gullibly trusting “The nefarious and the corrupted” on our behalf.
Should we just give into the forces of self-interested falsehood tellers? Are we all just gullible sheep awaiting our inevitable fleecing? Or are their things us individuals can do to stop ourselves being taken for a ride? And what should we as a society do to limit the costs of “mass gullibility”? I have some suggestion for both us as individuals and for society as a whole in subsequent articles to follow in this series of Mass Gullibility articles.