On Being Gullible

And What You Can Do About It

Welcome to “From Insults to Respect.” Today we spend a little time on the topic of being gullible. We begin with a parable that illustrates someone who is acting gullible. Then we sift through a research article that deepens our understanding of this topic. Our goal throughout is to guide the gullible people we care about toward more discerning ways.

A Short Parable

The scene, the offices of a large import, export business. Alice and Jill have just left their desks to go to lunch.

“Did you hear the big news!” Alice whispers excitedly. “Trish from sales and her boss, Ralph, are having an affair!”  

“Is that so, Alice?” says Jill doubtfully. She knows Trish and her husband for a few years now and judging from their apparent warm, loving relationship, Jill is somewhat skeptical of Alice’s pronouncement.

“Oh, yeah,” replies Alice. “I heard it from Margaret. Her desk is right next to Trish’s.”

“From Margaret, hmmm. What exactly did Margaret see that makes her so sure about this?”

“Well, I don’t know, but I’m sure she wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true.”

“Wasn’t it Margaret who was telling everyone last month that Pete was going to be fired and he ended up getting promoted?”

“Well, gee, Jill, anyone can make a mistake. But don’t forget, she was right when she told everyone that they were going to hire another secretary in Accounting.”

“So, Alice, that seems to mean that sometimes Margaret is right and sometimes she’s wrong.”

Now the two ladies reach the lunch cafeteria, with its rich aroma of coffee, and the clattering of dishes. 

“There’s Margaret over there,” says Jill, and she hurries over to her, with Alice following close behind.

Margaret, with her curly blond hair and bright blue eyes, is just opening up a brown paper bag with her baloney sandwich inside when Jill arrives by her side.

“Hi Margaret,” says Jill. “I’d like to have a word with you in private for a few seconds if you don’t mind.”

“Oh, sure,” says Margaret, and the three ladies go off into a hallway where no one else is around.

“Alice just told me you told her Trish and Ralph are having an affair,” says Jill. “What exactly did you see that made you conclude this?”

“Yipes, I think I screwed up on that one,” replies Margaret. “You see, I saw them in an embrace and then the way they smiled at each other afterwards, it was pretty clear they were in a secret relationship. But it now turns out that the both of them were working on a huge China deal worth over seven million dollars, and they had heard that it was going to go through, though the papers weren’t signed yet, so they had to keep it secret. So, the embrace was probably them just being thrilled when they heard that news. This morning, just a few minutes ago in fact, the papers were signed, so everyone began embracing one another now that it’s out in the open and Sales is throwing a big celebration after work over at O’Henry’s Bar. We ought to go.”

“Great!” says Jill. “There will be bonuses for the whole team! But putting that aside, Margaret, I’m hoping you make sure you tell everyone you told about this so-called love affair that it’s not true. You can really hurt someone by spreading rumors like that, and if the boss found out about it, you can even get yourself fired.”

“Oh, you are so right, Jill!” Margaret exclaims.

Parable Discussion

Here we see that Alice assumes that what Margaret tells her is true without first finding out any details of how her informant, Margaret, has come by her information. Moreover, Alice assumes Margaret’s gossip is true even though Margaret’s gossip has been wrong in the past. Jill, on the other hand, is not so easily convinced when a rumor comes her way. From this little parable, we see an example of someone who is gullible (Alice) and someone who is not (Jill).

Here’s another, more famous, example of a gullible person:

Recently, an article by Hugo Mercier appeared in the journal Review of General Psychology (2017, vol. 21, pp. 103-122) with the title, “How Gullible Are We? A Review of the Evidence From Psychology and Social Science.” I thought the topic would be particularly of interest to readers of this blog because when people come off as gullible, it can have an influence on how much respect they command. So, let’s take a look at what the author has to say.

The Research Article

Mr. Mercier, a French cognitive researcher, begins his article with the following words:

Are we too easily influenced by what people tell us? Do we accept messages that turn out to be harmful to us, even when we should have known better? Do we defer too easily to authority figures? In other words, are we gullible. Many scholars, from ancient philosophers to contemporary psychologists, have claimed that the answer is yes. (p. 103)

Mr. Mercier goes on from here to say that actually people in general are typically a lot less strongly gullible than is commonly believed. They are endowed, he goes on to say, with a set of skills that allow them to do a pretty good job when evaluating communicated information. However, there are some people who apparently are less skilled at this than most, and they are the ones who are most likely to be viewed as gullible. So, it seems to me that if we familiarize ourselves with the main set of skills that prevent us from being strongly gullible, perhaps we can help those that we care about who are a bit too gullible to sharpen their skills.

The Skills

The first set of skills falls under the heading of “Plausibility Checking.” If I told you that there was a green elephant in your yard, there is a good chance that you would think that I was probably pulling your leg. After all, you have a set of background information and you have never heard of a green elephant unless someone decided to go through the enormous bother of painting one, and what would any elephant be doing in your yard? Comparing what you know to be true, or at least very likely to be true, with what someone is telling you is the first skill that prevents us from being strongly gullible. In our parable, Jill knew that Trish and her husband have had a wonderful relationship for years and it struck her as somehow implausible that Trish would risk all of that by falling into a romance with Ralph. She knows that sometimes such relationships do happen, but she pauses, based on her background information regarding Trish’s relationship with her husband, and then begins to seek some more information. Mr. Mercier describes this process in the following manner:

There is substantial evidence that people detect inconsistencies between their background beliefs and communicated information, that such inconsistencies tend to lead to reject communicated information, and that information that is more inconsistent with one’s prior belief is more likely to be rejected. (p. 105) 

He then points out that sometimes this mechanism does not completely reject a communication that strikes one as inconsistent with his or her prior beliefs, but instead, leads one to do more thorough checking. This is exactly what Jill does when she asks Alice some more specific information about what Margaret had told her, and when she went directly to Margaret to get some additional information.

The next set of skills that Mr. Mercier discusses is “Trust Calibration.”

Trust calibration is one of two main mechanisms that can supersede plausibility checking (the other being argumentation…) Thanks to trust calibration, receivers can accept messages whose content is inconsistent with prior beliefs. (p. 106)

People who are skilled at not being gullible use a variety of cues to infer someone’s trustworthiness. We saw in the parable that Jill did not completely trust what Margaret had told Alice because Margaret had been wrong in the past when she had claimed that someone was going to be fired. Alice, on the other hand, inferred that Margaret accurately knew about the relationship between Trish and Ralph because Trish’s desk was right next to Margaret’s. For Jill, this was not enough to convince her that Margaret’s conclusion was accurate.

When people are not gullible, they rely on more then just one type of cue to gage a person’s trustworthiness. Has the person been accurate in the past? How competent is this person? Is the person telling the information the one who directly witnessed what happened, or is this purely hearsay? And, on the whole, when someone’s report is very specific, rather then vague generalities, it is more likely to be viewed as trustworthy. For example, “I saw Trish and Ralph passionately kissing on their lips” is more specific than, “I heard that Trish and Ralph were having an affair.”

Now some forms of Trust Calibration may be misleading. For example, many believe that gaze avoidance or fidgeting is a sign that someone is lying. However, in the research reviewed by Mr. Mercier, these cues are not very dependable. “By contrast, statements that are implausible or illogical tend to be deceptive, as well as ambiguous statements that contain few details.” (p. 108)

The next set of skills that people use to avoid being viewed as gullible is assessing “Argumentation,” or said in another way, assessing the reasonableness of an argument. As examples of these skills, Mr. Mercier points out that studies demonstrate that participants find less compelling an argument from authority when the authority is not an authority in the relevant area, or if he or she has a vested interest. In an earlier post titled, “Making Judgments that Shine,” I delve far more into the skills that when utilized tend to lead to people respecting a person’s judgments.

Well, there are far more issues related to this topic, and Mr. Mercier delves into many of them in considerable detail in his fine article. But, for now, I hope this brief summary helps to deepen your understanding of what can be done to guide gullible people to think a little more before they jump to unwarranted conclusions.

Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.





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About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

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