The Social Psychology of Gullibility (Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology)
Gullibility as a scientific concept does not currently feature prominently in social psychology research, and one would search in vain the subject indexes of many social psychology textbooks for entries under “gullibility.” So why devote an entire book to this topic, and why do it now? The answer is twofold. First, in the past few years, and especially since Brexit, the election of Trump, and the emergence of crypto fascist dictators in a number of countries including some inside the European Union such as Hungary (Albright, 2018), the question of human gullibility has become one of the dominant topics of interest in public discourse (see also Cooper & Avery, Chapter 16 this volume; Myers, Chapter 5 this volume). People opposed to these developments often suspect that those who voted for them must be gullible. Second, even though gullibility is rarely studied directly in social and cognitive psychology, these disciplines do have a great deal to contribute to our understanding of how human judgments and decisions can be distorted and undermined. In consequence, a book dealing with the social psychology of gullibility is highly topical, and as this volume demonstrates, there is a wealth of directly relevant empirical research we can draw upon to understand this phenomenon (Gilbert, 1991; Gilovich, 1991). The objective of this volume is thus to provide an integrative survey of the current state of social psychological research on human gullibility, and so offer an informative contribution towards understanding the role of gullibility in contemporary public affairs.
What Is Gullibility?
Gullible as a term was first recorded in 1793, derived from the earlier word “cullibility” (1728), and possibly connected to “gull,” a cant term for “dupe, sucker,” which in turn is of uncertain origin. Its etymological roots can be traced perhaps from the bird (sea gull), or to the verb “gull” (to swallow). Some of the synonyms of gullibility, such as credulity, artlessness, ignorance, 2 Joseph P. Forgas and Roy F. Baumeister inexperience, simplicity, also confirm the pejorative character of gullibility. So consensually negative social evaluation, as we shall see later, is an essential component of gullibility.
The standard definition of gullibility, as a failure of social intelligence in which a person is easily tricked or manipulated into an ill-advised course of action, confirms this view. Gullibility is closely related to credulity, which is the “tendency to believe unlikely propositions that are unsupported by evidence” (Wikipedia). Gullibility is thus a factor in social influence processes, as a person’s willingness to believe false or misleading information facilitates the influence.
The Criteria for Gullibility
Is there some accepted standard of truth or reality relative to which a person can be judged as gullible? Conceptually, gullibility can be inferred in one of two situations. Either an individual’s beliefs are manifestly inconsistent with facts and reality, or an individual’s beliefs are at variance with consensual social norms about reality. A believer in a flat earth can now be labeled as gullible, since there is ample empirical evidence confirming the true state of affairs. However, the question of criteria for gullibility is far more complex. We often use the term gullible to describe persons whose beliefs violate some consensual rather than scientific standard of how reality should be viewed. Serious and largely unresolved philosophical issues about the nature of knowledge within the domains of ontology (the philosophical study of what is, the nature of reality), and epistemology (the philosophical study of how do we know) also make the unambiguous definition of knowledge, and by implication, gullibility, problematic (see Krueger, Vogrincic-Haselbacher, & Evans, Chapter 6 this volume). Adopting a Popperian epistemological view, and accepting that all knowledge is imperfect and temporary, offers little help towards defining gullibility. Even on matters amenable to scientific research and potential falsification, such as the iatrogenic climate change theory, there remains ample scope for agnosticism and disagreement (Lewandowsky, Oreskes, Risbey, Newell, & Smithson, 2015). Our knowledge about the world is imperfect, and the more complex the question we address, the more likely that unequivocal answers are difficult to find. We can label those who question the truth of the climate change hypothesis as “gullible,” or with a rhetorical flourish, as “deniers,” as if there was an absolute and incontrovertible truth here to be denied (see also Jussim, Stevens, Honeycutt, Anglin, & Fox, Chapter 15 this volume). Yet those who remain skeptical or agnostic on this issue can reciprocally label absolute believers in the climate change hypothesis as gullible. Believers in conspiracy theories also often see themselves as careful, motivated skeptics who are motivated by a quest to avoid gullibility, while those who doubt their beliefs are the gullible ones (see Douglas, Sutton, & Cichocka, Chapter 4 this volume; Unkelbach & Koch, Chapter 3 this volume; van Prooijen, Chapter 17 this volume). As long as knowledge is incomplete and subject to future falsification, identifying gullibility is more a matter of consensual value judgment rather than a statement of incontrovertible fact. Gullibility may thus often be a matter of perspective, residing in the eye of the beholder. It is no wonder, then, that gullibility has been historically an endemic feature of all human societies, as the next section will suggest.
The Social History of Gullibility
Human cultural history is replete with striking examples of human gullibility (Greenspan, 2009; Koestler, 1967; Rath-Vegh, 1963). In an attempt to understand, predict and control the social and physical world, humans have created an amazing range of absurd and often vicious and violent gullible beliefs (Koestler, 1967). Ancient meso-American cultures believed that cutting out the beating hearts of thousands of their captives was essential to preserve the goodwill of their gods and to ensure a good harvest (Koestler, 1967, 1978). Throughout the Middle Ages, witches were tortured and burned to death for allegedly harming others (Pinker, 2012). As recently as at the beginning of the eighteenth century, even a well-educated person might still firmly believe in witches, werewolves, magic cures and magic potions, alchemy, and of course, a flat earth (Wooton, in Pinker, 2018).
Contemporary religious beliefs about virgin birth, walking on water, resurrection, or transubstantiation continue to persist yet they contradict everything we know about the world. Folk tales and literature abound with demonstrations of the pitfalls of gullibility. In the Bible, the serpent’s deception, and Adam and Eve’s gullibility are the primal source of humanity’s eternal fall from grace. Homer’s Trojan Horse is a classic tale of deception and gullibility, and Shakespeare’s Othello is a tragedy brought about by credulity. In tales such as the “Emperor’s New Clothes” we learn that the veil of consensual gullibility can sometimes be torn apart by a single voice that reveals the truth. In “Little Red Riding Hood,” the heroine is first deceived, but then she learns the art of deception herself to deceive a second wolf. Even more instructive is the character of Pinocchio who had to learn to avoid being duped by others in order to become a full human being (!). Examples of striking gullibility, self-deception, hubris, and wishful thinking continue to characterize human affairs to this day (Greenspan, 2009), including where one would least expect it, in the halls of academia (Jussim et al., Chapter 15 this volume). Sokal’s famous hoax in submitting a text intentionally full of nonsense to a “reputable” post-modernist journal where it was duly accepted is a well-documented recent example of academic gullibility in the humanities. More recently, Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian (2018) perpetuated an even more impressive hoax, successfully publishing seven (!) explicitly nonsensical “academic” papers, including one using text from Hitler’ Mein Kampf in highly reputable feminist and “grievance studies” journals.
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