How Gullible are We?
Are you naturally gullible? Do you believe what the TV, the newspapers, and even blogs tell you? Or are you naturally critical? All our minds seem to have the same first reaction to new information. What is it?
René Descartes believed that understanding and believing are separate processes. He argued that first people pay attention and take in some information, then they decide if they believe or disbelieve it. Descartes' view seems to be correct, or at least it seems to be the way we would like it to work.
Baruch Spinoza believed something quite different. He claimed that we believe all new information. He thought we could change our minds, but because it takes more effort to investigate and critique information we just believe it until it is pointed out to be untrue..
Spinoza's view is unattractive because it suggests we have to spend our energy looking for falsehoods, whether by word of mouth, TV, the internet or any other medium .
Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues tested these two theories in a series of experiments to determine how we treat new information (Gilbert et al., 1993). In their experiment participants read statements about two robberies then sentenced the robbers to prison. Some statements made the crime seem worse, e.g. the robber had a gun, or to lighten it, the robber had to feed his starving children. But, only some of the statements were true. They were told that all the true statements were in green type, while the false ones in red. During the experiment half the participants were distracted while reading the false statements and the other half were not.
If Spinoza was correct then those who were distracted while reading the false statements wouldn't have time to discern that the statements were written in red and not true, and thus would be influenced by it when giving the jail term to the criminal. If Descartes was right the distraction would make no difference because they wouldn't have time to believe or not believe and it wouldn't make any difference to their sentencing.
What have we discovered ?
When the false statements made the crime seem worse, the interrupted participants gave the criminals almost twice as long in jail, 11 years instead of 6. The uninterrupted group managed to ignore the false statements. Consequently their jail terms had no significant differences on whether false statements made the crime seem worse or less serious.
Therefore, only when people had time to think could they behave as though the false statements were actually false. On the contrary, without sufficient time, people simply believed what they read. Gilbert and colleagues concluded that Spinoza was right. Believing is not a two-stage process. Understanding is believing; you believe the new information until you use your critical faculties to change your mind. Thus it is easier to believe than to not believe.
First You Believe
Gilbert's study also in part explains some other common behaviours of people:
- Attribution bias: people's assumption that a person's behaviour reflects their personality, when in fact it only reflects the situation.
- Truthfulness bias: people generally assume that others are telling the truth, even if and when they are lying.
- The persuasion effect: distraction increases the persuasiveness of a message.
- Hypothesis testing bias: when testing a theory, people tend to look for information that confirms it rather than trying to prove it wrong.
Spinoza's claim that understanding is believing could explain some of the these biases as a result of our tendency to believe first and not ask questions until later. Take the attribution bias: when you meet someone who seems nervous you probably assume they are a nervous personality. It seems an obvious inference to make. It may not occur until much later that they were nervous because they were waiting for important test results.
Gilbert agreed that this seems like bad news. If people believe everything they see and hear, we may have to control what they see and hear.
The Benefits of the Spinoza Bias
Too much cynicism is not a good thing. You would then only believe things for which you had hard evidence. Everything else would be in a state of limbo until investigated. If we had to go around checking all of our beliefs all the time, we'd never get anything done and perhaps miss out on a lot of great opportunities.
If you follow Spinoza's model, you can believe new information as a general heuristic, then investigate the suspect information later. Yes, you will often believe things that aren't true, but it's better to believe too much and be tricked once in a while, than to be too cynical and miss out on so much that is actually true.
Perhaps I am being gullible. Perhaps we are all too gullible and too lazy to use our critical minds. What do you think?