Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Gullibility (Part 1): How Vulnerable Are You to Being Duped?

Why is gullibility such a universal phenomenon?

Madoff the jokerGullibility can be defined as a person's susceptibility to getting fooled, tricked, or otherwise manipulated. I've come to see this complex subject--both practically and theoretically--as an area of study as vital as it is fascinating. And to me it's certainly worthy of the most serious professional scrutiny.

Curiously, however, the problematic issue of gullibility has received scant attention from psychologists and social scientists generally. Stephen Greenspan, Ph.D., who recently authored the single, most important (and in many ways, only) book to seriously focus on the subject--Annals of Gullibility (2009)--pointedly observes that almost no systematic research or scholarship on the construct exists. Attempting to explain this surprising void in the literature, he notes that the whole phenomenon of gullibility is "multiply determined," that it is "affected by so many factors, and is so context-dependent that it is impossible to predict whether and under what circumstances a person will behave gullibly." In other words, the topic seems to defy precisely the kind of examination it warrants.

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Still, in his remarkably wide-ranging book, Greenspan sheds much light on this elusive and most beguiling of subjects. And his painstaking exploration of the various ways we can unwittingly get exploited, betrayed, or deceived serves as a reminder of just how crucial it is to understand the dynamics of gullibility--as well as the fact that none of us is totally immune to it. In fact, Greenspan, indisputably the foremost authority on the subject, writes in a Wall Street Journal article about how he was himself talked into investing part of his retirement savings into a hedge fund--one that, alas, was tied to none other than Bernie Madoff (!). And of course the unfortunate result of his misplaced trust was that a substantial chunk of his hard-earned savings ultimately vanished into thin air.

As Greenspan notes in an earlier work (2001), focusing on those with developmental disabilities (whose deficits may be both intellectual and social), gullibility can take many forms. The illuminating examples he provides include "being the butt of practical jokes, getting involved in fraudulent or dubious get-rich-quick schemes, being recruited into cults, giving false confessions to interrogators, being talked into using drugs, being unwilling participants in criminal acts, placing one's own child in the care of untrustworthy persons, and not being able to say no to phone solicitors."

pp duck Granted, some of these examples are probably far more likely to apply to the intellectually disadvantaged than to ourselves. But I'm sure all readers can think of instances in which their own lack of caution or discernment--or their heightened emotions--led them to be bilked or bamboozled, and quite independent of their innate intelligence or social competence. It's almost as though while we may know better, in any particular situation our best judgment may simply not be available to us. And this circumstantial impairment can afflict us for a whole host of reasons. Whether we're needing to somehow impress the other person; or are afraid to admit that we don't really understand what he or she is talking about; or are experiencing a strong need for the other person to like or approve of us; or any number of other rationales, the considerations that drive our gullible behavior fatally undermine our ability to exert the skepticism that the occasion may demand.

Moreover, behaving gullibly isn't at all the same thing as acting impulsively. For unlike impulsive behavior, gullibility involves proceeding with a behavior that's risky (whether physically, psychologically, socially, ethically, financially, or legally) because of deeply felt external pressure. In hindsight, we can generally recognize that we acted on, or agreed to, what another proposed despite warning signs, or questions that hadn't yet been satisfactorily answered.

In some instances, it's almost as though we're "programmed" to comply or acquiesce to the other person (or people) because of preconceived notions we harbor about not going along with them. Similarly, when we're eager to believe something (whether because of vanity, pride, greed, neediness, etc.), or to trust someone, we can easily disregard our intuition or critical faculty, thereby failing to properly assess the evidence right in front of us. We can also ignore the fact that in such situations it's incumbent upon us to search for additional confirmation or proof before making a decision that could possibly jeopardize our welfare. And if we end up being conned, it may be simply because we lacked the confidence to decline, refuse, or at least postpone our decision on what was-- manipulatively--put before us

smooth talker. . . And unquestionably, at one point or another, we've all been guilty of uncritically going along with some smooth talker and been taken in, scammed, or swindled. Which is why gullibility is such a universal phenomenon--why, to varying degrees, we're all subject to it. Moreover, inasmuch as being deceived always occurs in a social context, the study of gullibility would seem to belong more to the domain of social than individual psychology.

But as a clinical--not academic--psychologist, I'm disposed to see the subject of getting fooled or fleeced, deceived or defrauded, from a vantage point that departs somewhat from Greenspan's. That is, in trying to best understand the dynamics behind a client's susceptibility to being gulled, the question I myself feel obliged to ask is: What are the underlying beliefs of such individuals--beliefs not so much about others, but about themselves. And from this perspective, what I've found is that those who have serious problems with being taken advantage of typically suffer from a lack of inner security, autonomy, and authority.

Consequently, the 2nd and 3rd parts of this post will center exclusively on the various negative beliefs we hold about ourselves that can make it fairly easy for others to trick us, or "take us for a ride." And my central thesis is that such self-disparaging beliefs are principally a result of deficiencies in our parenting. So if our gullibility links to a certain social incompetence--or lack of social intelligence--it's because the parental messages we received (however inadvertently) about ourselves and our surroundings induced us to grow into adults with so many residual self-doubts that we can be relatively defenseless against those who might wish to exploit us.

Finally, Parts 4, 5, and 6 will offer a wide assortment of ideas on how to become more gullibility-resistant.

Note: I invite readers to follow my psychological musings on Twitter:  http://twitter.com/drlee1



Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.


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