Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Gullibility (Part 5): Seven More Gullibility Busters

What are some steps to making yourself "gullibility proof?"

sleuthLearn from your mistakes. Make a list of all the times you've been misled, cheated, manipulated, or hoodwinked. Does any pattern emerge from your after-the-fact analysis? The well-known expression: "Fool me once, it's your fault; fault me twice, it's my fault" is worth noting here. If you learn everything possible from past experience, you're much less likely to be victimized going forward.

Remember that anecdotes, however compelling, don't really prove anything. There have been (and always will be) wondrous tales of miracle cures and miraculous remedies, extraordinary opportunities and exceptional successes. Some of these tales may be true, and some could be true. But stories about others' amazing experiences in, say, purchasing a product or making an investment are rarely worthy of unmitigated trust. Anyone who invested with Bernie Madoff, for example, found out only too late that their wonderful returns had been bogus all along. So be suspicious of anyone's trying to convince you to do something on the basis of tales and anecdotes (particularly undocumented ones). Listen with interest, if you will, but be careful not to suspend your skepticism.

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Beware of so-called "authorities." It can be tempting to try to evade the possibly hard or tedious work of deciding something totally on your own. You might feel a lot more comfortable simply relying on somebody else's authority (even though that person might stand to benefit from your giving them the go-ahead). But before you uncritically accept such outside influence, you need to make sure that the expertise you're attributing to the other person is actually warranted.

Don't assume that another is "savvy" on a matter merely because you yourself are relatively ignorant about it. Either bring yourself "up to speed" on what you should know more about if you're to make an informed decision--or, at the least, consult a friend or professional whom you feel confident has both substantial knowledge in the area and can be disinterested enough (i.e., has no emotional or financial stake in your decision) to fully share their superior knowledge with you.

Don't let solicitors engage you. Whether somebody comes to your house, or calls you on the phone, the only prudent assumption to make is that whatever product or service they're trying to sell you is nothing that would make much sense to buy. And generally it's best not even to let them get started. For the more time they spend with you, the guiltier you may end up feeling in having to turn down their offer. Let them know at the outset that you're not interested (even though, frankly, you may be curious, if they're good at what they do!).

Further, don't worry about sounding rude. Generally speaking, you're little more than an object to them anyway. And salespeople (or people who make "cold cools" generally) typically have pretty thick skins, or they don't last long in such a manipulative role. (Personally, what I find most amusing about phone solicitors is that it's so easy to tell when they're reading from a script, yet making an effort to sound heartfelt and sincere, which regularly prompts me either to roll my eyes, or shrug my shoulders--or both).

Don't decide on anything when you're "under the influence." Whether it's alcohol or marijuana, an upper or downer, you're at a disadvantage whenever you agree to something when your mind or mood is in an artificially altered state. In such instances, your better judgment very likely has been chemically impaired. So you need to decide in advance that you won't commit to anything until you've returned to your normal state of consciousness. That said, it's all too possible that if some substance has put you in a disinhibited frame of mind, your internal censoring mechanism may be so dulled that you're unable to keep your prior word to yourself. If you already have a record of betraying yourself while in an altered ego state, you need to consider whether you can afford to give yourself license to "use" in any situation where you may not be able to resist an appeal which, stone sober, you'd almost automatically refuse.

tiredDon't decide on anything when you're fatigued. It's probably been your experience--it's certainly been mine--that your best judgment isn't available when you're feeling exhausted. The innovative research psychologist Roy Baumeister has studied this common phenomenon in terms of what he calls "self-regulatory depletion." To Baumeister, the ability to control ourselves and to act intelligently is greatly--and adversely--affected when our energy level is diminished. Stephen Greenspan, citing Baumeister's findings, notes in his Annals of Gullibility that in such a state we're much more vulnerable to external pressures, propositions, and pleas than we'd be if we felt more alert.

As Baumeister (2001) himself puts it (though not specifically linking his thesis to increased gullibility): "The exhaustion theory holds that once the self has become depleted, it lacks the resources necessary for further exertion of volition." In short, fatigue leads to an attenuation of will power and self-restraint. So we're much more vulnerable to being gulled when we make decisions when we're tired. We're simply not in the right state of mind to make choices, take responsibility, or exert self-control when the finite energy resource to do so wisely has temporarily become exhausted.

Keep your emotions under control. Bereft of emotion, it's almost impossible to decide on anything. For absent the ability to feel, no one thing "feels" any better than anything else. So doubtless, we need our emotions to help guide our decisions. But if our emotions "take over"--that is, are in a markedly heightened state (or "on the ceiling," as it's sometimes described)--our decision-making capabilities can no longer be trusted.

Consequently, you should be especially careful not to commit to anything when your emotions are highly charged. Whether you're in love (or, for that matter, "in hate"); or maybe boiling over with anger, sinking from the weight of depression, or trembling with anxiety, strong emotions just aren't compatible with optimal neocortical functioning. In such a state, your newer, more evolved brain has been sabotaged by your older, reptilian (or dinosaur) brain. And any behavior undertaken in such an emotionally pronounced state is likely to lead to later regret.

The emotion of enthusiasm, too, can be dangerous if it's based less on reason than credulousness in the face of some smooth talker--someone especially adept at inspiring confidence without providing corroborating facts. As Greenspan (in his Annals) succinctly observes: "When emotion walks in the door, reason flies out the window." Perhaps this much skepticism about emotion is a bit overstated, but it's still wise to be wary and step back when rising emotions begin to dominate your thought process.

Note: Part six of this post will add a final seven suggestions to the seven above (and the seven offered initially in part four).

 

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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