What Makes People So Gullible?

Who falls for get-rich-quick schemes, psychics, and fake news? And why.

Posted Sep 30, 2019

CCO/ Pexels
Source: CCO/ Pexels

Chances are you know at least one person who has fallen victim to a pyramid or get-rich-quick scheme, earnestly believed a fake news article or conspiracy theory on Facebook or wasted a small fortune seeking regular counsel from their personal psychic.

There is no shortage of these somewhat devastating stories of being duped on the Internet, many of which are documented on Reddit, YouTube, and podcasts—all publicly available for the world to gawk at. Needless to say, I am one of these gawkers. 

After all, humans are naturally drawn to the titillating and sensational. Think car wrecks, plane crashes, people being scammed out of their life savings. Women’s Health writer Zahra Barnes attributes this allure to the human instinct. For one, seeing other people’s pain helps reassure us of our own safety. And it also allows us to experience a form of emotional escapism. She compares the exhilaration of hearing about other people’s tragedies to the that of riding a roller coaster:

     “When you're on an amusement park ride and plummeting toward what feels like certain death, you're in it for the thrill of being terrified—without putting yourself in the face of any real danger.”

Just like the movies, we come to view other people’s pain as entertainment. 

While science may have an easy explanation for why people can’t turn away from tragedy, the real question for me is, why are some people so gullible in the first place?

The Barnum Effect

Many experts find the Barnum Effect culpable. Named after showman and notorious huckster P.T. Barnum, the effect describes how people are often willing to believe personality descriptions as specific to them, when in fact, they are quite generic and can apply to anyone. 

Brittanica.com provides examples of these types of statements below:

  • “Sometimes you give too much effort on projects that don’t work out.”
  • “You prefer change and do not like to feel limited in what you can do.”
  • “Although you do have some weaknesses, you try very hard to overcome them and be a better person.”

Suffice to say that I agree fully with all of the above. You probably do. Hence, the validity of the effect. 

CCO/ Pexels
Source: CCO/ Pexels

This is basically how psychics and magicians stay in business. Not surprisingly, the effect works best with positive or complimentary statements, since people don’t generally like to admit negative qualities about themselves. 

From Magic to Marketing

The Barnum Effect has evolved into a powerful marketing strategy, too. Whenever businesses promote personalized items or those “recommended for you” they are attempting to facilitate the same one-to-one connection that the above generic statements aim to.

MLM consultants recruit using a similar technique, often copying and pasting a generic script designed to feel personal. Appeals begin with flattery about your appearance that is then followed up with “you would be perfect for this.” A generic sales pitch suddenly turns into personal recruitment, designed just for you. And the results suggest that this strategy is working.

A 2018 AARP report reveals 20 million Americans have participated in an MLM organization, even though half ended up losing money while almost a third didn’t make any money at all. 

Meanwhile, a recent article in The New York Times reports that 41 percent of Americans believe in psychics, with the psychic services industry growing steadily, reaching over $2 billion in revenue in 2018. (I fully admit that I have visited an astrologer or two.)

And, to get a sense of how many people have fallen victim to fake news, just look at the results of the 2016 election. 

Which leads me to admit that a lot of us (including me) are susceptible to the Barnum Effect—some just take it to the extreme.

Hardship Makes You More Gullible

Why some people are more vulnerable to scams may be connected to their personal histories. According to a 2006 University of Leicester study, those who suffered more tragedy and hardship while they were growing up are more likely to be gullible later in life. For example, they may succumb to peer pressure more, be more easily misled by others or more influenced by the media. 

Adverse experiences include major illnesses or injuries, parental divorce or death of loved ones, difficulties at work, bullying at school or being a crime victim. 

These findings are in stark contrast to the stereotype that adversity “toughens” you up—in fact, researchers say “the majority become less trusting of their own judgment.”

This is because people who constantly face difficulty start to associate these negative consequences with their own actions.

Imagine a series of terrible things happen to you—at some point, you’re going to start to believe that the common denominator in all of these experiences is you. It’s no surprise that you start feeling like it’s your fault. Or that you are probably craving ways to feel validated or good about yourself. 

So when you get that DM that starts out by saying that you look like someone who would be great for this new, exciting opportunity or your astrologer promises you that next month’s new moon will unlock a financial windfall for you or you see a Facebook image that claims that all of your problems are actually the fault of the rival political party—wouldn’t you want to pay attention, wouldn’t you want it all to be true?

This makes me think that the rest of us aren’t special or smarter. Rather, we might all just be a few bad days from getting conned too.

Facebook image: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock