Gullibility (Part 4): The Path to Nongullibility

How do you protect yourself from being duped?

Posted Aug 05, 2009

Source: Madoff/Wikipedia

Just as a large variety of factors (internal, as well as external) contribute to your gullibility, so are there multiple remedies to combat it. My final three posts on this intriguing subject will suggest many different ways you can learn to become more gullibility resistant. Not that you'll ever become totally immune to being gulled. Given all the ways unprincipled others can deceive you, such an outcome simply isn't realistic. But you can still develop the knowledge, judgment, sensitivity, and sophistication to successfully counter almost all the pressures and temptations that in the past may have led you to succumb to others' machinations. Once you develop not so much your predominantly academic (or I.Q.) intelligence, but your social (or interpersonal) intelligence, and your emotional intelligence, you'll find that you can greatly reduce your vulnerability to the unscrupulous ploys and schemes of others.

Here's a list of things you can do to "inoculate" yourself against those whose basic motive, frankly, is to rip you off. Collectively, consider them "gullibility busters."

Avoid acting on impulse (or, Take time to trust). And be especially wary of anyone whose "special offer" expires at midnight, or as soon as you leave the showroom, or at the moment you hang up the phone. Legitimate offers generally don't involve that kind of urgency.

Consider, for example infomercials that offer you "extras" if you call in the next 15 minutes. Invariably, the product they're hawking is also available on the web, and those same "extras" are part of the deal any time you decide to make the purchase. Don't allow yourself to be rushed, or you'll very likely pay for it. Popular expressions such as "sleep on it," "take some time to think about it," or "I'm going to need to get back to you on that," are so common because they're effective. They work. They're expressly designed to protect you from yourself and, throughout history, have probably protected millions of people from getting swindled precisely because their impulses got the better of them.

When you need to mull something over, "buy" yourself as much additional time as you need. If the person making the offer refuses to grant you an extension, simply walk away (or hang up). It's highly unlikely you'll be passing up anything that spectacular. No one will be able to "pull a fast one" on you if you control the tempo. So slow things down when the situation is making you feel hurried.

Beware the hasty generalization or rushed conclusion. Many of us have a personality characteristic (it's called "J" in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) that makes us want to get closure on a matter as quickly as possible, so we can then move on to the next thing on our agenda. This tendency can prompt us to arrive at a conclusion, or come to an agreement, before we've given ourselves ample time to assemble and assess all the facts of the matter. If you have this personality characteristic (i.e., not liking to leave things open any longer than absolutely necessary)--and thus experience an inner urgency to handle things expeditiously--it may be crucial that you cultivate more patience and resist this innate proclivity. Procrastination may generally not be a good thing, but sometimes it's better than acting hastily.

Cultivate doubt. This suggestion may perhaps seem a little perverse. But being overly credulous can indeed be hazardous to your health. And here I'm not recommending cynicism--just skepticism. For cynicism indicates a deep distrust of human nature, and recent scholarly findings indicate that such an orientation to life is in the long run hurtful both to your welfare and your possibilities of happiness. In many instances it is a good idea to give others the benefit of the doubt. But you still need to consider just how well you know the particular individual. And what exerting "due caution" in any specific situation may require of you. Consider how important this current decision is--and how much risk you're actually prepared to take.

• Don't take things at face value. This recommendation is a first cousin of the one immediately above. Unless the other person has convincingly demonstrated their trustworthiness (i.e., you've already verified their integrity through past experience), it only makes sense to trust them provisionally . . . and to proceed with caution. What others say may sound persuasive enough, but it's hardly prudent to take them literally at their word.

And it's almost always helpful to explore their motives. Might they have something substantial to gain in inducing you to go along with their proposal? Are they primarily interested in helping you--or themselves? If you're dealing with an investment broker, for example, do they really have your best interests at heart, or the company they represent? Again, I don't mean to advocate indiscriminate cynicism, but simply to suggest that until you know all the relevant facts, it's best to adopt an attitude of skepticism.

Assert yourself! If you tend to be passive with others, there are situations in which this quietude, tractability, or acquiescence could easily set you up for being gulled. In Parts Two and Three of this post, I discussed many different beliefs that you might have about yourself that could make you especially susceptible to another's trickery.

So, to provide a few examples, if you're going to hold your own against some fast talker, it's crucial that you believe you have a right to stand up for yourself, or that you're capable of thinking independently, or that your feelings do matter, or that your reservations aren't foolish, or that you can trust your perceptions. If you tend to defer to another's authority (because you haven't come into your own), your first order of business is to work on yourself. And a lot of this effort relates to getting yourself to believe that your own needs and desires are every bit as important--or justified--as anyone else's.

Counseling or therapy can be extremely helpful here. But if that's not practical, you might want to get a friend to help you become more comfortable with being assertive, or at least read one of the many excellent books on the subject. It's, frankly, not going to be very helpful if I recommend that you become more assertive if, during childhood, you were powerfully conditioned to defer to others. Keep in mind, however, that unless you learn how to speak out and communicate your reservations or doubts, you're natural prey for anyone who spots you as a "mark." The more you can assert yourself--insisting, for example, that before making a decision you'll need the other person to supply you with additional facts and details--the more you'll be able to shield yourself from their possible exploitation.

Respect your ambivalence. If you feel you're getting mixed messages--from without or from within--that usually means you still have questions yet to be answered. Until you can get these questions satisfactorily addressed, don't allow yourself to move forward with any decision. Remember, it will be that much harder to forgive yourself after you've proceeded with something you really weren't comfortable about in the first place. Resolve things in your head before you resolve to take action.

Place your confidence in what's true--not what you'd like to think is true. The self-deception underlying much gullibility stems from the well-established fact that at times we can easily be persuaded to believe what we have a strong desire to believe anyway. Which is the reason that schemes, gimmicks, pitches and ploys--such as "get rich quick," "become fit without having to exercise," "lose weight virtually overnight with no dieting," or "give yourself a miraculous makeover without costly procedures or surgery"--continue to appeal to those ready to be taken in . . . taken in by what, unfortunately, really is too good to be true.

Can you develop the self-discipline and intellectual rigor to distinguish between these illusions of truth (for these ads almost always "show," however fraudulently, the fantastic results they're promising) and the truth that derives only from painstakingly evaluating your own experience and being willing to objectively analyze the claims you'd so much like to believe are credible? Remember, seeing shouldn't be believing if what's being presented is, finally, no more than a sham or spurious sleight of hand. Anyone who understands magic knows that's it's certainly not magic at all--just the craft of an illusionist. Chicanery and deceit, incantation and occultism, can certainly be fun to watch, but you don't want to be "suckered in" by them either.

Note: The fifth part of this post will add an additional seven recommendations to those seven made above, and the sixth--and final--part will bring to 21 my list of suggestions to help make you as "vulnerability proof" as possible.

NOTE 1: If you found this post in any way helpful and think others you know might also, please share it with them.

NOTE 2: If you'd like to check out other posts I've done for Psychology Today online, click here.

© 2009 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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