Are humans hard-wired for being duped?
Our susceptibility to being duped is plain for us all to see: but perhaps we have little choice if we are to operate effectively
We are never far from a news headline which suggests humans are a deluded and suggestible bunch, vulnerable to fakery, swept up in a swirl of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Humans, it seems, find it hard to unpack fact from fiction. But why is this and what can be done about it?
We have long been fascinated with those that dupe us, as illustrated by the Netflix series, “Inventing Anna”, about Anna Sorokin who stole over $250,000 from wealthy acquaintances and high-end Manhattan businesses between 2013 and 2017. While the series centres itself on Sorokin as the arch manipulator, perhaps less is said about the people that fell for her story and who handed over money: why did people believe her?
Another striking but very different example of the widespread and longstanding nature of our capacity for being duped is that of ‘speculative bubbles,’ spikes in the value of assets within a particular industry, fuelled by speculative activity. At some point the speculation collapses, largely as the excitement is found to be unsupported by the fundamentals. It seems people have always been duped into thinking they can make money from ‘too good to be true’ investments such as the Dutch Tulipmania of the 17th century, the South Sea Bubble of the 18th century and, of course, the more recent cryptocurrency speculation for which the bubble is now bursting. Why are we so keen to chase high risk dubious investments?
Does this mean we humans are a fallible bunch, inevitably vulnerable to those intent on extracting money from us? We will argue that this version of events misses an essential aspect of human behaviour: that we necessarily need to co-operate and trust each other with a shared sense of how the world works. And while this co-operative capability offers humans a real strength it also comes with vulnerability. Here is how we think this works.
Our vulnerability to lies and fakes
The dominant narrative of humans was set early by psychologists like William James who considered we can be readily manipulated and more recently by people such as Herb Simon and Daniel Kahneman who have centred a philosophy of psychology on the bounded nature of our capabilities. We can call this a ‘deficit’ model of humans, reflecting the notion that our limited and suggestible minds are vulnerable to the devious means others have to influence us.
And one way this happens, suggest Brent Goldfarb and David Kisrch from their research into speculative financial bubbles, is through the use of of narrative. Every investment, they say, begins as a story about an imagined future and from there, all the activity, investment, marketing and innovation activity is centred around that story and vision of the future. As they put it:
Good stories sell, and the more uncertain the outcome, the more leeway for entrepreneurs to fabulate.
So maybe this is all about the person setting out to swindle us and our fallibility in accepting their story: if we fall for a good story, then surely all that is needed is for someone to be skilled at storytelling to convince us of their questionable claims. The notion of ‘truthiness’ is closely related to this, the idea that our shortcomings can be manipulated and taken advantage of by clever storytelling that has a mere veneer of validity.
But just why might this be the case? To understand this, we need to unpack the power of stories and a closely related phenomenon, that of trust. It is these two interlinked elements that are such an intrinsic part of human life and reveal something very important about our apparent gullibility.
The power of story telling
To unpack the apparent power of stories, we need to see the way that these reflect the way we share information, what we might call ‘common ground,’ the way we see the world, the stuff that we consider as true without really examining it. This is what philosopher Robert Stalnaker describes as publicly shared information, a shared resource that those in a conversation use to build and perform social interactions.
When we act in social contexts, we treat the information that sits in our common ground as being true, and as such it is a premise for public action. So common ground may be relating to the value of recycling our household waste: it is typically (although by no means universally held) common ground that it is a good thing to be doing. This forms a premise which is reflected in the way we then regularly set out our recycling to be collected by refuse collection services.
A successful story is one that is not necessarily overtly changing our beliefs, but instead understands and draws on the common ground between us, referencing what Kristie Dotson calls ‘common epistemic resources’ and Saray Ayala names ‘affordances’. It works within the parameters of what we understand and expect, meaning there is little to question and challenge.
Weaving this into a behavioural science way of formulating the issue, we might reference the ‘S-frame’, the systemic characteristics that shape our behaviour. This is not only the formal aspects of this (e.g. regulatory, taxation, distribution) but, for our purposes, the epistemic (knowledge) environment we live in that is used to determine how we act together. As philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò points out in his excellent book on the topic:
“We act as if the information in the common ground is true, in the main, for much the same reason that we walk on sidewalks – it’s easiest and that’s what it’s there for.”
A useful question at this point might be what makes up this common ground and who decides what this is? Some things are simple: that the earth is round and revolves around the sun is (mostly) common ground which we are not having to check in with each other about.
But there are also more contentious aspects to our common ground: for example, that working hard and being skilled results in success is a widely held view, often taken as a common ground in our conversations. But as we discussed previously, this common ground notion of meritocracy does not quite hold up to reality. While we may often assume this as part of ‘how life is’ we are not really called upon to examine it too closely.
We can see that common ground is what Professor of Contemporary Culture Clare Birchall would call legitimate (as opposed to illegitimate) knowledge. This is information that is accepted and considered valid, versus information that is illegitimate or false and as such it is typically rejected. Legitimate knowledge might reflect official guidance (such as health protection guidance from government bodies) but can at times be unofficial, or popular knowledge, such as celebrity gossip.
A convincing narrative will stay within this common ground, legitimate knowledge, rather than straying into illegitimate knowledge. If we move away from common ground then the audience are hearing things they do not expect; if the story starts to question their understanding of the world, then the premise of the story is less likely to be accepted.
That is not to say that we can never accept a novel idea that challenges what we knew and then incorporate it into a new sense of the common. But this is not always easy: what is accepted as common ground is not always a level playing field and those with resources and privilege will find it easier to tilt it in a direction that favours them (such as by influencing social media conversations, or news headlines) than other groups without these same levers to draw upon.
Of course, we are not helpless in the face of the common ground but it is certainly easier to assimilate a story that reflects this. While this might sound a little passive, it is important to remember that if we don’t do this, then we have to entail all the work of unpicking and challenging the assumptions of this common ground. And there are many disincentives at work here: not only in terms of the resulting difficulty in social communication but the way in which challenging ‘legitimate knowledge’ can also result in alienation from others and being cast as a ‘conspiracy theorist’, a trouble-maker or simply a general nuisance. Just like the side-walk, it is much easier to walk on it than question it.
Of course some people and groups seek to challenge common ground, not least as the assumptions on which they are based marginalise them (for example Táíwò talks about this in relation to social justice issues). The common ground, or ‘legitimate knowledge,’ can not only be highly problematic but also system-preserving in that there is an ease with which we assimilate it, whilst system-altering or illegitimate knowledge is typically much more difficult for us to assimilate.
There is an important point here for our discussion about human gullibility, that the use of stories is less about trying to manipulate people’s beliefs about what is true (as we might expect from a deficit model of humans) and more the shaping of social systems that means the easiest route is to assimilate the narrative, to not question and to simply play along.
Common ground and trust
This moves us to another related point, which is that for the ground to be common, it necessarily needs us to invest it with our trust. If we do not trust the common ground, then by definition it is no longer common. In other words, if we conclude that actually what people are assuming in common is wrong, then we no longer trust that narrative.
Generally we can see that trust, common ground and stories are closely linked: we have to trust the common ground that we share with others if we are to live in a harmonious effective way. The narratives we live by are based on a common understanding, a shared notion of legitimate knowledge that we can trust in.
Philosopher of language Paul Grice famously argued that communication is an intrinsically cooperative endeavour and as such trust is a critical part of human life and the way we communicate. Indeed, psychologist David Dunning and his colleagues have pointed out that without trusting that others are telling the truth, it is hard to imagine our daily lives being possible.
No surprise then that there is a great deal of research showing the critical importance of trust in human living. Research finds we tend to default to trusting others over distrusting them, we believe others over doubting them and we go along with someone’s self-presentation rather than embarrassing them by calling them out.
In fact people lie far less than we might think meaning we can characterise human as having a natural ‘truth default.’ This was shown in one series of studies, where participants were asked to state whether statements shown to them were true or false. But this was not as simple as it first appeared, as the researcher would interrupt the participant on some items, so they couldn’t fully process the statements. This meant it was possible to assess people’s default assumption: when they were not able to fully process the statement and were in doubt, would they default to belief or disbelief? The finding was clear – in these instances participants tended to assume they were true.
Two routes for being duped
This seems to suggest that there are two ways we might end up being duped. The first is when the common ground is shaped to be based on problematic values and perspectives. As we have pointed out previously, journalists, interest groups and vested interests compete to elevate frames (common ground) that reflect their own concerns and ideologies. An example of this is a paper by sustainability researcher William Lamb that suggests outright denial of climate change has been replaced by more subtle discourses, or frames, that accept the existence of climate change, but justify inaction or inadequate efforts. Depending on your point of view you might consider this entirely reasonable position while others may consider this means by which the population is being duped into not pressing for more urgent action to be taken.
And then there is the micro level means by which duping can take place, at a more individual basis. On this basis if the person duping us is aligning with the ‘common ground’ then it is easier to go along with them, trusting their story and giving them the benefit of the doubt whilst they discreetly take advantage of you. This can explain why people gave Anna Sorokin money even though ‘Red flags were everywhere.’ And also why people continued to invest in crypt-currencies even though there were abundant warnings about their dangers long ago.
So if we have a ‘trust default’ and a bad actor understands the common ground upon which this trust circulates, then this offers ways to knowingly operate and dupe us. But we are at pains to point out a subtle but critical point: this is not necessarily reflective of a deficit on our part– in fact success in life, the very opposite of deficit, means trusting what we hear from others. The very human capability of being open to others and being willing to trust contains within it a paradox. The very same mechanism that underpins success can also mean we are vulnerable to deception and fakes.
How we address this
If we are considering that our susceptibility to being duped is a necessary part of being human rather than a deficit, this suggests that remedies which focus on fixing us (such as through critical thinking skills and inoculation strategies) while arguably necessary, may simply not be sufficient for the task in hand. The impacts of maintaining vigilance to critically assess the information we receive may mean we then struggle to communicate well as we cannot trust the ‘common ground’ resulting in a deterioration in the effectiveness and efficiency of communication between us.
Let’s take ‘deep fakes’ as an example: these are realistic, computer-generated photos of individuals. People struggle to distinguish between real and computer-generated faces and as such we are all vulnerable to their usage for malicious purposes such as political propaganda, espionage and information warfare. One route to address this is to ask people to be more critical when evaluating digital faces. This can include using reverse image searches to check whether photos are genuine, being wary of social media profiles with little personal information or a large number of followers, and being aware of the potential for deep fake technology to be used for nefarious purposes. In other words, we cannot trust the common ground any longer and have to undertake a range of checks to check its veracity.
But just how realistic is this for us to operate in this way as we go about our typically casual browsing of the internet? It surely seems a rather ambitious demand on people which would result in a much slower process for us. A more realistic approach may well be increased regulation and technology solutions such as improved algorithms for detecting fake digital faces which could then be embedded in social media platforms, helping us distinguish the real from the fake when it comes to new connections’ faces.
The fixing of people may well not only be unrealistic but will incur significant costs as we slow down and struggle to operate effectively. The balance of efforts may well be better spent on systemic fixes rather than individual level ones.
The deficit model of humans would suggest that we are susceptible to being duped by manipulative story-telling that shapes our beliefs about the world. But this does not seem to be the case. Indeed, it may be that we do not always whole heartedly sign up to what we hear but we are willing to ‘go along with it’: it is all too easy to think about what we believe as binary (we either believe it or we don’t) but in fact as we all know from our own experience, there are many different forms and degrees of belief.
And even if something may be on the ‘false belief’ side of the equation, then there are reasons why we hold onto them as Shankar Vedantam points out:
“…self-deception can sometimes be functional—it enables us to accomplish useful social, psychological, or biological goals. Holding false beliefs is not always the mark of idiocy, pathology, or villainy.”
In fact, belief is only one reason why we do something. As Táíwò points out, drawing on the famous fable of the Emperors New Clothes, the crowds were likely cheering the emperor not because each believed they were the only ones stupid enough not to see his clothes but because there was a whole range of other incentives that meant they would go along with this, including the threat to their livelihoods if they did not cheer. This suggests that we need to be wary not to mistake the way populations have ‘played along’ with the common ground as evidence that they are true believers. It may at times be much much easier to appear to be true believers, playing along with a social script, while artfully resisting those in authority.
Following Táíwò, we can perhaps characterise communication as akin to a kind of behaviour or action: it less about the way our beliefs are shaped (which is often how it is talked about) and perhaps more about what sort of information we have readily available to act on and how this determines the way certain behaviours are then facilitated and other not. And thus the way we behave in and respond to conversation is largely governed by the exact same forces, norms and incentives that explain everything else that we do.
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