Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe

Here are some highlights from this 2020 book:

* Arguing against widespread credulity puts me in the minority. A long line of scholarship— from ancient Greece to twenty- first- century America, from the most progressive to the most reactionary— portrays the mass of people as hopelessly gullible. For most of history, thinkers have based their grim conclusions on what they thought they observed: voters submissively following demagogues, crowds worked up into rampages by bloodthirsty leaders, masses cowing to charismatic personalities. In the mid-twentieth century, psychological experiments brought more grist to this mill, showing participants blindly obeying authority, believing a group over the clear evidence of their own eyes. In the past few decades, a series of sophisticated models have appeared that provide an explanation for human gullibility. Here is the core of their argument: we have so much to learn from
others, and the task of figuring out who to learn from is so difficult, that we rely on simple heuristics such as “follow the majority” or “follow prestigious individuals.” Humans would owe their success as a species to their capacity to absorb their local culture, even if that means accepting some maladaptive practices or mistaken beliefs along the way. The goal of this book is to show this is all wrong. We don’t credulously accept what ever we’re told— even if those views are supported by the majority of the population, or by prestigious, charismatic individuals. On the contrary, we are skilled at figuring out who to trust and what to believe, and, if anything, we’re too hard rather than too easy to influence.

* On January 5, 2013, Sabine Moreau, resident of the small Belgian town of Erquelinnes, was supposed to pick up a friend at the train station in Brussels, fifty miles away. She punched the address in her satnav and started driving. Two days and eight hundred miles later she had reached Zagreb, on the other side of Europe, having crossed three countries on the way. That was when she decided that something must be wrong, made a U-turn, and found her way back to Erquelinnes.

* From the evolutionary perspective I have adopted in this book, emotional contagion is implausible. If emotions were truly contagious, if they forced irrepressible mimicry, they would be too easily abused. Cheaters could laugh until those they have cheated laughed with them. Mortal enemies could get their opponents to empathize with and care for them. If our emotions were so easily manipulated, we would be much better off not paying any attention to emotional signals.

* There has to be something that keeps emotional signals broadly reliable, that is, beneficial on average for those who receive them.

* Seeing a slice of scrumptious chocolate cake makes most people hunger for it. This reaction is hard to repress—it is automatic— even when we’re on a diet (especially when we’re on a diet). However, the same slice of chocolate cake might elicit only disgust after a heavy meal capped by two portions of cheesecake. Again, this reaction would be wholly automatic. Yet, because the same stimulus can yield opposite reactions in different contexts, neither reaction is mandatory. If our reactions to emotional signals aren’t mandatory, then there is room for what Guillaume Dezecache, Thom Scott-Phillips, and I have called emotional vigilance—mechanisms of open vigilance dedicated to emotional signals.27 Even if they do so unconsciously, people should be able to adjust their reactions to emotional signals so as to stop responses that are not in their best interest. The application of this emotional vigilance would then provide incentives for senders to avoid sending unreliable emotional signals.

* Still, when reacting to emotional signals, the following three factors should be relevant across all emotions: what our prior beliefs and plans are, in what context the signals are produced, and whether the sender is trustworthy.

* Senders of unreliable emotional signals are trusted less when they send emotional signals, and possibly when they employ other forms of communication as well.

* Adults also adjust their reactions to emotional signals as a function of their source, and of the context in which the signals are emitted. Lanzetta and Englis had shown that participants automatically mimic the smile or frown expressed by a confederate, but only when the participants expected to cooperate with the confederate later on. When the participants expected to compete with him instead, they tended to show opposite reactions, smiling when the confederate received a shock and frowning when he was rewarded— what Lanzetta and Englis called counterempathy.

* Women do not mimic the expressions of those who behave unfairly toward them.33 Men express positive emotions when others show fear, and negative emotions when others show joy—if the others are fans of a rival sports team.34 Even catching yawns, a seemingly perfect example of irresistible contagion, is not as reflexive as it seems: people are more likely to start yawning when they see people they know, rather than strangers, yawn.35 And, like toddlers, adults increasingly mistrust those who mispresent their emotions— for instance, people who feign anger to obtain strategic advantages in negotiations.

* Instead of indiscriminately catching what ever emotion we happen to witness, we exert emotional vigilance— even when we are in the middle of a crowd. For us to react to emotional signals in the way intended by their sender, the reaction has to suit our current plans and mental states, and the sender has to be someone we like, who has not proven unreliable in the past, and whose emotion seems justified. Other wise, we might not react at all, or we might react in a way opposite to that intended— rejoicing in someone’s pain, or being angered by a display of anger.

* Evolution makes gullibility maladaptive. So as not to be abused by senders of unreliable messages, we are endowed with a suite of cognitive mechanisms that help us decide how much weight to put on what we hear or read. To do so, these open vigilance mechanisms consider a number of cues: Are good arguments being offered? Is the source competent? Does the source have my interests at heart?

* Thanks to a wide variety of sources— from diaries to the reports of the Nazi intelligence services— historian Ian Kershaw has gained an intimate knowledge of German public opinion under the Nazis.10 In The Hitler Myth, he describes how Hitler was perceived by ordinary Germans throughout his political career, and how he gained, for a time, broad popular support.11 For Kershaw, the key to Hitler’s electoral success in 1933 was that he “embodied an already well- established, extensive, ideological consensus.”12 In particular, Hitler surfed on a wave of virulent anti- Marxism, a cause he shared with the church and the business elites.13 From 1927 to 1933, Hitler used innovative campaign strategies, techniques that have now become commonplace. He flew across Germany so that he could reach more people. He used loudspeakers amplifying his voice to make the best of a full rhetorical arsenal. He gave hundreds of speeches to crowds large and small. Were these efforts successful? A careful study suggests they weren’t. Political scientists Peter Selb and Simon Munzert found that Hitler’s countless speeches “had a negligible impact on the Nazis’ electoral fortunes.”14 Once he had risen to power, Hitler’s appeal waxed and waned with economic and military vicissitudes. He gained in popularity among those who benefited from his policies, and with the general public when painless military victories came in quick succession.15 As early as 1939, however, as Germans tightened their belts for the war effort, discontent began to grow.16 After the Nazi disaster that was the Battle of Stalingrad, support for Hitler disintegrated. People stopped seeing him as an inspirational leader, and vicious rumors started to circulate.17 Even though it was a capital crime, from 1943 until his suicide in April 1945, many Germans were openly critical of Hitler.18 Far from shaping German public opinion, Hitler responded to it; as Kershaw put it, “More than any other exponent of propaganda, Hitler had an extremely sensitive awareness of the tolerance level of the mass of the population.”19 In order to gain control he had to preach messages that ran against his worldview. During his rise to power, Hitler downplayed his own anti- Semitism, barely mentioning it in public speeches, refusing to sign the appeal for a boycott of Jewish shops.20 Like other demagogues, Hitler was unable to rely on his own powers of persuasion to influence the masses, but rather played on people’s existing opinions.21 As we will see later, the Nazi propaganda machine as a whole was barely more effective.

* The power of demagogues to influence the masses has been widely exaggerated. What about religious figures such as prophets? History suggests prophets are able to whip up crowds into the kind of fervor that leads to suicidal acts, from self- sacrifices to doomed crusades. Yet if one steps back for a moment it soon becomes clear that what matters is the audience’s state of mind and material conditions, not the prophet’s powers of persuasion. Once people are ready for extreme actions, some prophet will rise and provide the spark that lights the fire.22

* Far from preachers managing feats of mass persuasion, religious conversion is, with few exceptions, driven by strong preexisting relationships. Friends recruit friends, families bring other family members into the fold.

* Even if people are recruited by friends or family, conversion can entail some social costs inflicted by those not already converted, ranging from misunderstanding to persecution. In these conditions, doesn’t conversion reflect a feat of persuasion, getting someone to accept, on trust alone, a new set of beliefs, often accompanied by costly personal obligations? On the contrary, it seems that people who convert find something to their liking in their new group. Summarizing the literature on New Religious Movements, psychologist Dick Anthony notes that “the psychological and emotional condition of most converts improves rather than declines after joining.”56 Even costly behaviors can be beneficial. Mormons have to donate 10  percent of their income and 10  percent of their time to the church. Yet it is not too hard to see why some people would prefer to live in a community in which every one shares so much, enabling Mormons to “lavish social services upon one another.”57 Even early Christians, who, at times, were at great risk of persecution, likely benefited from the support networks created by their adhesion to this new cult.58 By contrast with these practical aspects, the apparently exotic beliefs associated with new religions play a minor, post hoc role. As economist Laurence Iannaccone put it, “Belief typically follows involvement. Strong attachments draw people into religious groups, but strong beliefs develop more slowly or never develop at all.”59 New religious movements can grow by offering people a mode of social interaction they enjoy, without involving mass conversion.

* the dominant classes weave narratives of the status quo as the best of all possible worlds, their superior position well deserved. Oftentimes, these narratives crowd communication channels, from manuscripts to airwaves. But this does not mean that people farther down the social ladder are buying any of it. On the contrary, these narratives are resisted everywhere, and alternative narratives created— including millenarian visions when an opportunity for revolution arises.

* If mere repetition were effective, areas with greater exposure to propaganda should see the sharpest rise in anti- Semitism. In fact, the sheer exposure to propaganda had no effect at all. Instead, it was the presence of preexisting anti- Semitism that explained the regional variation in the effectiveness of propaganda. Only the areas that were the most anti- Semitic before Hitler came to power proved receptive. For people in these areas, the anti- Semitic propaganda might have been used as a reliable cue that the government was on their side, and thus that they could freely express their prejudices.4 Another study that focused on the effects of radio broadcasts yielded even stronger results: radio propaganda was “effective in places where antisemitism was historically high,” but it had “a negative effect in places with historically low antisemitism.”

* The Germans didn’t heed calls to boycott Jewish stores and to ostracize the Jews more generally. It was only through “terror and legal discrimination” that the Nazis achieved “the economic (and increasingly social) exclusion of the Jews from German life.”

* rumors tend to be accurate when their content has significant consequences for the people among whom they circulate. Like any other cognitive activity, open vigilance is costly, and we only exercise it to the extent that it is deemed worthwhile.20 This means that in domains that matter to us, we carefully keep track of who said what, and whether what they said turned out to be correct or not. In turn, this motivates speakers to exercise great caution when reporting rumors, so as not to jeopardize their own credibility.21 When we find out, eventually, whether the rumors were true or not, our ability to track who said what helps us create networks of reliable informants. This is what enabled the U.S. soldiers studied by Caplow to be so efficient at transmitting accurate, and only accurate, rumors.22 Given the content of the rumors— such as when and where one would be deployed—it soon became clear whether they had been true or not. Thanks to repeated feedback, the soldiers learned who they could trust for what type of information, and who should be taken out of the information network. Moreover, for issues that relate to their immediate environment, people are generally able to check the content of rumors, either against their existing knowledge or by gathering new information. This nips false rumors in the bud, irrespective of how anxiogenic the situation might be.

* What is shocking when it comes to false rumors is that people accept them on the basis of such flimsy evidence. But how do people really believe in these rumors? Believing something— a rumor or anything else—is not an all- or- nothing matter. Believing depends on what you do with a given piece of information. A belief can remain essentially inert, insulated from cognitive or behavioral consequences, if we don’t work out what inferences or actions follow from it.

* For reflective beliefs— beliefs that tend to have fewer personal consequences—we shouldn’t expect open vigilance mechanisms to make as much of an effort: Why bother, if the belief doesn’t make much of a difference? I argue that most false rumors are held only reflectively, for they would have much more serious consequences if they were held intuitively.

In some cases, it is difficult to imagine what significant behaviors could follow from a rumor. Chinese citizens are hardly going to challenge the way insurance settlements are handled in the United States. A Pakistani shop keeper might say the Israelis orchestrated 9/11, but what is he going to do about it?

Even when people could do something on the basis of a (false) rumor, they most often don’t. American truthers— who believe 9/11 was an inside job— don’t act as if they intuitively believed in the conspiracy. As journalist Jonathan Kay noted: “One of the great ironies of the Truth movement is that its activists typically hold their meetings in large, unsecured locations such as college auditoriums— even as they insist that government agents will stop at nothing to protect their conspiracy for world domination from discovery.”27

Or take the rumeur d’Orléans, which accused Jewish shop keepers of kidnapping young women. Many of the town’s inhabitants spread the rumor, although for the vast majority of them, the rumor had little or no behavioral consequences. Some young girls started visiting other retailers, or asked friends to accompany them while shopping in the suspect stores. At the height of the rumor, some people in the busy streets stopped and stared at the shops. Glaring is hardly an appropriate way to react after accusations of submitting young women to a lifetime of sexual exploitation. These behaviors (or lack thereof) show that most of those who spread the rumor didn’t intuitively believe in them. By contrast, the rumors circulating in the wake of Pearl Harbor against Americans of Japanese ancestry seem to have had significant effects, as the U.S. government decided to detain most of these citizens in internment camps. In reality, there were more important drivers behind the internment camps than the nasty rumors about treason. Many of these Japanese Americans had been successful farmers in California, with more productive plots than their white neighbors. Their success led to a “resentment from white West Coast farmers,” which “provided part of the impetus for mass incarceration of [Americans of] Japanese descent.”28

* In Pakistan, conspiracy theories about the dreaded ISI— the intelligence service— are very common. Yet Pakistanis don’t or ga nize conferences on how evil and power ful the ISI is. Precisely because they intuitively believe the ISI is evil and powerful, they don’t say so publicly. Imagine that a female friend runs out of a shop in tears, crying that she has been the victim of a kidnapping attempt. Will you be content with glaring at the vendor and, later, telling other people to avoid the shop? Aren’t you instead going to call the police immediately? The fact that most people don’t take false rumors or conspiracy theories to their logical conclusion is also driven home by the few individuals who do.

Edgar Maddison Welch was one of them. He believed the rumors saying that the basement of the Comet Ping Pong restaurant was used by Hillary Clinton cronies to engage in child sex trafficking. Given this belief, coupled with his mistrust of the corrupt police, Welch’s storming of the restaurant, guns ablaze, requesting the owners to free the children, kind of made sense. Most people who endorsed the rumor— and, according to some polls, millions did— were happy doing nothing about it or, at worst, sending insulting messages online.29 One can hardly imagine a child sex trafficker coming to see the error of his ways as a result of reading Nation Pride’s commenting on the trafficker’s “absolutely disgusting” behavior and giving his restaurant only one star (Google review might want to offer the option of giving no stars for pedophile- friendly pizzerias).30 Why did Welch take the pizzagate rumors so seriously? I honestly don’t know. What matters for my argument is that of the millions of people who believed the rumor, he was the only one to act as if he did so intuitively.

* Many successful false rumors are about threats. It might seem curious that we like thinking about threats, but it makes sense. We may not like threats, but if there are threats, we want to know about them. Even more than faces, information about threats presents a clear cost asymmetry: ignoring information about potential threats can be vastly costlier than paying too much attention to such information. This is true even when the threats are reported in rumors. Nearly a year before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. ambassador to Japan heard that plans for an attack were being hatched, but he dismissed the rumors as unreliable, with devastating consequences.34 As a result of these costs asymmetries, information about threats is often deemed relevant even if it is not practically relevant. Rumors about the toll of natural disasters, lurking sexual predators, or conspiracies in our midst are bizarre forms of mind candy: guilty pleasures that might not be good for us, yet we can’t help but enjoy.35 Conspiracy theories are a salient form of threat. Given the importance of coalitions during our evolution, it is plausible that we could have evolved to be particularly attuned to the risk raised by an alliance forming against us.36 Even if we do not have anything like a dedicated “conspiracy detector,” conspiracy theories combine elements that make them relevant: they are about a coalition (jackpot) of powerful people (double jackpot) who represent a significant threat to us ( triple jackpot).

* As explained in chapter 5, a convergence of opinions is a reliable indicator of the opinions’ validity only to the extent that the opinions have been formed independently of each other. If they all rely on the same source, they are only as strong as the one source.14 In this case, the combined agencies’ case would have actually been less convincing had they disclosed their sources— even though doing so would have made each individual case seem more convincing. When the agencies failed to reveal their sources, there was a hidden dependency between their opinions. Such hidden dependencies are a particularly tricky problem for our mechanisms of open vigilance. For each informant— here, an intelligence agency, but the same applies to any other case— their statements are made less convincing by the absence of a source. As a result, our mechanisms of open vigilance have no reason to be on the alert: they are on the lookout for attempts to change our mind, not attempts not to change it. When someone fails to mention a source that would make their statement more convincing, we’re not particularly vigilant. If many people do the same thing, we might end up accepting all of their statements, without realizing they all stem from the same source, ending up more convinced than we should be. Not identifying hidden dependencies is one of the rare failures of open vigilance mechanisms that lead to the acceptance, rather than the rejection, of too many messages.

* If you grow up surrounded by people who are competent at just about everything they do, are mostly benevolent, and talk confidently of having formed religious beliefs on their own, all cues should lead you to accept the beliefs. Each individual testimony would have been unconvincing (I assume you don’t believe in every god of every religious person you have ever talked to), but the aggregate makes for a very persuasive package.

* There are many ways for a new recruit to demonstrate their commitment to being a good group member. For instance, they can endure an initial phase in which the costs are higher than the benefits— attending training sessions but remaining on the bench during matches, say. Another solution is to signal disinterest in the alternatives by burning their bridges.

* Holocaust deniers make morally repellent claims but also paint those who disagree as enraged Zionists or their useful idiots. Holding such positions is a surefire way of making oneself unclubbable by all but the small clique that defends similar views.

* Defending extreme beliefs as a way of burning bridges isn’t a failure of open vigilance, as it would be if the defenders of these beliefs had been talked into intuitively accepting them. Instead, it reflects a perverse use of open vigilance. We can use our open vigilance mechanisms to anticipate what messages others will likely accept. As a rule, if we anticipate rejection, we think twice before saying something. When we want to burn bridges, we do the opposite: the more rejection we anticipate— from all but the group we would like to join— the more likely we are to voice our views.

* Self- incriminating statements are intrinsically credible. Because they refer to our own beliefs or actions, we’re supposed to know what we’re talking about. Because they make us look bad, we would have no reason to lie. If believing self- incriminating statements is, on the whole, a good heuristic, it also leads to a series of problems.

* We shouldn’t assume that people intuitively hold the apparently deranged or evil views they profess. However, we should take seriously their social goal, namely, to reject the standard groups that make up the majority of society in favor of a fringe co ali tion. As a result, if we want them to abandon their silly or offensive views, attempting to convince them of these views’ logical, empirical, or moral failings is unlikely to work. Instead, we have to consider how to deal with people who feel their best chance of thriving is to integrate into groups that have been rejected by most of society. People aren’t stupid. As a rule, they avoid making self- incriminating statements for no reason. These statements serve a purpose, be it to redeem oneself or, on the contrary, to antagonize as many people as possible. By considering the function of self-incriminating statements, we can react to them more appropriately.

* If Voltaire is often paraphrased as saying, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities,” this is in fact rarely true.13 As a rule, it is wanting to commit atrocities that makes you believe absurdities.

* If people are going to do what ever they want anyway— from practicing bloodletting to attacking their neighbors— why would they bother with a variety of absurd and inert beliefs? Humans are an uber-social species, constantly evaluating each other to figure out who would make the best cooperation partners: who is competent, who is nice, who is reliable. As a result, we’re keen to look our best, at least to people whose opinions we value. Unfortunately, we’re bound to do things that look stupid or morally dubious. When this happens, we attempt to justify our actions and explain why they weren’t, in fact, stupid or morally dubious. This lets us correct negative judgments, and it helps observers better understand our motives, thus judging us more accurately. We not only spontaneously justify ourselves when our behavior is questioned but also learn to anticipate when justifications might be needed, before we have to actually offer them.27 This creates a market for justifications. But such a market arises only when we anticipate that some decisions are likely to be perceived as problematic.

* The abundance of pro- Trump fake news is explained by the dearth of pro- Trump material to be found in the traditional media: not a single major newspaper endorsed his candidacy (although there was plenty of material critical of Clinton as well). At this point, I should stress that the extent to which fake news is shared is commonly exaggerated: during the 2016 election campaign, fewer than one in ten Facebook users shared fake news, and 0.1  percent of Twitter users were responsible for sharing 80  percent of the fake news found on that platform.34

* A similar tendency toward polarization has been observed in discussion groups. In a study, American students were first asked their stance on foreign policy.39 Doves— people who generally oppose military intervention— were put together in small groups and asked to discuss foreign policy. When their attitudes were measured after the exchange, they had become more extreme in their opposition to military intervention. Experiments that look at the content of the discussions taking place in like- minded groups show that it is chiefly the accumulation of arguments on the same side that leads people to polarize.40 It seems clear from the preceding that justifications for beliefs we already hold aren’t always inert. Whether they are self- generated or provided by people who agree with us, they can push us toward more extreme versions of the same beliefs. Why? When we evaluate justifications for our own views, or views we agree with, our standards are low— after all, we already agree with the conclusion.

* Many misguided or wicked beliefs— from the humoral theory of disease to fake news— are much less consequential than we think. As a rule, these beliefs do not guide our behaviors, being instead justifications for actions we wanted to perform anyway. On the one hand, this is good news indeed, as it means that people are not so easily talked into doing stupid or horrible things. On the other hand, this is bad news, as it means that people are not so easily talked out of doing stupid or horrible things. If a belief plays little causal role in the first place, correcting the belief is also unlikely to have much of an effect.

* Even if debunking beliefs that spread as post hoc justifications appears a Sisyphean task, the efforts are not completely wasted. People do care about having justifications for their views, even if they aren’t very exigent about the quality of these justifications. As a decision or opinion is made increasingly hard to justify, some people will change their minds: if not the most hard-core believers, at least those who didn’t have such a strong opinion to start with— which is better than nothing.

* If argumentation can’t explain the widespread ac cep tance of incomprehensible or counterintuitive beliefs, then it must be trust. Trust takes two main forms: trust that someone knows better (chapter 5), and trust that they have our best interests at heart (chapter 6). To really change our minds about something, the former kind of trust is critical: we must believe that someone knows better than we do and defer to their superior knowledge. The preceding examples suggest that people are often so deferential toward individuals (Lacan), books (the Bible), or specialized groups (priests, scientists) that they accept incomprehensible or counterintuitive ideas.

* On the whole, people are pretty good at figuring out who knows best. But there are exceptions. In this chapter, I have described three mechanisms through which people might end up being unduly deferential, leading them to ponder incomprehensible beliefs, endorse counterintuitive ideas, and, occasionally, inflict (what they think are) severe electric shocks on a hapless victim. I will now suggest some potential remedies to alleviate the consequences of each of these mechanisms. The first mechanism relies on the granting of reputation on credit: thinking people competent when they say things that appear useful, but that will never be properly checked (such as Alex Jones’s dire warnings). In theory at least, the solution is relatively straightforward: to stop granting so much reputation on credit.

* A second way of becoming unduly deferential is to rely on coarse cues to estimate how scientific a piece of information is, with the risk of thinking the information more scientific than it is.

* Finally, how to get rid of gurus who rely on the obscurity of their pronouncements to hide the vacuity of their thought? …Fortunately, spotting gurus is comparatively easy: they have no standing in the scientific community—at least not for the part of their work for which they use their guru status.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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