Belief and gullibility

  • Along The Watchtower
  • Wednesday, 26 Feb 2014

BELIEVE is the seven-letter word that fraudsters and politicians always count on. The old saying is “Seeing is believing” but today, merely listening or reading online may be enough.

We are living in an urbane digital era awash with information and knowledge, yet more people than ever are being conned, and mostly, through cyber frauds and scams.

In Malaysia, money lost through gullibility amounted to almost RM1.8bil last year – the sum being spent on the second phase of the country’s High-Speed Broadband project.

Among the victims was a reputedly smart 63-year-old businesswoman who owns three audit firms. She got suckered into parting with RM6.5mil, including proceeds from the sale of a bungalow in Bangsar and plots of land.

The “55-year-old general” whom the single mother was supposed to be in love with turned out to be 15 Nigerians who entered the country on student visas. For eight months they took turns to cheat her with “lo­ve conversations” over social media. The Nigerians and their accomplice, a Malaysian woman who was apparently in relationships with several of them, have since been nabbed and are awaiting trial.

Why do people fall prey to such scams in spite of the increasing number of reported cases?

Two years ago, the Frontiers in Neuroscience journal published results of a study which traced the part of the human brain responsible for gullibility – the ventromedial area of the prefrontal cortex.

According to University of Iowa researchers who did the study, the spot, located just behind the forehead, is responsible for the mind to assess what one reads or hears and considers being true.

They found that proper evaluation would not be able to take place if the area was damaged or not fully developed, theorising that the young and the old were more susceptible to being conned than the middle-aged.

But another survey showed that younger, less educated and poorer Americans were most likely to fall prey to scams – along with richer folks earning more than US$200,000 a year. The study, which was also conducted in the UK and Australia, also revealed that the British and the Aussies were more sceptical than the Americans.

According to psychologist Stephen Greenspan who wrote Annals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid it, even intelligent and educated people can be fooled.

He cited the scheme run by former chairman of Nasdaq, Bernard Madoff, which defrauded wealthy investors, charities and other funds of US$50bil as the most dramatic example in American history. Greenspan (no relation to Alan, the former Federal Reserve chairman) himself lost a third of his retirement money in the Madoff Ponzi scheme.

“We all think we are better lie detectors than we are,” he said in an interview with NBC.

He categorised credulity under four “foolish behaviours” – situation, cognition, personality and emotion.

Situation involves the natural tendency to move in groups and do what everyone else seems to be doing – the human herd inclination.

Cognition is the ability to think through a potential scam, something which even those of above average intelligence often fail to use.

Personality refers to a person’s strength or weakness to the power of suggestions while Emotion is almost always manipulated by con artists to lure victims.

Greenspan said besides financial scams, people were also gullible when it came to war, fake science, medical fads and politics.

In the case of politicians, Adolf Hitler, whose name is synonymous with evil, employed the use of rhetoric and lies to become a ruthless dictator. He is remembered for causing the deaths of millions of people but many forget the reason why he could do it. It was because he was an awe-inspiring speaker and brilliant persuader of people. And he must have been a highly adept propagandist to be able to persuade an entire nation that his policies were necessary and right.

Among his strategies were: make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually people will believe it.

“The broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily.

“Thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods,” he was quoted as saying during the height of his power.

Hitler always believed the broad masses of a population were more amenable to the appeal of rhetoric than to any other force.

Such strategies are still being used, even in Malaysia, to spread hate and win votes.

Appealing to confirmation bias – the tendency for people to favour information confirming their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether they are true – makes this form of persuasion rather easy.

It could be regarded as another form of “primitive simplicity”. As can be seen by online comments and responses to news reports and political commentaries, the social media has boosted the tendency to be affected by confirmation bias.

These lyrics from Paul Simon’s The Boxer, sort of describe the situation:

All lies and jests,

Still a man hears what he wants to hear,

And disregards the rest.

In the end it’s all about believing. Dictionaries define “believe” as having confidence in the truth, faith or the reliability of something or someone.

But take another look at the word believe. Isn’t it ironic that “lie” stands smack in the middle of it?


> Associate Editor M. Veera Pandiyan likes this view of Voltaire: Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.

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Opinion , M. Veera Pandiyan


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