Lena's Reviews > Annals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid It

Annals of Gullibility by Stephen Greenspan
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's review
Apr 13, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, how-the-brain-works
Recommended to Lena by: eskeptic

In Annals of Gullibility, Psychologist Stephen Greenspan (no relation to Alan) takes a close look at how and why human beings allow themselves to be taken advantage of. Though he defines gullibility as an unusual tendency towards being duped, the book (as well as the fact that the author himself just lost a chunk of his retirement savings to Bernie Madoff) makes it uncomfortably clear that falling prey to following advice that is not in our best interest is a distinct risk of being human.

The majority of Greenspan's book details how gullibility plays out in various spheres of life. He begins by looking at gullible characters in literature and proceeds to offer real world examples of it in religion, war and politics, criminal justice, science and academia, finance and relationships, and vulnerable populations. The stories he relates in these sections—from apocalyptic cult followers to coerced false confessions to art world scams to the Iraq war—are a fascinating and disturbing chronicle of how deception and trust interact and the numerous ways human decision making processes can go terribly awry.

Greenspan raises a number of interesting questions throughout the course of this discussion, including how to find the balance between healthy skepticism and closed-minded cynicism. He also addresses such thorny issues as an individual's right to personal autonomy vs. the responsibilities of others to protect vulnerable populations from exploitation. His comments on these issues with regards to early stage Alzheimer's patients were particularly thought-provoking.

Though many people associate gullibility with low intelligence, the copious examples he gives of very smart people being duped show that tendencies towards gullibility are affected by far more than just intellectual capacity. Greenspan has outlined four elements that can influence whether or not a person will behave in a gullible fashion—the social situation, cognitive processes, type of personality, and physical/emotional state. In the final chapter, he offers some suggestions on how to become less gullible, including practical tips such as avoiding impulsive choices and learning how to disengage from coercive situations. As his own recent investment loss shows, however, sometimes the only way to become less gullible is to learn from past experience.
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message 1: by Wendy (new)


message 2: by Eric_W (new)

Eric_W Do you suppose he's related to Alan Greenspan who is turning out to be one of the most gullible of all?

Lena That is an excellent question. I've seen no reference to it, though, so I'd be surprised if he was.

message 4: by Richard (new) - added it

Richard I recall from — I think — Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational that the brain is wired so that some cognitive biases cannot be completely avoided even among experts who study them for a living. Metaphorically, they come at us from a cognitive blind side.

The classic example is the anchoring effect... ah yes, found it at Wikipedia:
... consider an illustration presented by MIT professor Dan Ariely. An audience is first asked to write the last 2 digits of their social security number, and, second, to submit mock bids on items such as wine and chocolate. The half of the audience with higher two-digit numbers would submit bids that were between 60 percent and 120 percent higher than those of the other half, far higher than a chance outcome; the simple act of thinking of the first number strongly influences the second, even though there is no logical connection between them.
Wikipedia doesn't mention it, but this mini-experiment (or an equivalent) was conducted on cognitive scientists at a convention immediately after they'd attended an analysis of how the anchoring effect works.

That isn't to say that Greenspan couldn't have warded off the temptation to invest. My point is to emphasize that smart people also have brains poorly wired for strict rationality.

Lena That's one of the things I find most fascinating about this subject - how smart people are sometimes even more likely to make these kinds of mistakes because they evaluate their own intelligence too highly. A major kink in the system for sure.

message 6: by Richard (last edited Sep 24, 2009 06:23PM) (new) - added it

Richard That would be another problem — but the point of Ariely's book title "Predictably Irrational" isn't that smart people are more vulnerable, but that our brains are simply wired poorly, and while education can avoid some pitfalls, others are unavoidable.

Arrogance based on believing one already has the answers is at the root of quite of few of the cognitive biases, such as the aptly named Belief bias, but note that this "is independent of reasoning ability". Arrogance and being smart are not necessarily correlated, I guess :-)

message 7: by Petra X (new)

Petra X I just got duped.Lost a lot of money. You know what they say, the first time it's shame on you, the second shame on me. This was the second :=(

Lena I am very sorry to hear that, Petra. If it's any comfort, this book suggests that's more the rule than the exception.

message 9: by Petra X (new)

Petra X I'm not the only one too trusting then? Lol. It's the second time I've fallen a second time for a scam artist. I could be forgiven once as that was my godfather!

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