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A Gullible World

March 27, 2012

We are gullible, humans, I mean.  We believe things we hear though presented with absolutely no evidence to back it up.   Oh, some of us have grown cynical from the experience of years and do question, but in the end, even the most cynical amongst us has a seemingly pathological need to believe what we are told.  Especially if that something supports a position we favor.

It is understandable; the way we learn lends itself to it.  As infants we absorb all we are exposed to without question.  As toddlers, magical thinking rules our thoughts.  In grade school, teachers take on the almost divine quality of being wellsprings of truth and wisdom.  By that time we gain our footing and form our own precocious thoughts, seriously questioning what we are told seems to be an alien concept.  Our societal norms also lend to the process, did your mother ever tell you to “respect your elders” or something like that, when all you did was ask a question?

We break free from this sort of restriction in our teenage years but only to a point.  Having a stopping point is a good thing too, as society would not function if we did not have some level of civility and trust.  In a sense, we collect people we trust and accept with little or no question what they tell us.  The further they are from that central trust, the more we hold suspect what they say.  This sort of acceptance works for the benefit of the circle (society) but against the interests of the individual.

As we grow, we develop a system of tiered trust.  Trust is broken into a series of circles; each with its own level in a sort of hierarchical index with the most trusted, and smallest, circle closest to us and expand from there.  For example, you may trust your family the most, then your friends, then your work colleagues, then your acquaintances, and so on.    The problem with this approach is once in a circle you have that trust level; even at times it may not deserve it.  For example, you trust your dad.  He has been a rock you have counted on your whole life.  It seems you can ask him anything.  If he happens to be a plumber, it is safe to assume he knows much about it.  What if you have an electrical question, he may or may not be so good a source.  You need to challenge what he tells you in that case.  Not to doubt him, but to ensure you have the right information.  Often the level of trust we give a person allows them to influence us beyond their expertise.

When we take our nature into account, it is easy to see how we, as a society, go off the rails from time to time.  For not only do we unilaterally trust members of our various circles, in many cases we grant members the ability to include others we do not even know into that circle.  Back to the dad example, if our father trusts someone, we are likely to trust them too.  This is where our gullibility comes into play.  You father may know to trust someone only on one or two issues, if that is not made clear to you, you may end up trusting them in ways your father never would.

This sort of associated trust really comes into play in our larger circles. While everyone is different, we do tend to fall into similar groupings.  Politically, most people are either conservative or liberal.  We grant to people within our group trust they have not earned.  This leads us to accept as true views that support our preconceived notions.  It limits our input to only things that support our conclusions and can lead to very bad results.

In 2003, this type of thinking allowed Americans to rigidly draw a circle around ourselves and march off to an unnecessary war.  To be a “good American” you had to be patriotic, and to be patriotic you had to support the government without question.   The result of such thinking speaks for itself.   Another example happened in 2008 with the election of President Obama.  Conservatives painted him as a communist in the vein of Stalin working to deliver the United States to Satan, while liberals saw his as the reincarnation of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy combined, marching us towards utopia.  Neither side looked at Barrack Obama the man.  Neither side understands today Barrack Obama the President.  Conservative circles prevent seeing him as the centrist he is and go off on tangents, like chasing his birth certificate.  Liberals are no better as they see him as the harbinger of radical change which also prevents seeing him as a centrist.

For instance, on the issue of gun control, always a hot-button topic for both conservative and liberals, President Obama has liberalized federal laws for carrying concealed weapons in National Parks.  Still, conservatives whip up fear that “he is coming for your guns!”  Liberals, on the other hand, do not see President Obama is not with them on the issue of gun control, he has taken a centrist position.  Yet, neither side can see the truth, as they only take input from within their particular circle.

The point is this, if you belong to a circle or group or anything that does not allow you to question as a condition to belong, you need to ask yourself if you should belong.  For Republicans, it is not enough to be Republican, you have to prove it.  They even have a term for those members not Republican enough, RINO – Republican In Name Only.

So there it is, we are gullible.  We are predisposed to it.  Yet, that does not mean we must accept it.  Both scientist and engineers are taught to be critical thinkers, to question everything.   This is a throwback to the liberal education President Wilson spoke of one-hundred years ago when he addressed the Phi Beta Kappa Chapter at Cambridge[i] with his Spirit of Learning speech.   Liberal education is not in the political sense of the word liberal but rather in the free exchange of ideas and a way of thinking that pulls in opposing opinion to arrive at a larger truth.  It is the means by which truly meaningful opinions are formed.   It is how we take input without the need for rigid circles that stand between us and truth, between us and understanding.


[i] ‘The Spirit of Learning’, in Woodrow Wilson, College and State: Educational, Literary and Political Papers (1875–1913), ed. Ray Stannard Baker and William E. Dodd (New York and London, 1925), vol. 2.

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2 comments

  1. What circle or sphere would we place ourselves in? When we talk to ourself about ourself are we duped into believing something that’s not true? Should we trust ourselves?

    Yes, your right we have a need to believe. The inherant believability depends on the source. Like you stated they can be segmented into spheres of believability. But what sphere would we inherently place ourselves and and what sphere would we place ourself in after we get to know ourself?

    The question being: can you or do you lie to yourself? And why?
    I know that I do. And I want to believe it. I guess that makes me very gullible. But, arguably, I see that as a good thing sometimes.

    But with experiance I’ve found that I should have placed myself in a less trusting sphere. But when I do it’s crippling.

    I live better trusting myself. Even if I’m wrong. And when I lie to myself, I do it with eyes open.

    btw: Wilson was a progressive and by far my favorite president.


    • Wow, what a well thought-out comment, thank you for it. Let me start with your ending, yes President Wilson was a progressive, just as President Roosevelt (Teddy) was a progressive. The part system was undergoing realignment in their time so I tend to shy away from Democratic and Republican labels and use liberal and conservative instead. I know it is not a tight definition and the terms do not translate directly but for most general discussion it puts people on the correct side of the fence so to speak. I guess I could use progressive and state-rights but that opens a whole other can of worms. BTW, President Wilson is my favorite president too.

      I do not see the individual as being in singular sphere but I take your point. My thinking is this is were the liberalized teaching style comes into play. If we as individuals actively seek out opinions different than our own, we will make better choices. That is the assumption, of course, that assumes the individual keeps and open-mind and does not simply pay lip-service to the idea. So, in conclusion to that thought, I would place myself in a permeable sphere. One that allows information to flow in and out. That processes ideas on merit rather than rhetoric and pushed out thoughts tempered by the input and opinion of others. It is not a passive process or one that receives only.

      As far as being able to lie to oneself, sort of makes me think I’m back in philosophy 101. I make choices in life based on the best information I have. Later, if that choice is found to be wrong, I simply make another based on the old information plus anything new that comes my way. There is no need for me to lie to me. I hope that answers your question, I am not sure it did though.



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