Why are people so gullible? Science says skepticism and disbelief takes practice

These days, we have access to an overwhelming amount of information yet we rarely stop to think about the authenticity of what we see and hear. Our beliefs are often shaped by external forces and we rarely have first-hand experience to influence our thoughts.

Our ancestors relied on “direct sensory experience” as they formed their own beliefs and we use language and our own ability to separate the truths from the lies.

Using language, we are exposed to different opinions and biases based on a speaker’s personal belief system. Despite all of this, we believe most of what we hear without looking into new ideas or trying to experience them first-hand. What causes this naivete and is there a way to control it?

On gullibility and society

According to Rene Descartes, a 17th-century philosopher, “If one wishes to know the truth, then one should not believe an assertion until one finds evidence to justify doing so.” This sounds like a reasonable approach to the integration of new beliefs, but do we really process new ideas or do we just blindly accept them?

This doesn’t just apply to the news. Do you think about the content of media outlets, your personal interactions, and social networks? Or do you just accept everything instead of taking the time to fact-check?

Most of the time these character-forming times in our life happen automatically and these societal norms and beliefs are just accepted as truth. However, some of these programmed beliefs include missed chances for fact-checking and judging ideas and assertions. (Related: The gullible mind explained.)

Why we need skepticism

Benedict Spinoza, another philosopher, challenged Descartes’ idea. Spinoza saw that the brain does not handle ideas the way that Descartes described.

Spinoza countered that “People believe every assertion they understand but quickly ‘unbelieve’ those assertions that are found to be at odds with other established facts.” In fact, results from a recent study prove that the brain often has a tendency to believe ideas it receives.

Researchers Daniel T. Gilbert et al. from The University of Texas at Austin spearheaded an experiment where participants were presented a set of true and false statements about a crime. The first group of participants read the statements at the same time they had to find and count the number five as it appeared in the text. The second group read the statements uninterrupted. After the exercises, the participants were then tasked with remembering which statements were false and which were true. The test subjects also had to think of the jail time the perpetrator of the crime deserved. Based on the results, the group that had to count remembered more false statements, unlike the first group. The first group of participants also gave the made-up criminal more jail time, proving that we usually believe false statements, especially if we are interrupted.

While this shows that we often believe new ideas, like in Spinoza’s theory, it also reveals that “interruption prevents us from ‘unbelieving’ new assertions.”

Is this why advertising (which takes advantage of our lack of concentration while seeing ads because of other tasks, like driving or reading the news), politics, and news media easily affect our beliefs and thoughts? While some would agree, Gilbert et al. state that while we can reject false ideas, this is only possible when we have the “logical ability, correct information, motivation, and cognitive resources to do so.

Cognitive ability and the facts can help us disbelieve false assertions. But since these skills often rely on our education system, organized groups, and religious sects, society somehow has a say in our ability to choose the truth from the lies.

In fact, you can challenge these beliefs by honing your conscious awareness, healthy skepticism, emotional intelligence, and ruthless compassion.

See Skeptics.news for more coverage of skepticism.

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