Why are Americans so gullible?

BW will be back sometime this weekend, but let’s see if we can get in a few more good discussions before her return.  The last few days I’ve been bothered by how gullible the American public is.  Usually, when I think about gullibility I think of truthers, or Code Pink ladies or leftist who honestly believe that if we are just nicer to the jihadists they’ll be nice to us.  But conservatives, whom I tend to think of as more thoughtful and rational are, at least at times, just as bad.

What sent me down this road was an e-mail I got from my Dad the other day.  It was one of those on-line petitions that was all in a panic.  It lamented that the Senate had passed a bill to give Social Security to illegal aliens who had never contributed to the system.  It urgently pleaded with the readers to sign their name to the petition and pass it on to everyone they knew.  The 1,000th person to sign was suppose to e-mail it on to the White House. 

Of course, the truth was that the Senate had passed a bill that would allow illegals who became legal to get credit for amounts they had contributedwhile working here illegally.  What bothered me was that the petition had been circulating for two years and had 873 signatures.  That’s 873 people, almost all conservatives, I’m sure, given the subject matter, who had signed their name to a public document without bothering to check and see if the underlying claim was even true.  It sounded to them like something a Democrat Senate would do, so they gullibly believe it without any further thought.  873 conservatives!  Ouch!

Just yesterday I got one quoting a fictitious column by Maureen Dowd as calling for an investigation into Obama’s Internet fundraising.  Now such an investigation might be warranted, but you know full well Maureen Dowd would never write such a column.  I get these all the time.  The flat majority of them are untrue and snopes.com has articles saying so in most cases.  Yet they continue to  circulate.  Among conservatives.  It makes me wonder if there is something too trusting and gullible general in the American psyche. 

Maybe I’m too gullible myself, but I’ve always thought of Americans as hard-headed realists.  Part of our success came, I thought, from our ability to think and act rationally and objectively — maybe even skeptically.  It seems we are losing that capacity.  And I can’t imagine that bodes well for America’s future.

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  • http://farenblog.blogspot.com LarryFaren

    In the almost-seven years I’ve been “online” I too have received such alarmist emails almost on a daily basis I. Kid. You. Not. I used to check-’em-out for veracity and “RE” the gullible sender, but have truly grown weary of doing even that. I have a life, after all. But I REFUSE to propagate lies, even about lefties. Very disappointing that people get sucked-into these stories.

  • suek

    If you do some research on SSI, you’ll find that some illegals _can_ and _do_ collect money from the government – without having paid in. But as far as I know, it hasn’t been on the Congressional agenda anytime recently…

    I usually check Snopes when I get those panic emails*…usually there’s something there about them.

    * if the email seems plausible, that is.

  • Ellie2

    I think all the Internat hoaxes are simply technology meeting up with gossip and falling in love.

  • Zhombre

    Even hard-headed realists can get fooled. It’s not a question of Americans being gullible, surely we are no more gullible than anybody else. That is human nature that people have a capacity for credulity and deception. Including self deception.

  • socratease

    Yes, Americans are gullible. But that’s human nature, we’re hardly unique with that. (Just remember the stories of some poor sap in a foreign country being accused of using witchcraft to shrink someone else’s manhood.) But the Internet gives us new ways to advertise our gullibility to larger segments of the public.

  • http://ruminationsroom.wordpress.com Don Quixote

    Wonderfully put, Ellie! That’s two smiles you’ve given me today. Thank you.

  • BrianE

    That made my laugh out loud. I may laugh all day.

  • Oldflyer

    873 signatures in two years of circulation does not seem like a whole lot.

    But, in a larger sense I think Ellie has put her finger on the deal. It is just so easy to circulate “content” now without really thinking about what it is and to whom it is being addressed.

    I always get a laugh when a friend sends back to me some of the trash I have recently sent to them. Clearly, I am on “their list”. “I try to do my part by never forwarding anything to group addresses. I address each bit of trash I forward to individuals who I think will be, if not happy to receive it, at least not offended”; he said sanctimoniously. (Unless of course he simply wants to be offenive.)

    As to know the particulars of what Congress has done. Since even our exalted Representatives and Senators frequently do not know, and often haven’t even read, what they vote into law; I hardly think it reasonable to expect the average citizen to know. It is always fairly safe to assume that they have done something outrageous.

  • http://ruminationsroom.wordpress.com Don Quixote

    Hi Oldflyer,

    Sorry I wasn’t clear because I combined two points. Lord know how many people signed the thing total. The 873 were just on the version I got. Remember, everybody on the list was supposed to send copies of it to everyone they knew, so I’m sure there are thousands of these things around. Anyway, the two points were: (1) that the thing floated around for two years without being stopped and (2) that just in the version I got, 873 people in a row had unquestioningly signed a false statement and passed it along without ever bothering to check on its truth. 873 in a row.

  • http://farenblog.blogspot.com LarryFaren

    I was just reminded as I read #9 from DQ that –from what I’ve read– practically NONE of these online petitions are given any credence when they reach the intended targets. That’s a story I find very EASY to believe.

  • Ymarsakar

    Since people will always believe what they wish to be true over a reality that is counter to their wishes, and since people will always believe what they fear to be true (at least in the short term), this means that if you pump people full of fears and then provide them a method to aspire to in order to counter those fears, you are able to gyrate between the two states, thus allowing you to make people believe.

    Either they’ll believe their car is on fire because they are afraid it is true, or they will believe that you have the solution to their car being on fire *that solution being government and lawyers in court* because they want to believe it is true.

    It is harder to use such techniques of manipulation on self-sustaining communities and independent individuals that don’t particularly need much help from other people. This is more or less known as the middle class, or back in the old days, the frontiersman who, living out in the boondocks, couldn’t get much help even if they wanted to.

    Thus, to conclude this comment, people’s gullibility is directly proportional to how much their hopes and fears are open to other people’s inputs. Take this example.

    If you are afraid of criminals and of violence, then you will believe crime is rising if the media reports it is, because you fear it to be true. If the media reports violence is out of control in Iraq and you think violence at home is increasing too, then why wouldn’t it be true? You got so much fear, you act as if it is true because that is what your emotions demand.

    If you are afraid, then that means you are hoping for a change or a solution or something. And if the media provides you this “change” by saying they support the troops but not the mission, then why wouldn’t you want to believe that? You’d believe it because you’d want it to be true. You don’t believe that Iraq can be won because you are afraid of violence and you aren’t willing to believe that Iraq can be won with even more violence, or that violence can be decreased with even more American violence.

    However, if you know that you can defend yourself against criminal violence, if you know that you can teach other people to defend themselves against criminal violence and kill and maim criminals so that the crime rate goes down because criminals all of a sudden stop breathing, then how much of your fear of death and violence is going to be open to the inputs of other people, like say the government’s proposal that they will fix things for you via a ban on handguns? You’re not going to be open to that kind of manipulation, cause you have no fear that it will be true and you will have no NEED for it to be true. You will not fear the problem, for you have the solution to it already. And if you have the solution to it already, then others cannot manipulate you into buying their con game by offering you “hope” for a resolution that is fake.

    That’s why independent people are harder to manipulate and why they are more “skeptical”. They don’t have as much of a reason to believe all this clap trap as do urban populations, who are wholly dependent upon government to make the trains run on time and for the sewers to stay underground.

    But understand, humans are humans, and “less” does not mean “never” or zero.

    Just yesterday I got one quoting a fictitious column by Maureen Dowd as calling for an investigation into Obama’s Internet fundraising. Now such an investigation might be warranted, but you know full well Maureen Dowd would never write such a column. I get these all the time. The flat majority of them are untrue and snopes.com has articles saying so in most cases.

    On another note, these are just chain letters. It’s the same reason why Nigerian scam emails are still around in one form or another. Cause it pays, cause people actually fall for this stuff. Even if it is only .001% of 300 million people, that’s still a lot of money to a single organization out in Africa or Brazil or whatever.

    So long as there is a profit to be made, there will be con artists. And so long as there is fear and a demand for solutions, there will be con artists. So long as humanity exists in this state of imperfection, that is how things will stay. But that’s not how things will be for any particular individuals. Individuals do not have to conform to this inevitability of their species.

  • Ymarsakar

    We who study propaganda and the art of manipulation or psychology, don’t particularly find this stuff surprising or demoralizing. It’s not a big thing that people are gullible nor is it a particularly devastating trait. A person that will not believe, in anything, is a nihilist and will never be fooled. He will also never be fully alive.

    You take such traits of humanity as they come, full of their own weaknesses and strengths. If your allies have a particular strength, reinforce that trait and try to make it your own as well. If your allies have a particular weakness, try to cover it up with your own strengths and try to use your strengths to teach your allies to repair that weak spot. It’s different for enemies however. Then you exploit their weak points and try to demoralize and sabotage their strong points, traits, etc..

    Part of our success came, I thought, from our ability to think and act rationally and objectively — maybe even skeptically. It seems we are losing that capacity. And I can’t imagine that bodes well for America’s future.

    That is inevitable given America’s success. The more prosperity is created from rationality and objectivity and good decision making, the more corruption, decadence, weakness, and stupidity the next generation inherits. It’s not a particularly direct line of transference, but that is the general trend in human history. One aristocratic ruler is brilliant and effective ruler, his son, however, is a sadistic maniac. This leads to a revolution or a coup de tat, with a new ruling royal family. The new royal family is strong cause they had to earn their position, they didn’t inherit. But then come a few generations and that royal family gets corrupt and decadent as well, cause they forgot the roots and foundations of where their power came from.

    Life and death is the natural progression of all things, human or otherwise. There’s nothing you can do about it in the end, but you can make use of it one way or another. You can use it to help your friends and decimate your enemies, for one thing. You can use the ability to steer the course of history by manipulating individuals one way or another, in order to slow the rate of decay and corruption. An extra century or two of prosperity and safety may not have mattered much to historians, but it sure mattered to the people living in such times, is that not true.

    In the end, whether “it” bodes well for America’s future really depends upon whether America deserves success or not. If you don’t deserve success, the Fates will eventually take it away from you. There is nothing free in life, not even life itself.

  • http://OgBlog.net Earl

    Snopes, Snopes, Snopes, Snopes, Snopes…..

    ESPECIALLY when it’s something that you find believable. We’re the easiest to fool when we really would like the thing to be true!

    Snopes, Snopes, Snopes, Snopes, Snopes…..

    Is it clear, yet?

  • Ymarsakar

    Concerning Snopes, there is a chance that people will want to believe Snopes so bad that they will listen to them on national security and grand policy decision matters like yellow cake.

    Either way, this is just another extension of believing something cause you want it to be true. You depend upon Snopes to check things, and thus you want them to be right on this issue, when this issue is just beyond Snopes’ ability to ascertain except as rumor.

    This is not to invalidate Earl’s point or Snopes, but simply to point out that even by out sourcing truth verificatin to others, the human flaw of believing what you want to be true and believing what you fear to be true, will never, ever, go away. So long as we remain humans, that is.

  • suek

    >>The more prosperity is created from rationality and objectivity and good decision making, the more corruption, decadence, weakness, and stupidity the next generation inherits.>>

    Heh. My Mom used to say “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” which is interesting, since it addresses both your statement and fashion statements of her era…!