Gullibility & Egocentric Discounting

"In 2008, the psychiatrist Stephen Greenspan published The Annals of Gullibility, a summary of his decades of research into how to avoid being gullible. Two days later, he discovered his financial advisor Bernie Madoff was a fraud, who had caused Greenspan to lose a third of his retirement savings.


People tend to be just as confident in their false beliefs as their accurate ones. In one 2013 study, participants were asked a physics question about the trajectory of a ball after it was shot through a curved tube. Those who said the trajectory would be curved (wrong) were just as confident that their answer was correct as those who correctly stated the ball would have a straight trajectory.

A body of research has also established what scientists call “egocentric discounting”: If participants are asked to give an estimate of a particular fact, such as unemployment rate or city population, and then shown someone else’s estimate and asked if they’d like to revise their own, they consistently give greater weight to their own view than others’, even when they’re not remotely knowledgeable in these areas.

Gullibility to oneself is not a modern phenomenon. But the effects are exacerbated in the age of social media, when false information spreads rapidly. “We’re living in a world in which we’re awash with information and misinformation,” says Dunning. “We live in a post-truth world.”

The issue is that the current environment convinces people they’re more informed than they actually are. It might, says Dunning, actually be better for people to feel uninformed. “When people are uninformed, they know they don’t know the answer,” he says, and so they will be more open to hearing from others with real expertise. If we think they know enough, however, we’ll just “cobble together what seems to us to be the best response possible to someone asking us our opinion, or a policy, or what we think,” says Dunning. And, he adds, “unfortunately we’re programmed to know enough to cobble together an answer.”

There’s no quick fix to this, but there is a key step we could take to avoid being so willfully misinformed. We need to not only evaluate the evidence behind newly presented facts and stories, but evaluate our own capability of evaluating the evidence.

The same questions we consider when evaluating whether to trust another person should apply to ourselves: “Are you too invested in this thought or belief you have? Are you really giving the conclusions you’re reaching due diligence? Are you in over your head?”, says Dunning.
That said, constantly questioning ourselves would be impractical, leading to a constant state of self-doubt and uncertainty. Most effective, says Dunning, would be to focus on situations that are new to us, and where the stakes are high. “Normally those two situations go together,” says Dunning. “We only buy so many cars in our lives, we only invest large sums of money every so often, we only get married every so often.”"


Note that critical self reflection is only worth the cost for rare, high stakes decisions, and that there is no mention made that voting is not such an act.

tags: post_truth,reality,democracy,objective_reality