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How Gullible Are You?

by Steven Novella, Feb 07 2011

Have you heard of the tree octopus? This is an endangered cephalopod that lives in the trees of the pacific northwest. Of course, the tree octopus does not exist – it is a famous internet “hoax” beloved by skeptics as a common example of human gullibility. It is right up there with dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) – a component of acid rain, a chemical so deadly that if you breath it in you can die, and in gaseous form it can cause severe burns. DHMO is otherwise known as water – but it is easy to get people to sign petitions banning its use.

The inherent gullibility of humanity is a lesson important to the skeptical outlook for it speaks to the need to have a skeptical filter in place – a bullshit-detecting filter or baloney detector. But how gullible are people, generally?

Research at the University of Connecticut uses the tree octopus to test school children for their tendency to believe what they read on the internet. Subjects were chosen for their already demonstrated reading aptitude and this age group is generally considered to be internet savvy. And yet, when exposed to the tree octopus website virtually every student believed the content – unless they were already exposed to the information that it is a hoax.

But this is not a new internet phenomenon, although it is reported as kids believing everything they read on the internet. Social psychologists have been studying belief for years. What they have found is that kids believe virtually everything they hear. Belief seems to be the default reaction to new information – not doubt or even neutrality.

Adults do have a greater tendency toward doubt and disbelief, but this is not necessarily due to the lack of child-like gullibility. Rather, people will tend to believe anything they hear as long as it does not conflict with something they already believe. Adults come with a larger set of pre-existing beliefs than children, and so there is a greater chance that new information will conflict with an existing belief.

Even more disturbing is the evidence that people will maintain a belief once it is formed (a phenomenon called belief perseverance) even in the face of later disconfirming evidence. In fact, when people are told that the scientific evidence contradicts their beliefs they simply distrust the science, and in fact will distrust science in general.

But we can develop skeptical skills and habits. It takes conscious effort, however – which itself is evidence that skepticism is not the default mode of human behavior. For example, in experimental conditions people who are given a cognitive task (like remembering a phone number) are more likely to believe something they are told than someone who is not so distracted. A cognitive task uses up limited mental resources, which are then not available for the demanding task of skepticism.

It is important to recognize that we humans have a tendency to believe easily and to maintain beliefs against the evidence – we are all naturally gullible. Further that skepticism is a learned and cognitively demanding task. This realization should motivate us to systematically engage our skeptical thinking whenever we hear a new claim – it requires a conscious effort. Further it speaks to the need to teach critical thinking skills even to young children. The UCONN research confirms that natural gullibility extends to the internet, where there will not always be a teacher or parent available to help filter information. Therefore schools (and parents) should specifically teach children how to develop their own skepticism and to make a habit of consciously engaging their skepticism whenever they encounter new claims or information – whether from their friends, on the internet, or even from authority figures like parents and teachers themselves.

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37 Responses to “How Gullible Are You?”

  1. Blaise Pascal says:

    Let me tell you about my experience with the Tree Octopus. Years ago, when I first heard about the site, I went and read it. I didn’t share it with others mainly because I didn’t know if it was true or not.

    On the one hand, there are a lot of weird animals out there. A tree octopus is weird, but not the weirdest things I’ve heard of. A careful search of the site failed to turn up anything stating that it was satire or a hoax, nor any obvious clues to it’s fakeness — other than the concept of a tree octopus itself. None of the names of people, creatures, or institutions were obviously fake.

    On the other hand, the concept strained credulity — strained, but not irretrievably broke it. Although nothing on the site said “this is fake”, Google failed to turn up any other mention of tree octopi. Wikipedia had no listing, and pages devoted to octopus species failed to mention it. Snopes did not talk about it. In short, nothing I could find outside of the page confirmed the existence of tree octopodes. But nothing I could find outside of the page confirmed the non-existence of tree octopusses either. Now I’d find the google/wikipedia/snopes searches to give more weight, but this was long enough ago that neither Google, Wikipedia, nor the web were as comprehensive as they are now. The lack of confirmation was not surprising, but neither was the lack of refutation.

    So I’m not surprised that the participants in this study couldn’t decide if the site was a hoax or not.

  2. Bart Schaefer says:

    Of course, I tend to believe you when you tell me this.

  3. Blaise – it sounds like you took a neutral, not gullible, approach to the story. While the kids in the research mostly took a gullible approach and assumed it was true and trustworthy.

    Bart – you shouldn’t. You should check my references, and if you are really interested should try to find ones of your own to see if I am representing the research accurately. But of course, that’s a lot of work, and most readers won’t do it.

    • tmac57 says:

      But now that you are telling us that we shouldn’t tend to believe you,does that mean that we actually should tend to believe you,because you just said the opposite? I am sooo confused ;)

  4. Max says:

    “Readers Consider the Source, But Media Don’t Always Give It”
    http://www.cspinet.org/new/200407081.html

    According to the poll, 59 percent had confidence in a hypothetical statement asserting a drug is safe when the statement was attributed to a “Harvard professor whose research is government supported.” When the statement was simply attributed to “a Harvard professor,” 48 percent had confidence. 41 percent had confidence in the statement when it was attributed to a “Harvard professor whose research is supported by drug companies.” Only 24 percent of those surveyed had confidence when the statement was attributed to a “Harvard professor who owns stock in drug companies.”

    • Karen says:

      oh man…one of my biggest pet peeves is that media isn’t held accountable for sources. Drives me up the wall.

      Brings to mind a Prison Planet article I read about how Times magazine reported that vaccines would be mandatory, but they’d taken one line from a 4 page article that they then twisted to mean that mandatory vaccinations would be put in place even though the article said nothing of the sort. Granted that was an extreme example as PP quite frequently does that sort of thing, but regular media does it all the time too! I’ve started not trusting anything without resources or journal articles to back it up.

      That being said I still catch myself making foibles all the time, most recently the belief that when betelgeuse goes supernova it will be so bright that it will appear as though we have two suns for a couple weeks. Sounded cool, but totally not true.

  5. Max says:

    Steve,

    Your name on the list of ACSH science advisors gives the ACSH more credibility. Do you think they deserve it?

    • Sorry, meant to post in response to Max, not Jim Randolph; I’ll retry with an edited version.

      For others, background on ASCH from SourceWatch:

      To its credit, it has taken a strong public position against the dangers of tobacco, one of the leading preventable causes of death in today’s society. However, it takes a generally apologetic stance regarding virtually every other health and environmental hazard produced by modern industry, accepting corporate funding from Coca-Cola, Kellogg, General Mills, Pepsico, and the American Beverage Association, among others.

      http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=American_Council_on_Science_and_Health

    • Oh, on ASCH’s OWN “about” page, here’s the first kudo:

      “On one issue after another in recent years, ACSH has stood as a bulwark against the contemporary Luddites who see the beginning of civilization’s end in every technological advance that reaches the market place.”
      - Edwin Feulner, President The Heritage Foundation

      http://www.acsh.org/about/

      Nope, nothing political here!

    • Max, unfortunately, Steve’s got “skeptical” company, starting, alphabetically, with James Alcock. I also recognize Tim Gorski. And (no shock there, I already know his political views) Steve Pinker. And our “beloved” Shermer.

    • I agreed to be an adviser for ACSH years ago, based on their anti-tobacco stance. I never actually did anything with them – and it just fell off my radar. I probably should just have them remove me from their list, primarily because I never advise them on anything.

      • Max says:

        Right, speaking of gullibility, I’m guessing they wanted your name on the list more than they wanted your advice on anything.

      • I think over the intervening years they have shifted toward their current behavior. They seemed legit when I joined, and much of what they do is in line with mainstream skepticism – but it seems over the years a libertarian slant has taken over.

        In any case, I have never actually given them advice on anything, so I just e-mailed them to request my name be removed since it suggests I have.

      • Stevne, thanks for the candid response; I hope you will go ahead with the name removal.

  6. Jim Randolph says:

    As an elementary school librarian, this is what I’m always working on with the students in my school. And the adults! In fact, I find the students are sometimes quicker to be skeptical than the adults are. I have a cold and just had two teachers separately tell me to take Airborn for crying out loud.

    • Say WHAT? Steve, I didn’t think you were close to the Dunning/Shermer mold. But, maybe I was gullible.

      For others, from SourceWatch:

      To its credit, it has taken a strong public position against the dangers of tobacco, one of the leading preventable causes of death in today’s society. However, it takes a generally apologetic stance regarding virtually every other health and environmental hazard produced by modern industry, accepting corporate funding from Coca-Cola, Kellogg, General Mills, Pepsico, and the American Beverage Association, among others.

      http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=American_Council_on_Science_and_Health

    • Somite says:

      Oh for fraks sake:

      Sound Science Award
      ACSH awarded author Michael Crichton its 2005 Sound Science Prize for “his defense of sound scientific principles and critiques of junk science” in his novel State of Fear.[2], although ACSH reportedly takes no stand on climate change. The ACSH has not awarded this prize before or since.[3]

      http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=American_Council_on_Science_and_Health#Sound_Science_Award

      • Max says:

        Oh it gets better. Here’s their press release.
        http://www.acsh.org/news/newsID.1224/news_detail.asp

        “The result [of alarmist news headlines] is undue anxiety, costly regulation, unnecessary bans of chemicals, medications, and technologies that when used appropriately can have a positive effect on human health. A perfect example, as both ACSH and Dr. Crichton have pointed out, is the banning of the insecticide DDT, a move responsible for the death of tens of millions of people worldwide, mostly children, due to malaria-carrying mosquitoes.”

      • We’re back to DDT! Steven, since you’re a science adviser, can you get Dunning nominated for a board of directors’ position?

  7. John says:

    I have long since lost count of the number of times that I have sarcastically said to people relating an Internet sourced claim, “Well, since it came from the Internet / email, it MUST be true!”

  8. I think that one thing that really plays into this study is that children are virtually programmed to believe anything an adult in a position of authority directs them to. Hence why thier perception of a possible fraud/hoax seems to get bypassed quite a bit.

  9. Kenneth Polit says:

    The tree octopus story seemed plausible until the mention of the fashion industry using them for hats. At that point I couldn’t stop laughing, pictureing a woman with an octopus on her head. My grandfather told me a long time ago to,”believe none of what you hear and only half of what you read.” I would amend that with,”and almost nothing on the internet.

  10. Max says:

    Did the children in the study still believe in Santa Claus?
    People can learn skepticism by getting burned, like learning not to touch a hot stove. Some go overboard and become cynical or paranoid.

    • tmac57 says:

      It’s an interesting question whether or not getting burned will modify a persons behavior.For me,I really hate finding out that I have passed along incorrect information,and I am quick to correct it when I get the chance,but a couple of acquaintances of mine have been known to pass along internet lore (read BS) with little regard for the truth of it.One of them has been called on it repeatedly,and just shrugs it off as “Don’t blame me,I just pass it along!”

  11. Max says:

    Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
    Like the mimic octopus, which imitates other creatures.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8oQBYw6xxc

    Poe’s law describes a kind of gullibility: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.”
    I wonder how many entries in “Fundies Say the Darndest Things!” are really parodies.
    http://www.fstdt.com

  12. Chris Howard says:

    Are you sure this thing isn’t, actually, Cthulhu!? We’re so screwed, if it is!

    • LovleAnjel says:

      The trees have Euclidean geometry and are not surrounded by glimmering congeries of unrecognizable colors. I think we’re safe.

  13. Beelzebud says:

    Not gullible enough to believe pro-industry propaganda telling me that DDT is safe, and organic farming is pointless.

  14. Jena says:

    What scares the bejesus outta me is those dadburn walking jellyfish. What if they learn to run!?

  15. Peter Ozzie Jones says:

    Hi
    let me try this one then.
    Down in Queensland, Australia there is the tree Kangaroo, Dendrolagus lumholtzi (to lend some credibility).
    For all I know this might have helped them survive in all these dreadful floods at the start of 2011.
    Is that why they moved to spend most of their time above ground?

    • Max says:

      They have to hang on to the trees down under to avoid falling off the Earth. That’s also why they carry babies in a pouch.

  16. steelsheen11b says:

    Australia also has the dreaded drop bear. Sometimes koalas develop an extremely rare form of hydrophobia which cause them to drop onto anybody walking bellow their trees and attack them.

  17. Jacob says:

    This just makes good education all the more important. You can also draw some pretty thick and obvious connections to religion and indoctrination.

  18. Mario says:

    Well this natural gullible tendency of humans is one of the main hypotheses regarding the origin and great acceptance of religions, its unnatural to be skeptical but then again those who are can end up ruling those who aren’t they just don’t acknowledge to the rest instead they shroud themselves as the biggest believers and hence they are followed like moths to a flame without questioning.
    “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”