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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