Annals of Gullibility: A book review by Bob Morris

Annals of GullibilityAnnals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid It
Stephen Greenspan
PRAEGER (December 2008)

How almost anyone can establish and then sustain “a healthy balance of trust and skepticism

As Donald Connery points out in his excellent Foreword, “What amazes me is that no one before Steve Greenspan has so thoroughly and energetically opened the Pandora’s Box of wonderments about a facet of the human personality that must first have been detected by a cave man con man. It appears to be true that, before this book, no substantial study of gullibility has appeared in the English language, and perhaps not in any language…The findings of this book suggest that every field of endeavor, every profession, every set of human interaction, is replete with examples of people too willing to exploit the gullibility of others, and other people, even if aware of the value of exercising critical judgment, all too ready and even eager to be exploited.”

Greenspan realizes that all people are vulnerable to deception, to betrayals of their trust. His interest is in those who have “an unusual tendency toward being duped or taken advantage of.” Those with this tendency are also of greatest interest to others who are eager and able to dupe them or take advantage of them. Greenspan’s focus is on human-to-human gullibility in literature and folk tales (e.g. Pinocchio and Little Red Riding Hood), religion (e.g. Samson), war and politics (e.g. the Trojan Horse and the Second Iraq War), criminal justice (e.g. accomplices to murder), science and academia (e.g. Sokal Hoax), vulnerable populations (e.g. elderly), and finance and relationships (e.g. inheritance scams). What does Greenspan make of all this?

“Duping is a part of human nature as is gullibility, but one lesson from the study of gullibility is that many people can learn, if they are truly motivated, to function in the world with a healthy balance of trust and skepticism. Thus becoming less gullible can be seen as part of a broader acquisition of interpersonal wisdom.”

These are among the passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest Greenspan’s scope of coverage in Chapters 1-5:

o What Is Gullibility? (Pages 2-5)
o Developmental actors in Gullibility and Its Diminution 6-9)
o Is Gullibility Unique to Humans? (9-12)
o Pinocchio Was One Gullible Puppet (13-16)
o The Emperor’s New Clothes and the Power of Group Modeling (17-20)
o Mark Twain, Chronicler of a Credulous Age (20-22)
o Othello and Other Shakespeare Dupes (27-28)
o Samson and Other Bible Stories (29-e32)
o Gullibility in Anti-Semitism (44-47)
o The Trojan Horse and Military Deception (51-54)
o Groupthink in the Planning of the Vietnam War (54-56)
o Gullibility on the Political Right (60-63)
o Gullibility on the Political Left (63-66)
o Many People Who Accept Conspiracy Theories Are Gullible (66-70)
o A Trial as a Test of a Jury’s Gullibility (75-77)
o Gullibility Toward Crime Scare Stories (81-83)
o Gullibility in the Interrogation Situation (86-89)

So, how can a person learn, “if they are truly motivated, to function in the world with a healthy balance of trust and skepticism”? In the final chapter, Greenspan offers nine practical, doable recommendations. Here are three:

1. Make it a point to avoid impulsive decisions. “I need a day or two to think about this.”
2. Know your limitations. Admit when you don’t know. “Trust but verify.”
3. Be skeptical but not cynical. Don’t question people’s motives. Focus on the given proposition. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. See #2.

I am deeply grateful to Stephen Greenspan for the wealth of valuable information, insights, and counsel that he provides in this book. Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine could possibly do full justice to the material. However, I hope I have at least indicated why I think so highly of him and his work.

Resistance to gullibility can be developed over time through personal experience and, alas, some of the most valuable experience involves being duped. Stated another way, the “tuition” for gaining wisdom can sometimes be substantial. I wholly agree that almost anyone can establish and then sustain “a healthy balance of trust and skepticism” if they read Annals of Gullibility. Forewarned, they will thus be forearmed.

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