What is credulity? Broadly speaking, it consists of the ease with which we believe what others tell us. A cognitive scientist, Hugo Mercier, drew a total of 10 very interesting conclusions in relation to this phenomenon. According to him, we are much less gullible than has been believed so far.

This author talks about the little influence that the massive persuasion that comes to us from advertising, politics, religion… exerts on us, and on the other hand, he mentions the influence that people close to us, and whom we trust, do exert on us.

Don’t miss this article if you want to know why, always according to Mercier, we actually believe ourselves much less than we have always thought .

Credulity: 10 conclusions about it

Credulity is the ease with which people believe the things others tell us. Logically, there are different degrees of credulity, since not all of us are equally “credulous” (i.e. there are people who believe everything, for example, and very skeptical people).

Hugo Mercier, a cognitive scientist at the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris, co-author of the book The Enigma of Reason (“The Enigma of Reason”), decided to study the phenomenon of credulity.

According to this researcher, we are not as gullible as we have been led to believe so far, and neither political campaigns, nor advertising, nor religion, nor, in short, attempts at mass persuasion, influence us as much as has been thought so far.

Beyond this first conclusion, Mercier elaborated up to 10 conclusions in relation to credulity . They are the following.

1. “I am not gullible, but the other one is”

Mercier’s first conclusion about credulity, through his research, is this: people believe that they are not credulous, but nevertheless, they think that others are. In social psychology, this phenomenon is called the third person effect .

Thus, through him, we believe that we are not influenced by advertisements, by political leaders… but that the others are. And if this, unconsciously, makes us even more influential… (because we are not “on guard”). Everything can be.

2. People are not gullible

In line with the above, Mercier also believes that people are not gullible, and that they are not easily fooled.

Mercier alludes to different studies of experimental psychology linked to credulity, which show how people do not believe everything they are told, but rather the opposite ; we consider different variables that lead us to decide to what extent we should or should not believe the other person (for example, we believe more things that come from people who are informed and competent, and also attractive…).

Besides, if what we are told does not fit with what we think (with our beliefs), a priori we reject it.

3. Under the power of political propaganda

According to Mercier, and also based on the studies existing so far, the propaganda that is broadcast in the totalitarian regimes, does not change our beliefs.

According to him, if we join an extremist party or political leader, for example, it is because we have an interest in it, not because we have been “convinced” of anything (i.e. not because of our credulity).

On the other hand, it also suggests that political propaganda, in any case, accentuates our beliefs (gives them strength), but does not change them radically .

4. The failure of political campaigns

The next conclusion Mercier draws regarding credulity is that political campaigns fail to persuade or convince citizens to vote for one party or another.

At most, they exert influence when voters have to decide beyond “right or left” (and this influence is moderate). As always, Mercier draws on research findings, citing a recent meta-analysis that examines the effect of political campaigns on U.S. citizens. This meta-analysis reflects the above findings.

5. Failure also of advertising

Advertising is another tool that could have an effect on our credulity. Moreover, in general, many more millions of euros are invested in advertising than in political campaigns.

Well, another conclusion Mercier reaches is that the effect of advertising on our decisions is not relevant either . According to him, based on different studies (some of them very old), advertising messages get lost along the way, because they reach the heads of people without credulity.

6. Dumb” people are more influential… false

Another very interesting conclusion from Mercier, on the phenomenon of gullibility, is that the assumption that “dumb” (or lower-intellectual) people are more influential is totally false. We insist that all this is according to this author.

Moreover, he adds that, in order to influence people, what we must do is not prevent them from thinking, but precisely the opposite, encourage them to think more, offering them reasons to believe that we are right.

7. Myths, rumors… harmless

Another idea about credulity, according to the same scientist, is that most false beliefs (or even absurd beliefs) are actually harmless .

We talk, specifically, about “hoaxes”, legends, rumors, myths… according to Mercier, we believe that they influence us, and we believe “that we believe them”, but in reality they do not influence our thoughts or behavior.

8. We transmit the myths even if they do not influence us

Mercier’s eighth conclusion regarding credulity is the following: although myths or legends do not influence our behavior, they do influence one of them; verbal behavior. We refer to the fact of transmitting these myths or legends, from mouth to mouth, even if they do not really influence us.

9. People are rationally skeptical

Another idea of mercier is this: people are not stubborn, they are very skeptical from a rational point of view.

Thus, if we are not offered good reasons (powerful reasons) to change our mind or to think in a certain way, we do not do it . On the other hand, if we are given good reasons (especially by people close to us), we are “easily” influenced.

10. Information overload makes us incredulous

Scientist Hugo Mercier’s latest conclusion about credulity is that we need more information to be influential, not less, as has always been thought. It is a reality that we are overloaded with information, and that we are bombarded with it everywhere on a daily basis (from advertising to social networks).

Well, since we cannot classify this information, nor locate it, nor reflect on it… because we have neither time (it is impossible to do so, there is too much!) nor motivation to do so , we simply continue to be installed in our scepticism, and we do not accept it as valid (we do not let it influence us).

Bibliographic references:

  • De Vega, M. (1990). Introduction to Cognitive Psychology. Psychology Alliance. Madrid.
  • Mercier, H. and Sperber, D. (2017). The enigma of reason. A New Theory of Human Understanding.
  • Real Academia Española (RAE): Diccionario de la lengua española, 23rd ed., [version 23.3 online]. https://dle.rae.es [Date of consultation: 26 January 2020].