Are you the type of person who takes everyone’s word at face value? Can you be easily fooled when someone plays a trick on you? If other people look up at nothing on the ceiling, do you too? How about your response to email “phishing”? You might have learned not to give a self-proclaimed Nigerian prince access to your bank account, but you might click on a link from someone falsely claiming to offer you a chance to win a free trip. There’s nothing wrong with being high on trust, especially if you feel confident that other people have your best interests at heart. Trust turns into gullibility, however, when the trust is not well-placed.
According to Macquarie University’s Alessandra Teunisse and colleagues (2020), despite the fact that scams have become a part of everyday life, there is little psychological research on the gullibility that leads those scams to work. Indeed, the Australian authors note, “In 2017, financial and romantic scams cost consumers in the United States more than US$1.42 billion” (p. 408), resulting in more than 300,000 complaints made to government authorities in that one year alone. However, psychology has established the fact that people are amazingly likely to accept pseudoscientific claims that amount to no more than superstition and magic, such as paranormal phenomena.
Gullibility goes beyond a lack of critical thinking, however. In gullibility, you succumb to a false premise, such as that belief a Nigerian prince is going to make you rich. Teunisse et al. believe that gullibility is an enduring personality trait that make people more likely to become victims of all kinds of scams. Even in the face of potential cues suggesting they’re being scammed or fooled, gullible people show a type of “deception blindness” to cues that someone else is untrustworthy. Furthermore, their gullibility can’t be explained by situational factors, such as being tired, distracted, or overwhelmed with requests and offers that clog up your email inbox. Gullible people, the Australian authors propose, are low on the social intelligence that allows them to sniff out a fake offer, request, or even potential romantic partner’s interest in you.
People who are gullible may additionally, according to Teunisse et al., be highly responsive to persuasion tactics, such as the pressure of a charming and convincing salesperson. How many times have you been led to buy something you didn’t really need because it sounded like you were getting a fantastic offer? In your relationships, were you ever talked into revealing more about yourself than you intended to by an ingratiating potential partner? Later on, you regret having given in to these people because neither the deal nor the partner were as good as they sounded in the heat of the moment. It’s not that the offer was necessarily based on false pretenses, but that you became pressured by their highly manipulative tactics into a decision that was not exactly ideal.
Across a series of five studies using samples that included both undergraduate and online adult participants, the Australian authors tested and then refined their 12-item gullibility scale. Composed of two factors, Persuadability and Insensitivity to Untrustworthiness Cues, you can test yourself on this measure by rating yourself on each of the following statements on a 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) scale:
- I’m pretty good at working out when someone is trying to fool me.
- I’m usually quick to notice when someone is trying to cheat me.
- I’m pretty poor at working out if someone is tricking me.
- I quickly realize when someone is pulling my leg.
- It usually takes me a while to “catch on” when someone is deceiving me.
- I’m not that good at reading the signs that someone is trying to manipulate me.
- My family thinks I am an easy target for scammers.
- If anyone is likely to fall for a scam, it’s me.
- My friends think I’m easily fooled.
- Overall, I’m pretty easily manipulated.
- People think I’m a little naïve.
- I guess I am more gullible than the average person.
To score yourself, reverse your ratings on numbers 1, 2, and 4 so that the “strongly agree’s” become “strongly disagree’s.” Now, calculate your total on items 1 to 6 to measure your Insensitivity to Untrustworthiness, and items 7-12 to score your Persuadability. On average, participants scored between 16-17 on Persuadibility (i.e. toward the low end of the scale) and slightly higher on the Insensitivity scale, between 18-19. If your scores were above 22 to 23 on these two scales, this suggests that you may want to turn up your antenna when others are trying to lure you into a trap.
Various tests of the full Gullibility scale the authors conducted to establish its validity included, for example, correlating its scores on such measures as social intelligence (social skills and social awareness), sense of trust in others, actual fallibility to scams in the past, belief in the paranormal, and a measure of “Pseudo-profound bull***t), in which participants rated whether randomly-generated sentences were “profound.” One of the studies specifically examined gullibility scores in a self-identified online community of “Skeptics.” Based on the idea that people high in gullibility may have lower intelligence, the Australian authors also tested the relationship of their scale with measures of nonverbal intelligence.
The main finding to emerge from these tests of the Gullibility scale was that high scores were related primarily to social intelligence, including the ability to take other people’s perspective. If you’re a person high in gullibility, your best way of gaining a little healthy skepticism seems to be that you wait before you jump into a deal, relationship, or email and ask yourself whether something doesn’t seem quite right. Lowering your gullibility, as the authors suggest, might make you more resistant to fall for fake news, join cults, or be tempted by a romance scam.
To sum up, gullibility may very well be a stable personality trait. However, measuring yours can help guide you in figuring out how to resist the social influences that can lead you into trouble.
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