Friday, February 21, 2020

"Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe"

From strategy + business:

The evolution of trust
In his new book, Not Born Yesterday, Hugo Mercier argues that humans are wired to see through misinformation and lies.

Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe
by Hugo Mercier, Princeton University Press, 2020
One of the most famous pronouncements in marketing is attributed to the merchant John Wanamaker, who purportedly said: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don't know which half.”

Hugo Mercier has a simple answer: both.

That, at least, is the implication of his important new book, Not Born Yesterday, an entirely surprising disquisition on, as the subtitle has it, “the science of who we trust and what we believe.”

Although many of us share a sense that our fellow humans are gullible naïfs easily roused by demagogues and manipulated by shadowy purveyors of fake news, Mercier contends that quite the opposite is the case. He asserts that the seemingly fearsome weapons of mass influence — advertising, news, and social media — actually have little impact unless credibly sourced and rooted in facts and reason.

Most people, he says, are immune to conspiracy theories and other toxic falsehoods, or hold onto them as a sort of abstract theology that has little concrete effect. To the extent that people do embrace false beliefs, it’s usually as a convenient pretext for views they already hold, actions they already intend, or because a particular falsehood is useful or at least harmless.

Consider advertising. “In 2018, more than half a trillion dollars was spent on advertising worldwide,” the author tells us. Yet the effectiveness of ads is difficult to measure, and probably scant. Mercier quotes a leading marketing expert as saying, “The truth, as many advertisers will quickly admit, is that persuasion is very tough. It is even more difficult to persuade consumers to adopt a new opinion, attitude, or behavior.”

How about propaganda? Even at its most pervasive, as in North Korea, people just go along to save their skins while privately rolling their eyes. “Mass persuasion is tremendously difficult to achieve,” Mercier says. “Even the most dreadful propaganda attempts, from Nazi Germany to Stalinist USSR, have been surprisingly ineffective at changing people's minds.”

The author acknowledges that what he offers in this book is not exactly the standard wisdom. “Arguing against widespread credulity puts me in the minority,” he acknowledges. “A long line of scholarship — from ancient Greece to 21st-century America, from the most progressive to the most reactionary — portrays the mass of people as hopelessly gullible.” And it’s all wrong, he continues. “On the contrary, we are skilled at figuring out who to trust and what to believe, and, if anything, we’re too hard rather than too easy to influence.”...