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  • Nicholas J Johnson

Why do intelligent people make such good suckers?

One of the great shames of my life is that, for a two year period, I believed Mr Ed, the talking sitcom horse, was a zebra. Producers of the show found that zebras are easier to train than horses, particularly ones that they’ve lived their whole lives in captivity. Add to this the fact that a zebra’s stripes are too complex a pattern to show up on black and white television and it makes sense.

I believed this ridiculous lie because it appeared on Snopes. My long time fandom of the urban legend fact checking website cultivated such levels of trust that I blindly believed the article. In reality, the creators of Snopes had included several such bullshit stories in order to remind readers that:

“No single truth purveyor, no matter how reliable, should be considered an infallible font of accurate information. Folks make mistakes. Or they get duped. Or they have a bad day at the fact-checking bureau. Or some days they’re just being silly.”

They only comfort I get from falling hook, line and sinker for their hoax is that maybe that means I’m very intelligent.

A study at Oxford University revealed that intelligent people are more likely to trust others while those with lower measures of braininess are less likely to trust people.

“Intelligent people are more likely to trust others, while those who score lower on measures of intelligence are less likely to do so.”

Oxford University researchers based their finding on an analysis of the General Social Survey, a nationally representative public opinion survey carried out in the United States every one to two years.

While they offered no concrete reasons why this occurs, the researchers suggested it could be because intelligent people are better judges of character and therefore build relationships with people who want stab them on the back. We trust the people in our lives because we’re smart enough to build relationships with trustworthy people.

However, at the same time, a study from the University of Leicester showed that people who had rough upbringings were also more likely to be trusting.

Rather than making us streetwise or toughened up, experiencing early challenges or trauma makes us more vulnerable to being taken for a ride.

So, on the one hand, you have clever people who can become gullible because they haven’t had bad experiences, leading them to trust their own judgment and put their faith in others.

On the other hand, you have victims of trauma who can become gullible because they have had bad experiences with other leading them to doubt their own judgement….and so instead put their faith in others.

As Stephen Greenspan, author of the Annals of Gullibility puts it:

“I suspect that one reason why psychologists and other social scientists have avoided studying gullibility is because it is affected by so many factors, and is so context-dependent that it is impossible to predict whether and under what circumstances a person will behave gullibly.”  

After all, a recent review of these types of studies showed that more than half of these types of studies couldn’t be trusted.

So maybe the real suckers are people who read articles like this.

Nicholas J. Johnson is an author, collector of scams and magician in Melbourne, Australia.


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