Sunday, 8 April 2007

Opening the Map

Opening the Map

“If a person swallows the heart of a mole, fresh from the body and still palpitating, he will receive the gift of divination…and a foreknowledge of future events.”

AD 77 PLINY - In A Dictionary of Superstitions. Ed.Iona Opie and Moira Tatem. Oxford University Press, 1996

Both of us have an interest in gambling. One of us spent over a decade as a senior executive in the gaming industry. One of us continues to enjoy developing his foreknowledge of future events with a moderate degree of success, if the ‘going’, horse and jockey allow. Neither of us has ever eaten a mole’s heart. To that extent we consider ourselves less gullible than your average ancient Roman.

The gambling industry, as well as providing fun and a thrill for many people is an industry that depends to a significant degree on a phenomenon known as the ‘illusion of control’ see :

  • Langer, E. J. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 311-328. And
  • Langer, E. J., & Roth, J. (1975). Heads I win, tails its chance: The illusion of control as a function of the sequence of outcomes in a purely chance task. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 951-955.)

The illusion of control is described by the authors as the belief held by some people that they have more influence over gambling outcomes than they really do. When people hold beliefs like this, such that there is a ‘gap’ between reality and expectation we might term this ‘gullibility. But what exactly is gullibility and how does it work? Here are a couple of definitions.

‘Gullibility’ - “Capable of being gulled or duped; easily cheated, befooled.” As defined in The Oxford English Dictionary) and its adjective ‘Gullible’ - credulous, naive, over-trusting, over-trustful, easily deceived, easily taken in, exploitable, dupable, impressionable, unsuspecting, unsuspicious, unwary, ingenuous, innocent, inexperienced, unworldly, green; informal wet behind the ears, born yesterday.” From The Oxford Paperback Thesaurus. Ed. Maurice Waite. Oxford University Press, 2001. Ring any bells? The Oxford Thesaurus helpfully offers an opposite adjective to gullible by way of contrast - ‘suspicious’, which if you are, probably means you won’t be gullible. This is another notion we shall be returning to.

The origin of the word ‘gullible’ (For those who might not know, the study of the origin and the language roots of words is known as Etymology). apparently goes back to the middle-ages and the word ‘gull’. It was both a noun and a verb, so you could gull a gull if you wanted to. The word seemingly meant to ‘swallow’, which of course gulls do a lot of. In more modern times the notion of gullibility has become associated with Phi leas T. Barnum, the nineteenth century founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus in the U.S.A. Barnum had a reputation for aggressively hyping and successfully promoting his acts and freak shows, and is popularly associated with that wallet clenching phrase of the super salesman “there’s a sucker born every minute”. The minute you believe that amazing ‘fact’ however, you really would be a sucker!

It was actually a phrase used by David Hannum a competitor of Barnum’s and head of a syndicate that had invested in a fake (unbeknown to them) ‘archeological’ exhibit of a Giant that had really been carved out of gypsum and buried in the grounds of a house a few weeks earlier by a hoaxer. When Hannum rejected an investment offer by Barnum in this newly discovered curiosity, Barnum decided to steal both Hannum’s thunder and his exhibition customers by having his own ‘fake’ giant created, and advertising it as the genuine giant and Hannum’s as a fake. Hannum tried to sue Barnum for ruining his business, at the same time uttering the infamous ‘suckers’ phrase to characterize any punters visiting the Barnum giant. Unfortunately for Hannum the hoaxer came forward and the judge decided that Barnum couldn’t be sued for calling a fake a fake. Ouch! Somehow poor old Barnum got saddled with the responsibility for his competitor’s outburst. Social psychologists today use the term ‘Barnum Effect’ (Psychologist Paul Meeh is the possible originator of the term) as the common name for a psychological phenomenon called ‘subjective validation’. Its other name is the Forer Effect after psychologist B.R.Forer. In particular Forer noticed that people will apply any vague, positive and complimentary personality descriptions uniquely to themselves. He demonstrated this in 1948 when he gave the following personal analysis to some students and asked them to rate it out of 5, with 5 representing ‘very like me’ and 1 representing “nothing like me”. Why not judge for yourself?

“You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic”

Forer B.R. (1949 The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility. Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology, 44 118-123

The average student rating was 4.26. Forer then told each student that they had been given the same analysis. (cue previous soundtrack!) . Of course, witty, charming , good-looking, intelligent, perceptive, successful and discerning readers like yourself would never have fallen for it.

Gullibility it seems relies in part on our ability to want things to be true, a misplaced belief that we are more competent and skillful than we really are, an unfailing ability to ignore any information that suggests we might be wrong, and blind faith in people we have given higher status to than oursleves. (It would seem that Arrogance uses all of these characteristics apart from the last one) It is for these reasons that the authors have never entered Pop Idol and that large numbers of people read astrology columns and enjoy magic shows. Of course allowing ourselves to be gulled is often entertaining and the stage magician’s skill of mentalism, which is used to apparently read the mind of willing members of the audience makes use of the subjective validation phenomenon. There is of course a darker side.

Jeffery Deaver in his novel The Vanished Man shows how a magicians skills in the hands of devious and cold blooded murderer can be used to manipulate both victims and law enforcers. Mentalism is one skill that the ‘perp’ uses to ingrataite himself with a potential target. Similarly Robert T. Caroll - The Skeptic's Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions. Wiley 2003 directs our attention (read The Vanished Man for more on ‘directing attenton’!) to the art of Cold Reading employed by people intent on taking advantage our gullibility. He writes:

Cold reading goes beyond the usual tools of manipulation: suggestion and flattery. In cold reading, salespersons, hypnotists, advertising pros, faith healers, con men, and some therapists bank upon their subject's inclination to find more meaning in a situation than there actually is… The manipulator knows that his mark will be inclined to try to make sense out of whatever he is told, no matter how farfetched or improbable.” See

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