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Not Born Yesterday

The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe

By Hugo Mercier
12-minute read
Audio available
Not Born Yesterday by Hugo Mercier

What’s it about?

Not Born Yesterday (2020) investigates common claims that humans are inherently gullible creatures. With the help of studies, evolutionary biology, and historical anecdotes, the author chips away at these claims one by one. He shows that humans have actually developed sophisticated cognitive mechanisms designed to aid the decisions of who to trust, what to believe, when to change our minds, and how to reject implausible information.

Who’s it for?

  • History buffs
  • Anyone interested in evolutionary psychology
  • People wondering how to trust what others say and do

About the author

Hugo Mercier is a cognitive scientist at the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris. His research interests are focused on cognitive reasoning and epistemic vigilance, which he refers to as “open vigilance.” He also cowrote The Enigma of Reason, which explores why reason developed in humans – and not in other animals – and considers its clear evolutionary advantages.

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Not Born Yesterday

The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe

By Hugo Mercier
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
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Not Born Yesterday by Hugo Mercier
Synopsis

What’s it about?

Not Born Yesterday (2020) investigates common claims that humans are inherently gullible creatures. With the help of studies, evolutionary biology, and historical anecdotes, the author chips away at these claims one by one. He shows that humans have actually developed sophisticated cognitive mechanisms designed to aid the decisions of who to trust, what to believe, when to change our minds, and how to reject implausible information.

Key idea 1 of 7

When deciding what to believe, we seek out beliefs that speak to our goals and match our views.

Imagine you’re on your way home when a man stops you. He’s well-dressed and gives off an air of sophistication. He tells you he’s a doctor and needs to get to the hospital at once. There’s just one problem: he’s lost his wallet, so he can’t pay for a taxi. Could you lend him 20 bucks? It’s urgent!

You don’t buy his story at first, but he seems honest. His business card looks professional, and you’re assured his secretary will wire you the money this afternoon. After a bit more coaxing, you hand over the cash. But later, when you call the number, you don’t get through to his secretary. In fact, nobody picks up. There is no doctor – only one man with a compelling lie. 

This happened to the author 20 years ago. How did he fall for it? 

The key message here is: When deciding what to believe, we seek out beliefs that speak to our goals and match our views. 

Many scholars and social psychologists point to historical attempts to persuade the masses, like the Nazi propaganda machine, as proof that humans are inherently gullible. But studies on propaganda exposure show that repeated contact with propaganda had zero effect on levels of anti-Semitism. In fact, regions most sympathetic to the Nazi propaganda already had historically high levels of anti-Semitism. If anything, it’s proof of how difficult it is to influence people. 

This hasn’t stopped critical anthropologists from pushing the fax model of internalization as a reason for our persuasion. The theory argues that people indiscriminately soak up the culture around them and pass down this cultural information through the generations. And it’s true – many of our daily actions, such as speaking or getting dressed, are informed by our culture. But this model falls short by underestimating the potential cultural variation in societies. Can we really blindly copy everything around us if there are so many differences? 

The short answer is no. Every member of a group might behave similarly but still exhibit major differences. Ask a hundred artists to paint a sunflower from memory, and you’ll get a hundred different sunflowers. So how do we choose who to copy?

When deciding what to believe, it turns out, we seek beliefs that already match our own views. Contrary to popular opinion, we’re not intrinsically gullible and don’t simply conform or follow leaders because they’re captivating. Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t be mistaken from time to time, like trusting a “doctor” in need of help – especially when we find information that matches our views. 

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