Sorry to say it, but you’re probably a lot more gullible than you think you are. It’s okay, everyone is. Even the most cynical people, who are rarely swayed by an argument, are a lot less tough-minded than they think — regardless of how easily convinced we are by other people, we’re all pretty good at convincing ourselves of just about anything. As Matthew Hutson recently put it in Scientific American, “We tell ourselves we’re smarter and better looking than our friends, that our political party can do no wrong, that we’re too busy to help a colleague.”
And maybe one of those is true! More likely, though, you’ve just fallen victim to your own powers of persuasion. In the 1970s, psychologist Richard Trivers put forth a theory as to why we’re so willing to fall for our own arguments: If we can successfully fool ourselves, it makes it easier to fool others in a way that helps us out. And now, for the first time, published research backs him up.
In the study, recently published in the Journal of Economic Psychology and highlighted by Hutson at SciAm, Trivers and his colleagues focused on how people filter the information they consume in order to manipulate their own beliefs, the first step in the process he outlined more than 40 years ago. The researchers recruited around 300 people to write an essay about a character named Mark, either trashing him or extolling his virtues, and told the participants that they’d be rewarded for making their arguments as believable as possible. After the volunteers received their instructions, they got to know “Mark” by watching videos of him in situations both good (recycling) and bad (fighting). For one group, the videos went in order from positive to negative, so that Mark started out as a saint and ended up as a jerk; for another group, the scenarios went in the opposite direction.
Importantly, participants were also told they could quit watching at any time, as soon as they had enough info to complete the assignment. From Hutson:
When incentivized to present Mark as likable, people who watched the likable videos first stopped watching sooner than those who saw unlikable videos first. The former did not wait for a complete picture as long as they got the information they needed to convince themselves, and others, of Mark’s goodness. In turn, their own opinions about Mark were more positive, which led their essays about his good nature to be more convincing, as rated by other participants. (A complementary process occurred for those paid to present Mark as bad.)
“What’s so interesting,” study co-author William von Hippel, a psychology professor at the University of Queensland in Australia, told Hutson, “is that we seem to intuitively understand that if we can get ourselves to believe something first, we’ll be more effective at getting others to believe it.” And if you’re strategic about it, for better or worse, you can get yourself to believe quite a bit.