Most of us consider ourselves pretty smart; in fact, the majority of people think that they’re smarter than they are. Likewise, more than half of people think that they’re above-average drivers.
Simple math shows us that at least some of them have to be mistaken. What’s perhaps stranger, though, is that this effect has a reverse side: people who know something about some subject tend to think that strangers understand more about it than they actually do. If, for instance, someone skilled in financial matters is approached by some Bernie Madoff wannabe who acts confidently and knows all the right words, they might well be taken in as easily as any of us.
In such a case, the scam artist’s apparent credibility is based on how they seem to know something the rest of us don’t, and may be further bolstered by their supposed social status, mutual acquaintances, and a feigned sense of urgency. Later, our own ego-sustaining “I’m smarter than the others” reflex can kick in, causing us to ignore even obvious warning signs. This is actually an extremely common feature of Ponzi scam victims.
The above is only one example of how a person may be duped, maybe even a simple one. This book delves much more deeply into the subject of deception, whether in a romantic, business, political, or other context. It’s certainly not meant to teach you how to lie, but rather to help you protect yourself against falling for someone’s tricks.
It draws inspiration from several facets of life, ranging from mythology and religion to the legal system and politics, distilling this into what the author calls a “multidimensional theory of gullibility”. If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is: it’s written from the perspective of a Ph.D, so you should expect a fairly challenging, yet highly entertaining, read.
There’s a kind of postscript to this that’s simply too interesting not to mention. Remember how we referred to Bernie Madoff earlier? The author, one of the foremost experts in the world on gullibility, actually lost a third of his retirement savings to that particular scam. However, unlike many other victims, including several financially sophisticated investors, he declined to distance his name from the scandal, instead writing an article (later reprinted in the Wall Street Journal) in which he analyzes exactly how he was fooled.
The point here is that intelligence and even specialized knowledge isn’t enough to protect you from being lied to. In a world riddled with false advertising, toxic workplace politics, “fake news”, and hustlers of various types, all of us need to work towards striking a balance between trust and skepticism.