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How to protect ourselves from deception

07 July 2021

Just how gullible are we? When do we accept information without thinking, and when do we deploy our ‘bullshit radar’? These are relevant questions in these times of deceptive advertising, fake news and misinformation about the coronavirus. Last spring, Professor Bob Fennis was awarded a substantial grant from the Dutch Research Council (NWO) to study this subject.

Text: Kirsten Otten; Photo: ANP; Source: Broerstraat 5

Bob Fennis

So, the obvious question: how gullible is Professor Fennis?

‘Terribly, I’m the most gullible kid on the block. I say yes to everything… I have got cupboards full of products that I never use but thought I really needed, while I have been researching hidden persuasion for 25 years!’

Have you got an explanation for that?

‘Well, it is not yet based on solid argumentation, because that is what Kai Epstude and I are going to research together with our team over the next few years with some experiments, but there are socio-psychological theories that apply to this subject and that we will certainly make use of in our research.’

Can you give an example?

‘One important theory is truth bias, or truth preconception: the human tendency to initially accept any new information. It is only later that you might think that you should question something, and perhaps even reject it, but by then you are 1-0 behind. This is closely related to our System 1 (automatic brain, Ed.) / System 2 (rational brain, Ed.) thinking: in everyday life, we assess new situations at high speed, as in a reflex. Then, if we have the time and motivation to consider it more carefully, we can change our mind. However, that time and motivation are often lacking. Based on truth preconception, we can assume that there is a lot of false information floating around in all of our systems that goes uncorrected.’

And that is why the pile of unused stuff keeps growing in your cupboard?

‘Or, much worse, you end up in a “bubble”, in which it is completely acceptable to think that you will be implanted with a chip when you get a coronavirus vaccination, or you become an angry Trump supporter who says that the elections were stolen. Or, you get tangled up in an unpleasant financial construction. In such situations, the rational brain has to compete with the established opinion.’

What is the aim of your research?

‘Based on socio-psychological theory developments, we want to put together and test a practical model that can be used to predict when we are more or less gullible. Gullibility versus scepticism, that is what it is about. We also want to look into what we can do to effectively protect ourselves from deception.’

Is the level of gullibility largely a question of character?

‘Certain character traits certainly play a role. A few years ago – in a great study on pseudo-profound bullshit in marketing – I looked into how open people are to new information. People who tend to be very open generally live without preconceptions, do not take shortcuts in their thinking, do not think in stereotypes and take the time and the space to consider things. They also easily embrace more obscure information, which may be threatening to other people. Normally, we find openness a good quality in a person, but it also has its downside because it can give bullshit free rein. I see it in my own circle of friends: people who are extremely tolerant, fair and open, but now listen to fake news about Covid-19. Their door is always open, but also for this kind of thing.’

So, what now?

‘The message itself can also contain certain elements that mean that you are more likely to believe it. Giving the impression that you are presenting a conclusion is a powerful method, irrespective of whether or not that conclusion is correct. If you use words such as “therefore”, “consequently” or “so”, many people automatically think: oh yes, that must be right. The same applies if a photograph is used to accompany a message or a claim: even if that photograph has nothing to do with the message, it makes the message more plausible. After all, a photograph records something that really exists, and therefore gives the suggestion of truth, which radiates like a kind of halo on the claim or the message. The photograph is a fact, so the statement must be a fact. There are many more examples, which we are going to investigate and place in a dynamic framework that we can use to determine which elements in messages ensure that people are more or less easily persuaded.’

You say that you want to protect people from deception. Is that really necessary? Have we not always been exposed to deception?

‘Deception is in itself nothing new, but the growing online component in our lives means that we are seeing an enormous increase in deceptive advertising, fake news, misinformation and false claims. The way in which such false claims are made, with absolutely no shame, and the problems that it can cause are, however, new. Take the storming of the Capitol, which was almost a coup based on misinformation. But also the QAnon madness, or pizzagate: there sometimes seem to be no limits to the rubbish that people will swallow. And the impact is huge. On the other hand, people really can be alert and sceptical, but you don’t really get to see that side. In our project, we both want illuminate both of these sides.’

Do you already have an idea about how people can defend themselves?

‘By not only looking at gullibility but also at when the critical radar switches on, we want to create pegs on which we can hang the development of interventions to make people more resistant. We need to find out what the psychological corks are on which resistance floats and to try to translate them into a practical tool. I have already researched influence warnings. They work really well, because if you say: “Watch out, because soon…” people immediately dig their heels in the sand. An automatic alert is very easy to add to online messages in which certain suspect elements are used, and Twitter is already experimenting with them a bit.’

‘If I had to make a recommendation now – but this really is getting ahead of ourselves – then I think that it is much better to have your critical radar on permanently than to be one step behind every time. If the door is closed, it is much safer from this perspective. But, of course, it is probably not possible and not really in keeping with human nature, because we do tend to have initial openness. Anyway, as you can see, we still have a lot to do in the coming years!’


Bob Fennis (Tilburg, 1968) studied communication studies in Nijmegen and social psychology in Utrecht, where he also obtained his PhD. Since 2010, he has been Professor of Consumer Behaviour at the Department of Marketing of the Faculty of Economics and Business at the UG, where his research includes the functioning of marketing communication and, in particular, unconscious influences on consumers. Together with his colleague Kai Epstude (Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences), he was awarded an NWO grant of over €300,000 for research into people’s gullibility in different situations. The study will start in September, in partnership with a PhD student and international leading researchers Richard Petty (Ohio State University) and Dolores Albarracin (University of Illinois).

Last modified:11 October 2021 1.56 p.m.
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