Our betters need to believe that we are gullible. Not so, says Hugo Mercier, whose recent book, Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe (2020), takes a different position from that of the campus fatheads. The real story is more complex and more likely, according to a recent profile review:
But if anything, Mercier argues, we are inclined to give ourselves problems not by trusting too easily, but by being too difficult to persuade. We default to the status quo, more receptive to ideas that reinforce our worldview than those that challenge it. We doubt the motivations of unknown sources. We “make more errors of omission (not trusting when we should) than of commission (trusting when we shouldn’t)”…
Taking a historical view, it has been socially and politically useful to dismiss the masses as gullible, like children or animals, easily swayed by emotion, by demagogues, or by psychological manipulation. The masses couldn’t be trusted with political power (if you wanted to preserve the status quo from radical change) or they are easily corrupted and make the ‘wrong’ political choices (if you want to explain why radical change still hasn’t happened). Democracy is harder to defend if you portray voters as gullible.
And yet, there is little evidence that voters are too easily swayed. Throughout history, demagogues have generally succeeded, argues Mercier, either by surfing existing ideas or by repression, using propaganda more as a signal of power than a means of persuasion. Even current microtargeting techniques using social media have been shown to have little or no effect on votes cast.Timandra Harkness, “Who are you calling gullible?” at Unherd
That’s a salient point (“propaganda more as a signal of power than a means of persuasion”). If you have to say that the Great Leader’s economic policies are wonderful just to get anywhere near the head of the bread lineup, it’s just not the same discussion any more.
Here’s what happens when the “betters” get control of the story:
China: Rewriting the History of COVID-19—Making the government the improbable hero of the tale (Heather Zeiger) Chinese scientists worked together swiftly and seamlessly to sequence the virus, (completed February 25), even as the government was downplaying the extent of the problem and silencing doctors who attempted to warn colleagues and the public. The Wuhan public erupted in anger when the government demanded a show of gratitude for ITS efforts rather than theirs.