Dr. Jeff Kane: What’s your Gullibility Quotient?
A few words about mental health …
My friend Lloyd, whose hobby is collecting conspiracies, warned me about something pretty ominous if it’s true. “The airlines have a contract with the government,” he told me, “to spray neurotransmitters on us — you know, serotonin and dopamine and all that. It’s meant to rile us up on Monday, calm us down Tuesday, whatever they want.”
Sounded unlikely, but these days you never know. So I called the government, asked about it, and was answered by a pleasant voice saying, “Certainly not. That would be illegal. Certainly not. That would…” Hanging up, I decided it was time to review my understanding of knowledge itself, including what we think we know, what we don’t know, and what we can’t know.
My Gullibility Quotient, a fictional measure I invented, happens to be 20, meaning I believe about a fifth of what I’m told. Some call me cynical, but I nevertheless seem to get along okay. What’s your GQ? My friend Tanya has a GQ of 2. She believes almost nothing, which leaves her scant imagination and no sense of humor. Lloyd, who I told you about, has a GQ of 89. He embraces so many rumors, even contradictory ones, that he can’t even read a menu without flying into a conspiracy rage.
The reason I bring this up is that we’re having our personal Gullibility Quotients tested by a flood of counterfeit information. We’re daily deluged with increasingly plausible misrepresentations of reality. As you read this, developing technologies are raising four-dimensional lying to a fine art. We need to ask ourselves how we’ll navigate this kaleidoscopic reality.
Maybe you’ve seen the video showing Richard Nixon dancing naked with hippies at Woodstock. Of course, you knew it was fake, and you muttered to yourself, “What’ll they think of next?” What’s next is software now available that learns how to copy your unique voice, and then speaks it as you type text.
Considering the speed of high-tech fakery advances, it’s easy to imagine a near future in which any message might be manipulative — to persuade us to buy, to provoke doubt or to confirm our beliefs. That will cast a shadow on virtually all information. We won’t feel confident about any document, photo, audio or video that’s presented to us. What happens to the rule of law, for example, when virtually all court evidence is challengeable? We’ll gradually lose faith in what we call “objective” truth, and fixate instead on what we choose to believe.
To a great extent we already believe exactly what we want to believe, with or without evidence. Strangely, this can be a practical strategy. We use it to make major life decisions like whom to fall in love with, whether to live here or there, or what job to take. Even if we make a rational list of pros and cons, we ultimately decide with our gut.
This method isn’t foolproof, of course, since we’re influenced by others’ opinions, wishful thinking and phony information. Subjective assessment of reality is a perfectible skill that demands lifelong practice. Considering the dystopian world that’s now emerging, we’d do well to begin honing this skill today. And by the way, the word “gullibility” isn’t in the dictionary anymore.
Jeff Kane is a physician and writer in Nevada City.
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