Gullibility and sustainability

Gullibility and sustainability are connected.

We live in a world where we are over-saturated with information and choice. There are a plethora of news outlets, podcasts, blogs, vlogs, social media, marketing messages and advertising we are inundated with all day, every day. Amongst all that information people are often misled by false claims, disinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories, plus all sorts of cultish quackery. 

Why are we so gullible?

It takes effort to discern the truth. Putting your critical sense into practice to fact-check and analyse claims takes time and energy. It is easier to use a gut-feel approach to decide the veracity of the messages you are hearing. 

The Nobel-laureate psychologist, Daniel Kahneman described these two ways of processing information as two fundamentally different systems.

Intuitive processing is fast, automatic, uncritical and accepts anecdotal information as true. This was an effective information processing method in our evolutionary past when humans lived in small tight-knit groups. In this scenario information is shared face-to-face and the trust in that information is based on life-long relationships. 

Analytic processing is a more recent human ability, in evolutionary terms. It is slow, rational and effortful, and involves the rigorous evaluation of incoming information.

Interestingly, mood can affect the type of processing we use. Positive mood facilitates intuitive processing and therefore gullibility, while negative mood often results in more careful, cautious and attentive processing.

Even though people use both types of processes, people will more often shortcut their processing. Humans must use cognitive shortcuts because if we didn’t we would be constantly overwhelmed by information. For example, in the anonymous online world, intuitive processing of information is not the ideal method and yet people still do it because it is easier.

“Even when we ‘know’ we should be drawing on facts and evidence, we just draw on feelings,” says Eryn Newman, a psychologist who researches and writes about why people accept invalid information. Based on the her (and her colleagues) research Newman suggests our gut reactions are based on five simple questions:

  • Do others believe it? (Social consensus)
  • Is it compatible with what I believe? Is it compatible with what I feel? (Compatibility)
  • Does it tell a good story? (Coherence)
  • Does it come from a credible source? (Credibility)
  • Is there much supporting evidence? (Support)

The reasons we might believe information, even if it is untrue, include the following:

Repetition and familiarity

The more you hear or read information repeated, the more familiar it will feel. This feeling of familiarity tends to be taken as a sign of truth. Also, we tend to trust people who are familiar to us, and believe them even if they are wrong.


We are more likely to believe information if it is explained concisely and clearly so that it makes sense. If what we hear or read is a coherent narrative that can be easily processed then our default is to accept it. If the narrative is presented along with slick images and diagrams we will tend to accept it more easily. In contrast, information that is unfamiliar or difficult to process may not be accepted as true, even when it is.

Group identification

Group identity influences what information we think is factual. This relates to social consensus. We think something is more likely to be true when it’s associated with our own group and comes from an in-group member. On the other hand, we are more likely to be suspicious of information from another group.


Only a small percentage of people know enough science to truly understand scientific explanations. So these explanations will often get overlooked. On the other hand, there are many compelling pseudo-scientific explanations that ‘feel’ right (even though they aren’t) because they are coherent and ‘resonate’ with us.


Of course, information credibility can be evaluated by drawing on the source’s credentials, expertise, affiliations and previous true statements. However, credibility can, and often is, based on intuitive evaluation. Intuitive evaluation can be quite arbitrary. For example, repeatedly seeing a face is sufficient to increase perceived honesty and sincerity. People are also more likely to believe statements when they are made in a familiar and easy to understand accent and when the speaker’s name is easy rather than difficult to pronounce.

“Man once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such persons, gullibility, which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason, and the mind becomes a wreck.”

– Thomas Jefferson

How gullibility affects sustainability

There are many ways in which gullibility affects sustainability, such as:

Economic Growth

We are constantly told that economic growth is absolutely necessary and good. The need for economic growth is so ingrained in our collective psyche we never question it. The fact is that after the economy reaches a sufficient level further growth is neither good nor necessary. Most western countries got to that level decades ago. We don’t need a bigger economy, we need a better one. Read about steady-state economy here -»


Advertising drives people to act irrationally to some extent, and sometimes a lot. By making false claims (always subtly implied) advertising messages work on those who want to believe the claims are true. In this way advertising in effect emotionally blackmails people, and people pay the ransom. Read about bad advertising here -»

Climate change 

The vast majority (near consensus) of scientists who have studied recent climate change say it is caused by greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. Why then do plenty of people think that climate change is a hoax. Often these are people who make profit from climate change, or are influenced by those who make a profit. The prime example is Donald Trump who said that climate change was a hoax invented by the Chinese (read some of Trump’s tweets here-»). The problem here is that Donald Trump is a high profile figure with a large following who he misleads.

Making good

Making good has essentially become about making money and accumulating wealth. Making good is a hoax. Contrary to popular belief, good does not come from having more wealth than you need, only bad does. It has been proven that people who have a materialist attitude are more insecure, have lower self-esteem, have worse relationships and are less authentic than people who are less materialistic. Materialism continues to be ruinous to the environment. Happiness is the side-effect of intrinsic aims such a good relationships, personal improvement and meaningful pursuits. Read more about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic goals -»

Technology will save us

There is a commonly-held belief that technology will fix the social and environmental problems that beset industrial economies. This is not true. There are many cases where technology creates more problems than it solves, this is called problem-shifting. There are always trade-offs, for example, electric cars are seen as a clean solution to emission-belching combustion engine cars, but where does the electricity come from? If it is from coal-fired generation you have just shifted the problem. The simple truth is that we already have the technology to be sustainable but we are kidded into thinking that we don’t. A change in mindset is needed to fix the social and environmental problems that beset industrial economies, not technology.

What is to be done about gullibility?

Gullibility is a big problem; if we are gullible, others will manipulate what we think, and therefore the decisions we make. If we make bad decisions it will affect our own lives, the lives of others and also, depending on the decision, the environment around us.

We must not accept claims without using our critical sense, especially on important issues that could have negative impacts for both people and our shared planet. Do we really need more money or do we need more time?


How Does the Gut Know Truth? The Psychology of Truthiness – Newman, E. J., & Schwarz, N. (2017). APA Science.