Years ago, my cousin Sue found herself in desperate financial straits. She was over extended and needed a consolidation loan to sort it all out. But our local lenders had turned her down for such a loan and she was looking bankruptcy in the face…until she spotted an ad in the classified section of our local newspaper that promised loans to people who had been turned down by more conventional lenders.
She answered the ad but soon found herself in a quandary: there was a $600 “loan origination fee,” and she didn’t have the $600—I found out about this because she asked me to loan her the money, promising to pay me back as soon as the loan came through. She came by my house to pick up the money and in her hand she had a FedEx envelope and in my head the red flags began waving furiously.
I pointed out to Sue that the “lender” wanting the fee was suspicious, the lender wanting her to send the money via money order or certified check was suspicious, the use of FedEx rather than the regular mail was super-suspicious. But Sue explained it all away, attempting to allay my fears in the same way she had allayed her own: loan origination fees were not uncommon (even though wanting the money up front was unheard of), why would a lender trust a check from a person who is desperate enough for funds to answer a classified ad, and the FedEx was just a way to expedite things, not a way to avoid being arrested for mail fraud.
Well, you probably guessed it—it was a scam, Sue lost the $600 and the so-called lender was never heard from again. I sent her to a debt counselling service that helped her dig herself out of the financial hole she was in and she lived another 20 years in much better financial health due to the lessons she learned.
We have all heard tales of people who lost their life savings in various scams: the Nigerian scam, Ponzi schemes, even putting money down to rent a property at an incredibly good price, only to find out on moving day that twenty other people also think they have rented the property. We have heard of young women going out with someone they met on the internet, only to end up beaten and raped or worse. There are now epidemics of completely avoidable diseases circling the planet because some parents trusted wrongly and did not vaccinate their children and now not only are they paying the price, but some of their innocent children are ending up blind, deaf, crippled or even dead.
What all of these people have in common is gullibility…and we are all susceptible to it. And being gullible doesn’t mean we are stupid, either. In fact, “‘Intelligent people are more likely to trust others, while those who score lower on measures of intelligence are less likely to do so,’ reports a just-released study from Oxford University.”
Intelligence, however, is no match for greed or desperation. Our ability to rationalize, to engage in confirmation bias, to believe what we want to believe leaves us vulnerable to predators of all kinds. To my way of thinking, gullible people fall into three basic categories:
1) Greedy: these are the people who get involved in “get rich quick” schemes;
2) Too trusting: those who see the world through rose-tinted lenses, unwilling to admit that people are not what they seem to be on the surface; and
3) The desperate and hopeful: these people, while they may know better on a deep level, are so despairing and hungry that they ignore the warnings from their subconscious, desperately hoping the illusion they are ascribing to is true.
Many ACoNs fall into the last category because 1) they so badly want something to be true that they fool themselves into believing it and/or 2) they simply do not trust their own judgment, their own critical thinking skills, and so they go along with something that sounds plausible…or that fits with what they want to believe. A University of Leicester study found that “People who have experienced an adverse childhood and adolescence are more likely to come to believe information that isn’t true—in short they are more suggestible, and easily mislead…they might succumb to peer pressure more readily…The majority of people may learn through repeated exposure to adversity to distrust their own judgment; a person might believe something to be true, but when they…read something in a newspaper that contradicts their opinion, or they talk to someone with a different view-point, that individual is more likely to take on that other person's view…This is because the person may have learned to distrust their actions, judgements and decisions due to the fact that the majority of the time their actions have been perceived to invite negative consequences...there is already evidence to suggest that there is a relationship between intensity/frequency of negative life impacts and degree of vulnerability. Experience of adversity may have a knock-on effect on a person’s mindset—they may come to believe that ‘they are no good’, or ‘nothing they do is ever good enough’…”
As people who had negative, abusive childhoods, we are at particular risk for this vulnerability. According to the same study “…parents who cope with stress/negative events in a more stressed manner (raging, acting out, drinking, expressing a pessimistic view of the world)…may in turn transfer that way of behaving onto their children.” It’s no surprise that we might learn certain behaviours from our parents…they are our primary role models during our most formative years…but those of us who grow up as the family scapegoat may well be the ones who experience the knock-on effect mentioned above while our GC siblings emulate the narcissistic parents and learn raging, acting out and a host of other negative behaviours.
Growing up as a scapegoat is anxiety provoking. According to Christina Valhouli in a Columbia University publication Psychologists agree that all belief systems—astrology, Objectivism, religion—ease anxiety about the human condition, and provide the illusion of security, predictability, control, and hope in an otherwise chaotic world.” One of the things that powerless people like scapegoats crave is a feeling of security or predictability in their lives and, like the anorexic who seizes on food as a way to have at least some sense of control in her life, we are susceptible to accepting and believing things that give us that same feeling of control, including things that we would reject if we viewed those things critically, trusted our own judgment, and did not feel such a pressing need for control…any control…in our lives. This leaves us vulnerable to exploitation by everyone from New Age nonsense to manipulative narcissists both inside and outside of our families.
We seek and develop or accept beliefs that make us feel secure, that give us a feeling of control or comprehension of a world we have heretofore experienced as chaotic, regardless of their objective truth and effectiveness. Columbia sociology professor Herbert Gans says “People believe in things like astrology because it works for them better than anything else…Your own system is the most efficient one, whether it's a guardian angel, a rabbit's foot, or a God watching over you. And if it doesn't work, there's always an excuse for it.” This is how we end up with perfectly intelligent people spouting nonsense about guardian angels, protective crystals, magic cures like EFT and a host of other pocket-picking, common sense hijacking exploitive panaceas: we need to feel protected or in control so badly we sacrifice both money and good judgment to anything that makes us feel better.
“Dr. Robert Glick, head of the Columbia Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, calls belief systems ‘societal pain relievers.’ ‘People will recruit anything from their environment that will ensure and protect their safety,” he says. “It gives you a sense that you're not alone, and helps ease feelings of being powerless.’ Power—whether an increase in a person's perceived power or an abdication of it—is a major component of pseudoscience, and Glick explains people's relations to power in Freudian terms. He describes belief systems as a metaphoric representation of our parents, providing a release from authority and responsibility. ‘People have a built-in predilection that wishes for assistance and support. This is an extension of childhood, where there were always people around us who control our life. Beliefs like astrology and even religion are a projection that there are forces in the heavens that are like your parents.’”
Some of us may think this is not really a problem, that if a person derives comfort from these beliefs, that it all that really matters. And while I can see why someone might think that way, my point of view is much different. I think it is dangerous, not only because it encourages a vulnerability to the predators out there, but because as long as we are seeking magic fixes for our problems we are not actually fixing them. I liken it to a cancer patient who, fearful of chemo and radiation therapies, seeks quack remedies that ease her mind but allow the cancer to grow to unmanageable proportions. Quack therapies, whether for physical or emotional problems, are good only for their purveyors, lining their pockets and/or boosting their egos. They ultimately do nothing but harm to the believer by keeping the believer gullible to other quack remedies and preventing the believer from getting real, effective help.
So how do you know if you are gullible? And what do you do about it?
Do you eschew mundane, ordinary solutions to things, especially if they might take a long time and/or cause you to feel pain? If you do, you are vulnerable to quack remedies (it doesn’t mean you will fall for them, only that you are exactly the kind of person the promoters of such quackery are looking for). Do you distrust the government, modern medicine, or the scientific process? Do you believe that magic is or “might be” real? Do you think that the ancients knew more than we do now? Do you think there is a way to change another person through meditation, potions, prayer, or other forms of manipulation-at-a-distance? Are you superstitious about anything? If you answered “yes” to even one of these questions, you are at risk: somewhere out there lurks at least one charlatan who specializes in your particular vulnerability and s/he has a magical, scientifically-bankrupt scheme intended to either separate you from your money or inflate his own sense of importance by drawing you into the fold…or both.
The question you must ask yourself, before you buy into one of these quack theories is whether or not it is scientifically valid. Not junk science, but bona fide, real science…has it been independently studied, have the studies been published in bona fide scientific or medical journals like Nature or Lancet? Can you access these studies through sites like PubMed or NIH? Because if they are only available through a website, if they purport to be a “secret” or something “known by the ancients,” it is virtually certain that you are looking at a scam disguised as something beneficial.
We who have narcissistic parents have spent our lives living in fantasy worlds constructed by someone else and for their benefit. Most of us “drank the kool aid” as part of our upbringing: to be safe, we had to go along with the craziness that was our narcissistic parent. But as adults, unsure of our way and not trusting our own judgment, we are vulnerable to those whose voices ring with authority. I can remember second guessing myself…wavering on my own memories…because my narcissistic (now ex-) husband was so absolutely certain that he was right…his confidence was so strong...that it made me question my own. We are vulnerable to that voice of authority because we have been conditioned to not trust our own senses or thought processes but to accept what others…those to whom we allow authority over us…tell us.
So how do we overcome this vulnerability, how do we stop being gullible? The short answer is “critical thinking.” It means depending on scientific method and healthy scepticism. It means analysing something and throwing out what we want to believe in favour of what is rational…and sometimes it means believing things we don’t want to believe. It takes time and it takes self-education and sometimes it takes being willing to embrace ugly truths instead of the pretty lies that we want to believe. Start by learning how to differentiate between “junk science” (like the anti-vaxxers rhetoric) and real science, then move on to learning how to differentiate between valid and specious logic. Learn what the “scientific method” is and then apply it to claims from various sources for miraculous or instant cures for your ills, both physical and emotional. Learn to be sceptical of fantastic claims…the more fantastic the claim, the more likely it is to be untrue.
By becoming sceptical you not only begin to protect yourself from the scammers and cultists and manipulators out there, you begin to acquire the skills to protect yourself from the narcissists in your life. They depend on your gullibility and vulnerability to succeed in having their way with you. When you start being sceptical, you stop believing their every promise, spoken or implied. You start pulling away from the games they play that inevitably end up hurting you or those you love. As you gain clarity about how people hoodwink each other and how your own subconscious desires play into it and allow you to be the mark yet again, you will start seeing the game before you get sucked in and hurt, not after. It is all about forcing yourself to see and recognize the truth…the real, ugly, hard truth.
And that truth will ultimately set you free.