Filipinos and gullibility
In what may well be its biggest gathering in recent history, tens of thousands trooped to my hometown on Sept. 23. Congregating in UP Los Baños’ Freedom Park, the throng of people bewildered a university community used to quiet Saturdays: of families going on picnics, and students hanging out in the shade of the umbrella trees.
UPLB officials were quick to deny foreknowledge of the coming mayhem. A permit had been issued, but nobody expected a rally that was, for a town like Los Baños, of quasiapocalyptic magnitude. But if the organizers disingenuously hid their intent in their permit application, it was plain as day in the pamphlets they sold for P30 apiece and in speeches in which they extolled the virtues of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
The attendees — some of whom came from as far as Marinduque — claim to have been promised money, purportedly from the Marcos wealth: an initial P10,000 and much more in the future. But as the day dragged on, it became clear that there was no money coming. Later the dictator’s son Bongbong Marcos denied any hand in it, calling it a “scam.”
Saturday’s rally is by no means an isolated example of people’s seeming gullibility. For decades various groups have been swindling people using various incredible tales — from the same script of Marcos – wealth distribution to investing in the hunt for Yamashita’s fabled treasure.
Then there are the “pyramid scams,” which involve getting people to pay an “entrance” fee and recruit others, after which they can “exit” and get a much bigger amount. Many who join never manage to “exit”—or by the time they do, the “company” has vanished with their money.
Gullibility is also a major public health concern. Convinced by testimonials and misleading advertisements, many spend what little funds they have for medicines that don’t work, and in the process miss out on proven, life-saving treatment.
It is in this environment that we can also situate the rise of fake news. That even a newspaper columnist would fall for a ludicrous report stating that a US ambassador had defended President Duterte highlights the magnitude of this problem.
Singling out Filipinos as gullible, however, is quite misleading. As we can see with the rise of Donald Trump, the undying Nigerian-prince email scam, and the many websites peddling all sorts of fake remedies, gullibility is not a uniquely Filipino problem but part of the human condition.
“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled,” the saying goes. How can we explain this? In the 1950s, psychologist Leon Festinger and colleagues studied members of a UFO cult who quit their jobs and sold their possessions, believing that the end of the world was near. When the expected apocalypse didn’t materialize most of the cult members convinced themselves that God had listened to their pleas; instead of accepting that they had been fooled, they congratulated themselves for having saved the world.
This study contributed to Festinger’s now-famous notion of “cognitive dissonance,” which posits that instead of accepting that one’s belief has been disproved, one recourse is to hold on to it even more by finding justifications — and this is especially true if they have already invested in it both emotionally and financially. In many ways, this can also explain many people’s intractable support for the candidates they voted for.
Critical thinking remains the best-known antidote for gullibility, and our educational system must train our youth to analyze, not just to memorize, and to question, not just to answer. Given the role of the internet in trafficking falsehoods, they must also be fully equipped to deal with whatever (mis)information they get online.
But for all its importance, education is just part of the equation. Gullibility, after all, involves not just victims but also perpetrators. What will become of the organizers of the gathering in Los Baños? And for that matter, what will become of today’s swindlers and scammers, peddlers of fake medicines, and purveyors of fake news?
Unless they are held accountable, they will continue with their deceitful ways.
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