The evolution of trust

Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe
by Hugo Mercier, Princeton University Press, 2020

One of the most famous pronouncements in marketing is attributed to the merchant John Wanamaker, who purportedly said: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”

Hugo Mercier has a simple answer: both.

That, at least, is the implication of his important new book, Not Born Yesterday, an entirely surprising disquisition on, as the subtitle has it, “the science of who we trust and what we believe.”

Although many of us share a sense that our fellow humans are gullible naïfs easily roused by demagogues and manipulated by shadowy purveyors of fake news, Mercier contends that quite the opposite is the case. He asserts that the seemingly fearsome weapons of mass influence — advertising, news, and social media — actually have little impact unless credibly sourced and rooted in facts and reason.

Most people, he says, are immune to conspiracy theories and other toxic falsehoods, or hold onto them as a sort of abstract theology that has little concrete effect. To the extent that people do embrace false beliefs, it’s usually as a convenient pretext for views they already hold, actions they already intend, or because a particular falsehood is useful or at least harmless.

Consider advertising. “In 2018, more than half a trillion dollars was spent on advertising worldwide,” the author tells us. Yet the effectiveness of ads is difficult to measure, and probably scant. Mercier quotes a leading marketing expert as saying, “The truth, as many advertisers will quickly admit, is that persuasion is very tough. It is even more difficult to persuade consumers to adopt a new opinion, attitude, or behavior.”

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