Why do people believe other people?
November 28, 2015 2:48 PM   Subscribe

This might at first seem like a dumb question, because we take it as a given that people should believe other people. But when you ask a stranger a question, and they give you answer, you believe it - why? Or similarly, why do people believe their parents, religious figures, professors, etc.?

I ask this question, because I'm interested in understanding the conditions under which systems of deception should emerge. Like, in different societies, people have systems of rules that are enforced by deception (monsters will eat you if you don't follow this rule, you will be struck by lightning, etc.), and so my thought is that if you can identify what makes people believe other people, you can more easily identify when these systems should emerge or collapse.

posted by mrmanvir to Human Relations (17 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
[Preemptively, in order for this question to work it's going to have to focus on references and concrete answers, not people's off-the-cuff theories. Thanks!]
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 3:02 PM on November 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Why would you bother to ask a stranger a question if you've already decided, a priori, to disbelieve the answer?

There aren't really answers to this question. That said, I did recently come across this somewhat related discussion on Worldbuilding.stackexchange that might be of interest to you.
posted by zachlipton at 3:02 PM on November 28, 2015

One starting point here might be Grice's Maxims, which describe assumptions people seem to make in ordinary communication including the maxim of quality that covers truthfulness. As Wikipedia mentions, they're especially interesting when they're violated, and it sounds like that's what you're concerned with too.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:08 PM on November 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

mrmanvir: "I ask this question, because I'm interested in understanding the conditions under which systems of deception should emerge. "

Ooooh, this is a great question, and not dumb at all, and has been written on extensively by philosophers. Most familiar to English speakers is probably Thomas Hobbes's "Leviathan" which discusses at length how and why a system to trustworthiness comes about, and why lying is inimical to civil society. (Basically along with murder and society-wide refusal to reproduce.) Immanuel Kant (can't give you a specific cite, sure someone else can) also talks extensively about how lying is one of the primary moral evils because undermining a system of trust undermines humans' ability to live together. Under his categorical imperative (Only do those things that you could agree should be the rule for everyone), lying is flatly irrational, because if I lie to you, then I can expect you lie to me, and we rapidly undermine our ability to do any business with each other, or to even have any kind of productive conversation.

Sissela Bok's "Lying" is probably the most comprehensive modern treatment; she's really particularly interested in situations in which we all agree it's okay to lie to the point that it's not considered lying -- like playing poker. Or telling children about Santa. Or reading fiction. Or giving placebos.

Harry Frankfurt's fairly recent "On Bullshit" examines the specific subset of lying known as bullshitting and considers its moral implications.

On a practical level, people look for "purveyors of honest information" -- that is, people who have proven over time that they are trustworthy and tend to provide good information. Children who are frequently lied to by their parents stop trusting their parents to be purveyors of honest information. When making snap judgments, people depend on personal judgments of the demeanor of the other person (hereinafter "witness"), outside knowledge of accuracy of facts the witness is presenting, known or suspected motivations of the witness's giving you information, and known or suspected bias by the witness. There is a LOT of information out there for lawyers presenting witnesses on what makes a credible witness, and that would be a very fruitful area for research on why and how people decide to trust information presented by strangers.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:53 PM on November 28, 2015 [35 favorites]

there's a book of papers published by mit called "cultural evolution" that you might be interested in. as far as i remember the argument is that as brains got bigger babies were born more useless and so required more care which required more cooperation amongst groups. that explains cooperation in small groups in some way, but then you need to do more work to get cooperation amongst large groups, and i think that is a more open question (there's a chapter on "the puzzle of human ultrasociality").

none of this is set in stone - it's fairly speculative - but some of the arguments seem quite reasonable.

changing what we eat comes into it somewhere too. it's kinda complicated and i should have made notes when i read it...

oh, and related: http://pseudoerasmus.com/2015/10/04/ce/ via https://www.metafilter.com/154032/How-do-you-get-to-Denmark - in fact that link is a very good summary of the whole field and really worth the read, but i remembered only after posting and so am in a short edit window....
posted by andrewcooke at 3:55 PM on November 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Being in sales/marketing and related professions where one gets lied to a lot*, I've given some thought to this, and I'd say the construct I'd point to for general reliability on basic questions (i.e. where's the restroom/when does the train leave/etc.) is based on Occam's Razor. It's simply more involved to make up lies on questions that are not terribly important to you, i.e. it takes more mental energy, and the value of one's reputation over time would seem to trump whatever jollies one would get from misleading.

This does NOT hold for important questions and/or questions where money is at stake, and I would question the assumption that people tend to believe each other on important questions. We can't buy a cell phone without generating reams of paper after all... and have you bought a car lately?

It may be that major questions concerning religious or social beliefs and norms used to be considered more settled by authority than they are now - I'll leave that for others, except to state my opinion that authority has always been questioned, at least to some extent.

One of the more troubling problems in general reliability, even for low-stakes situations, however, has been discussed by the Freakonomics guys, wherein they discuss the difficulty many have in saying "I don't know" when -they don't.

*I know the assumption works the other way around, but trust me, it's a two-way street.
posted by randomkeystrike at 4:04 PM on November 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

Lying is generally harder than telling the truth, so people probably don't lie without an incentive.
posted by BungaDunga at 5:10 PM on November 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

Bruce Schneier's Liars and Outliers basically takes the game theory approach: People derive great value from being trustworthy, so most people will act in a trustworthy way unless they have an incentive not to. Therefore most people you meet are going to tell the truth and it makes sense to believe them.

I wouldn't strongly recommend the book--I thought it was a bit straightforward to take up a whole book with--but he is working through exactly your question. Specifically how systems need to give people incentives to adhere to group norms (such as trustworthiness) and when that stops working.
posted by mark k at 5:39 PM on November 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Some ideas from psych - we start out trusting, obviously - infants engage in social referencing to resolve ambiguity about appropriate emotional responses to events. (An analogue in adult behaviour in groups might be the bystander effect, in which we again check in on others' responses before deciding whether or not to act - we assume, in an unreflecting way, that the group knows what's up. (Though I think there's some controversy now about some of the more famous cases.)

Most of us consider ourselves to be basically good, and may assume others think and behave way we do (probably especially if we consider them to be similar to ourselves in values or identity, per others above on group cohesion, and e.g. social identity theory).

Most of us prefer to believe in a just world, and aim for a sense of order in our view of reality, and consistency in our beliefs; we tend to discount, rationalize, or minimize challenges to our sense of order unless the cost of failing to do so is pretty big (and even not then, sometimes).
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:16 PM on November 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

(the suggested answer to "why", in all that would be an evolutionary argument, "survival" [of the self, the group, one's sense of reality, motivation to live, ability to act (because in order to act, we need to presuppose a sense of certainty in the world, and predictability, including the social world), etc.])
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:22 PM on November 28, 2015

when you ask a stranger a question, and they give you answer, you believe it - why

As someone who is frequently caught up in the "You must work here"* loop, where I do not work "here" but can answer a person's question, and then another person sees it and asks me a question, etc. etc. ... if it's an informational inquiry, I think people often make the decision about who to ask based on who seems creditable.

For example if you were in a strange place you would probably not ask a directional question of an obvious Other Tourist. I am a Respectable Looking White Lady most days. When I am Dressed Respectably I often get informational questions from tourists**, much more so than when I am Unrespectably Dressed. Tourists ask me these questions in front of dozens of other people who they could otherwise pick to ask. But they don't choose to ask, say, the homeless people on the park bench. I fit their preconceptions of someone who is 1) likely to know the answer and 2) "nice" enough to pause and answer their question.

So if people are asking questions of a stranger--and it's not a survey: they want factual information--they will make the "creditable" judgement before they even ask the question, let alone hear the answer.

But I second Eyebrows McGee, there's a ton of research out there on who juries believe.

*I wear a lot of black.
**Even when they don't think I work "here".
posted by Hypatia at 8:05 PM on November 28, 2015

I love this question.

There is a lot of philosophy of language and epistemology that addresses this! I'm not going to give you direct quotes, but a good digest of the 1700s-mid 1900s is simply because lying is inherently irrational. As Eyebrows points out above, Kant considers lying to be deeply unethical because it's irrational--not only are you not able to universality the action, the ability to communicate is rooted in the same inclination that allows you to distinguish between truth and falsehood. Therefore, a (perfectly) rational person would be disposed against lying, since it is profoundly inconsistent.

Now, what's interesting about this is that we of course are not perfectly rational beings, but it makes more sense when interacting with any given random to assume that communication is serving the purpose of truth because reason is the foundation of us even recognizing each other as mutually communicating beings at all. This results in a weird psychological skew to presumption of truth...we need to assume that others are highly rational actors unless proven otherwise in the context of conversation, because hey look we can communicate!

Ludwig Wittgenstein indirectly came to a similar conclusion, but more on the side of communication as an action which creates meaning. The "purpose" of language is to create and describe a proposition, or (as his student Gertrude Anscombe explained) to articulate an intention. If I take the default epistemic position to not believe you when you speak, I'm kinda saying that language is broken. It would defeat the entire purpose of communication to be overly skeptical about the content of others speech acts and thus would actually change the way communication happens. I hold the assumption that your claims are sensible if they're consistent with other propositions that connect to other propositions...all the way around to describe the method of thought and communication I use.

It's not that we aren't skeptical of others and their propositions, but the coherency is important. A person on the bus wearing tinfoil who tells me that they were abducted by aliens is actually communicating a variety of propositions that add up to "probably not true", whereas my partner telling me he ate an egg for lunch sounds more feasible because of how it relates to other propositions I've already accepted.

OK I could go forever but I'll stop here.
posted by zinful at 8:38 PM on November 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

But when you ask a stranger a question, and they give you answer, you believe it - why?

After asking lots of people for information from the time you are young and helpless, you learn to trust most people to tell you the truth when asked for it. You also learn to watch for certain people (such as used car dealers) who may benefit from lying to you or withholding information, but you learn that most people take pleasure in informing others for any of various reasons (being kind feels nice, telling the truth is the easiest and safest way to dismiss the asker, because they enjoy demonstrating they know things others don't, etc.).

But the importance of the question will determine who you ask and how many opinions you seek. You will ask (and believe) almost anyone for directions to the park if you aren't in a hurry to get there. You will be more particular and thorough if you're asking about a life-or-death matter. We all show credentials of one sort or another, and we all look for such credentials when we look for information.
posted by pracowity at 7:37 AM on November 29, 2015

This is actually a huge open question in the origin of language. On the face of it, there's no reason we should trust things others tell us, since the obvious thing is that they would just lie to us to get what they want. So the reliability of language, the fact that for the most people do tell the truth, needs to explained; but it's also the foundation of all further developments of human communication, since without it we wouldn't bother. See here and here for more.
posted by goodnight to the rock n roll era at 12:38 PM on November 29, 2015

One small piece of this is rooted in social signaling. There are studies that show that people in any kind of uniform get taken more seriously in various ways, including believed more readily. Uniforms typically signal that you have earned trust and proven yourself in some manner. When I was in insurance, if the patient told us certain things, we could not pay on that basis. If the doctor said the same thing, we could pay -- even though it was clear to me that in some cases, the doctor knew this information because the patient told them, not because of testing. But if a doctor lies in the medical records or to the insurance company, their career can be ruined, they probably have student loans and can't readily make as much money doing something else. So doctors have much stronger incentives to be honest and trustworthy.

You also might enjoy looking at research done for the book "Dress for success." One of the things they tested was coat length. The short coat length and midcalf coat length were both interpreted as "She's nobody." They were beginning to think the model they hired was too young. Then the ankle length coat was interpreted as "CEO's wife!"

A lot of this is deeply rooted in real life stuff and then becomes a signal. But, also, it is a criminal offense to impersonate an officer. So we also make efforts to ensure that no one can get away with casually mimicking certain things. If you can come up with the money and good taste to pick the right clothes, you can mimick upper class signals, but wearing a uniform you did not earn is often against the rules and can involve charges. But if you can come up with the money and taste to send upper class signals, you probably aren't entirely lying. You either have some claim to that social class, even if you aren't quite rich enough, or you are only exagerating your station in life a small amount. Dressing like that tends to not work if your lifestyle is too working class.

We don't automatically believe everyone. As others have indicated, lying well is harder than telling the truth. One reason we believe people when we ask a stranger a question is because the act of asking a stranger a question puts them on the spot. They have no time to prepare an answer. Unless they are particularly talented liars and/or seriously messed up nutcases who just like fucking with people for giggles, they will probably tell the truth. We are much less trusting of people who try to volunteer information or persuade us. We wonder what the hell they are up to. They have had time to prepare the info and we question their motives for spending energy on conveying information to us that we were not seeking out. People rarely believe that they are just kind or helpful.
posted by Michele in California at 1:25 PM on November 29, 2015

A lot of subliminals come into play- body language and tone of voice, especially.
posted by Jacen at 4:03 PM on November 30, 2015

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