Not Born Yesterday | Hugo Mercier

Summary of: Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe
By: Hugo Mercier


In the book ‘Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe,’ author Hugo Mercier delves into the complexities of human trust and the way we process information. Through a series of intriguing examples and hypotheses, Mercier challenges the notion that humans are innately gullible and presents evidence showing that our vigilance mechanisms serve to protect us from harmful misinformation. The essence of the book is the analysis of how humans choose what to believe by seeking beliefs that align with our existing views, and how this affects our interactions with communication, particularly in the age of misinformation.

Belief and Human Persuasion

The human mind is not inherently gullible, but we often seek out beliefs that match our own views and goals. Critical anthropologists push the fax model of internalization, which argues that people soak up cultural information and express it throughout generations. However, this model falls short due to the potential cultural variation in societies. When deciding what to believe, we tend to choose beliefs that match our own views. The story of the lost-wallet “doctor” is an example of this. Studies on propaganda exposure show that it is difficult to influence people’s beliefs, which suggests that the mind is not gullible.

The Cost of Communication

Effective communication among individuals with common goals relies on reliable signals. Sending these signals incurs a cost for the sender, but it’s essential for cooperation and success. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection supports inclusive fitness as a driver for individuals to work together towards a common goal. Examples from the behavior of bees reinforce the importance of trustworthy communication signals. High-cost communication behavior is less stable, leading to ignored signals.

Understanding Open Vigilance Mechanisms

Communication is a vital aspect of the human society, and as a species, we’ve developed cognitive mechanisms to help us believe information or people. Open Vigilance Mechanisms, as they’re called, have evolved side by side with human communication to keep us from believing everything we hear or see. This book explains how these mechanisms work, using the arms race analogy, and debunks the mistaken idea that humans are gullible due to limitations of intellect. Open Vigilance Mechanisms help us accept beneficial messages and reject harmful ones, and even when our attention is compromised, we become more stubborn and conservative, rather than gullible.

Staying Vigilant and Open-minded

The book emphasizes that we rely on our prior beliefs and reasoning to judge new information’s plausibility. Our personal beliefs are essential until they are challenged by outside information. Plausibility checking and reasoning are crucial cognitive mechanisms that help us stay both vigilant and open-minded while discussing issues in small groups. We can reject implausible information but remain open to new ideas. Being objective while challenging an argument is crucial. Separating the conclusion from the argument itself can make the conclusion more convincing.

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