Why paranoids make the best suckers

My Twitter feed was filled this weekend with anger directed at parents who fail to vaccinate their children. The anger is justified, since these parents have fueled a resurgence of measles and other preventable diseases.

One of many striking aspects is the way that many educated parents buy into junk science, exemplified by false claims that vaccines cause autism. It’s sociologically interesting that so many otherwise well-informed people embrace crazy theories so readily-debunked after a few minutes of web-searching.

I tweeted about it, and got a surprisingly widespread response.


No one factor explains what’s happening. Many intentional non-vaccinators are simply free-riding on the herd immunity they hope is created by other people’s children. Such collective action problems provide the basic case for mandatory vaccination….

Parents of autistic children have disappointing specific experiences that lead them to distrust medical authority—not to mention Big Pharma. As I have noted before, when helping systems fail to show parents a human face, it’s hardly surprising that these parents themselves turn away. Some naturally embrace tight-knit communities of like-minded parents within which all sorts of beliefs reinforce powerful group identities, and vice-versa. Within these same communities we are powerfully drawn to information that reinforces our common group beliefs.

Thus does motivated reasoning flourish—whether it’s 9/11 or Obama trutherism, or believing that MMR vaccines bring widespread and mysterious side-effects associated with autism. Precisely the same conditions promote affinity fraud. It’s no accident that wildly speculative financial products are pitched on red-meat political cable news shows and at every assemblage of fringe political movements.

There is another irony, too, the extreme gullibility that arises from globalized mistrust.

Helaine Olen and I are writing a book on personal finance. As part of the writing, I have become fascinated by various financial scams such as the rip-off annuities sold to people at dinner seminars across the country. So many of these scams start with scary Powerpoint slides warning that Medicare will go bankrupt, that Social Security won’t be around. As people eat their rubber chicken, they hear that the Federal Reserve doesn’t want you to know budget deficits will crash the economy.

Such presentations scare the heck out of near-retirees who rightly worry that they will outlive their money. These also—quite intentionally–discredit the usual sources of information and authority. Once people buy into that generalized mistrust, they become easy prey for many garbage financial products.

Here and elsewhere, the wildly credulous and the wildly distrustful have more in common than one might think. Whether you are a 60-year-old buying an annuity, a poor single mom contemplating moving in with her boyfriend, or a parent pondering a vaccine, you are right to consider the possibilities. You are right to have your guard up, too.

Whether you trust too much or too little, the capacity for granular judgments is precisely what you’re ill-equipped to do. If that single mom distrusts all men, she’ll miss opportunities with trustworthy men. Ironically, she’ll probably also miss specific danger signs of those who can’t be trusted. Judith Levine’s lovely Ain’t No Trust: How Bosses, Boyfriends, and Bureaucrats Fail Low-Income Mothers and Why It Matters documents how women on welfare have powerful experiences that lead them to become distrustful of the assistance system (and much else besides). This distrust leads them to overlook real opportunities provided by welfare-to-work programs and related efforts.

If you blindly distrust Big Pharma, you’ll miss out on life-saving drugs or fail to vaccinate your kids. If you are overly credulous about Big Pharma, you will miss that they sell some genuinely wasteful or dangerous junk.

If you distrust everyone and everything in the financial world, you may hide your cash in a mattress. You may also end up investing with some persuasive charlatan rather than with some reasonable mutual fund. Every day, people trust the wrong advice. Blind trust or distrust—and sometimes a combination of both– isolates people from readily-available critical information, making them easy prey for fraud.

We all have to live in the world, with our eyes open, ready to take a calculated risk knowing the possibility exists that our trust will be misplaced. If you’re too cynical to do that, you’ll find world of trouble. Ironically, you’re also an easy mark.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

16 thoughts on “Why paranoids make the best suckers”

  1. Harold–The ABA Journal this month highlighted the story surrounding the demise of the Dewey LeBoeuf law firm and the outright fraud of its creditors. Now, Dewey LeBoeuf was among the most silk stocking of silk stocking law firms. In a profession where the professionals pride themselves on their probity, Dewey LeBoeuf was at the top. Yet, the top guys there engineered a fraud.

    Of course, one might argue that the Dewey LeBoeuf fraud was a pittance compared to the everyday fraud that goes on in the securities market and you'd be right. But the culture of fraud, that is in some businesses it has become an expected norm, is what is so troubling. (Query: 72% of Senate Republicans have publicly questioned whether there is ongoing anthropogenic climate change. Do you really believe that 72% of Senate Republicans really believe that or are they merely "playing to their base?" My guess–even though they're Republicans, the "real" number is not 72%. After all, they can't all be that stupid. But callow and feckless? You bet!)

    Yes, my wife and I vaccinated both of our kids without any hesitation and would do so again. And, yes, one can be too cynical. But it somehow it is easier to be cynical today, since the dishonesty in the decision-making class appears to be so widespread. (Possibly, it's the same as it ever was. But at least it was hidden.)

  2. I've always been fascinated in a somewhat sad way by the way that people seem to fall into the trap of "Don't trust any of these people who have no obvious financial motive for hoodwinking you. Instead, put all your trust in me, because I do."

  3. You just said a mouthful. There is also a new book by Sarah Chayes tying corruption and distrust to the phenom of otherwise smart people falling for fundamentalisms. Though in her book — haven't read it yet though — it is more a case of, these are people in really cr*ppy situations and they are plain out of other straws, essentially. Being comparatively well-off, can I really blame them so much?

    As lucky as we in the US are, I think we are in danger of this too. We have legalized political corruption, essentially. That can't be good. People aren't going to stay dumb forever. At some point, they will *notice.* And really I think it is already spreading. Cynicism and anger.

  4. I've been saying this for years: Skepticism is the worst form of gullibility.

    Or if you'd like the X-Files version: Trust no one who wants to believe.

    I've got a million of 'em, folks. I'll be here all week.

    1. "You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures." I can't connect this one, but…

      "The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master." Good one. The creatures (read: parents) aren't so innocent.

      "If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers." This is a really good description of how the right is operating nowadays.

      "You hide, they seek." A view from the paranoid mindset.

      "Paranoids are not paranoids because they’re paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, f—ing idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations." I'm still trying to figure this on out, it seems so circular. It's that they decide to be paranoid, like a consciously decided upon addiction, or something?

  5. Also, a friend asked me the other day if i knew of any societies or cities or who-all who had successfully reformed themselves after suffering with significant corruption. Off the top of my head, I didn't know of any, and could just mention the existence of TI (Transparency Int'l).

    This morning I thought, well, maybe the French Revolution? A bit drastic though. Not really in the spirit of her question. Who's got a good example?

    1. Singapore over the past 20 years is a good example, but I agree with the sentiment that such places are hard to find.

    2. It depends on the definition of corruption as well. Germany was obviously one of the most conservative and repressive countries on Earth in the 30s and 40s, and is now a bastion of progressivism. So if we look at Nazism as corruption, well, they've turned the corner. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland are clearly better places to live than they were forty years ago, though much of the rest of the former Soviet bloc is struggling to navigate their way toward a decent compromise between statism and free market predation. Again, if Stalinism qualifies as corruption, then the reforms have successfully shed those shackles. While Chile has a long way to go, it is impossible to say it is not better there now than under the Pinochet/University-Of-Chicago cabal. And while Kirchnerism may not be your cup of tea, Argentina is a relatively modern and decent place these days, with no disparos.

      1. Excellent point — there are so many kinds of official malfeasance! Let's see if we can make a list.

        *Self-dealers — this would include officials who are doing crony insider deals (which is also embezzlement and/or outright theft), but it would also include those who allow themselves to be influenced by campaign donors and/or fear of those who can mount IE campaigns. That has got to include … pretty much all of our elected officials, other than the really rich or the ones who aren't in it for a career. It's one big honking spectrum.

        *prevaricators — This includes officials/leaders who take policy positions for reasons different than those they state. It's very similar to self-dealing, but worse because of the lying on top of it. This also includes a whole boatload of people in the US.

        *Chiselers — officials and bureaucrats who make you pay them cash under the table for x, y, and z. With x, y and z being things you are supposed to get with no charge. Usually — but not always — more of a Third World thing. Or at least it used to be.

        *Oppressors — though I'm not sure I'd put this in with corruption — who use straight-up military force to get what they want. Though, since they almost always(?) lie about *why* they are doing it … because everyone needs a good rationalization to get through the day — these folks do also contribute to massive cynicism, so maybe they do need to be part of "corruption."

        Now I'm cranky. And I don't know that this was that helpful, only that I find the topic interesting. There are so many human dynamics. I used to sit on a purely advisory group that dealt with developers. Well, it was an eye-opener, b/c I learned firsthand that it is quite difficult to say no to people. They all seem so nice, one just doesn't want to hurt their feelings. Ridiculous, right? And this group I was on has *no actual power* of any kind, and I still felt it. So I know that's at play too for officials. They like the lobbyists.

  6. I’m not sure it’s really that complicated. Barnum, like other con artists, made his money because he was confident that the “suckers” believed that they were too smart to be conned. That’s why “This way to the egress” worked.

  7. Parents of autistic children have disappointing specific experiences that lead them to distrust medical authority—not to mention Big Pharma.

    On the other hand, this particular autistic person is angry beyond words at the anti-vax movement for contributing to the ignorance about this condition.

    1. In the US, at least, belief that Someone Did Something Bad has for the past half-century or so been a crucial part of surviving bad medical outcomes. Because if SDSB, then they can be sued, and their insurance company may settle for enough to keep you from going under. If bad s*** sometimes just happens despite everyone's good-faith efforts, then the patient or the patient's parents are up the creek.

      Maybe after a decade or two of mandated payment ratios, community rating and no rescission, that wrong-way-lottery dynamic will change.

  8. I've certainly found it so among my acquaintances. I've a very paranoid friend who rolls up his window when we drive past a nuclear plant. I finally told him that gamma rays go straight through glass, but not metal panels, so now he ducks down below the window. I also informed him that "farticules" stick to your toothbrush if someone shits in the same bathroom, so now he hides his toothbrush in his dresser drawer. Finally, I declared that on my last trip back to Mexico, when I passed through Roswell, I saw dozens of young men who look just like he did 25 years ago, and he was entirely credulous, and started shouting "I told you so!" (regarding an alien abduction claim he made back in college). So color me cruel, but it's the only way I can tolerate his ridiculous paranoid fantasies, playing him for a Grade A Sucker, or whatever the Bugs Bunny lollipop said.

  9. I've noticed that, too. The ultra-distrustful tend to be gullible, I suspect in part because when they finally do put their trust in someone, they're so desperate for someone or something to trust that they do it badly and trust in the wrong people.

  10. I'd guess that many Latin American countries today are less corrupt than they were as decadent dictatorships in the 1970s, but I don't have data on it. Likewise with Mediterranean Europe from the 1960s, and of course much of Eastern Europe after the end of communism.

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