Hugo Mercier, psychologist: ‘People have their opinions… the media just tells them what they want to hear’

The French researcher questions the idea that most people are gullible and that the media can easily change their minds

Hugo Mercier
Hugo Mercier, a researcher with the Jean Nicod Institute, in Paris.H.M.

After the elections that brought Donald Trump to power, or the referendum that allowed Brexit to pass, there was a lot of talk about gullible voters who were being fed fake news.

Advertising campaigns – designed to sway citizens – were designed thanks to massive amounts of personal data, utilized by companies such as Cambridge Analytica. This made it possible for the company to develop precise psychological profiles for campaign managers. However, the French psychologist Hugo Mercier assures EL PAÍS that these strategies didn’t change the meaning of those elections.

“I think there is now a clear consensus among those of us who have seriously studied [the issue] that companies like Cambridge Analytica had no impact [on the results],” the 44-year-old notes.

There is a very human intuition – supported by decades of studies – that humans are easy to convince. Everyone is gullible… except ourselves, of course.

Back in 2020, Mercier – a researcher at the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris – wrote a book titled Not Born Yesterday. Digging through the evolutionary origins of reason or trust, he explores the advantages and risks of believing others. He explains that, sometimes, those who think they’re the smartest can actually be the most gullible.

“The prevailing belief is that people are mostly gullible… but what’s interesting is that [Cambridge Analytica] didn’t manage to sell its product to people,” he tells EL PAÍS via a video call.

Question. Why do we always think that other people are naive enough to believe fake news, but we somehow see reality as it is?

Answer. It’s because of bias. [We] tend to think that [we’re] better at accepting good messages and rejecting bad ones, while others have just the opposite tendency. It’s a part of us thinking we’re better than everyone else. We want to think that we’re better at discriminating [against] the correct information, when the reality is that everyone is pretty good [at doing this].

Q. You’ve written a book saying that it’s very difficult to convince those who think differently… but does one write a book if they think that it won’t influence anyone?

A. It’s more complicated with mass media. In that context, you usually don’t have time to exchange arguments. You don’t know the person who gives you a piece of information, be it a politician or someone on TV. Your first reaction is to be quite skeptical and reject the information if it doesn’t fit your beliefs. But in your daily life – when you talk to your family or your friends – you know that you can trust them in most matters. You know who knows more about a certain subject and you have time to [debate]. In these more local contexts, people change their minds frequently… and usually for the better.

Q. If changing people’s opinions on a large-scale is so difficult, how do ideologies change over time? Don’t intelligent and powerful people influence others?

A. To some extent. But sociologists and political scientists who have studied changes in positions on certain issues – such as the death penalty, gay rights or abortion – instead observe generational changes. People, between [the ages of] 20 and 25 already have a series of political convictions that, for the most part, aren’t going to change. But the people of newer generations usually have different beliefs than those from previous generations.

But there are exceptions. For instance, the position on gay marriage [in the USA]. This has changed too quickly to be a purely generational phenomenon. So we know that, for some issues, people do change their minds. But these are the issues that people talk about a lot. Hence, they’re covered a lot in the media. So we don’t know to what extent it’s really just the media doing the job.

[Usually], in 20 years time, you may have a significant change in opinion. But it’s not a magic wand, like running a communication campaign and having everyone change their opinion. Many decades are necessary.

Q. Does this mean that, when one group wins an argument, it’s because they have reason on their side?

A. Usually yes. I am, I suppose, a progressive… but people have become more liberal on issues like climate change, accepting that it’s caused by humans. On most issues, you tend to see a convergence towards more enlightened positions and opinions that are more in line with the facts, when it’s possible to determine them. Change – as has happened with climate change – is very slow, but it tends to go in the right direction.

Q. You say that changes in opinion on some social issues are a generational issue, but in your book, you say that you disagree with the idea posed by the physicist Max Planck, who said that erroneous scientific paradigms only change when the scientists who defend them die. You think it’s easy for them to change when the right information is presented.

A. Science works faster than other fields, because [the scientific community] is relatively small. When new evidence comes to light, the whole community changes its opinion relatively quickly. The most extreme case is mathematics. When new evidence is presented, the arguments are provable and everyone who understands them will be convinced in a matter of days or weeks. On social issues, it’s different. The arguments can be very strong… but they’re not demonstrable like the mathematical ones, so more time is needed. The scale and speed of the transmission will depend on the quality of the arguments and how many people are interested.

Q. Throughout the world, the most extreme right-wing people think that there’s an ideological hegemony, with powerful people in the media or in multinationals promoting an ideology that wants to undermine the family or the homeland. And on the left, many people believe that the opposite is true – that the great economic powers prevent the oppressed from rising up by hiding or disguising their oppression.

A. In both cases, I think it’s a bit of an exaggeration. People [do tend to] dismiss opinions they don’t agree with. Rather than think that half of their country holds views they find repulsive, they prefer to think that [those people] have been brainwashed by either the left or right-wing media. What happens, in both cases, is that people have their opinions and the media just tells them what they want to hear.

Q. Are there times when it may be convenient for us to maintain our opinion, even if we’re offered credible arguments against it?

A. One of the reasons people hold [onto] their opinions – even when given good arguments [to the contrary] – is to avoid looking bad. When you change your mind on an issue that you have advocated for – if you’re an activist against nuclear energy, for example – it usually has a social cost.

Q. So being gullible about gullibility a way to protect ourselves (and our ideas) and to look good?

A. Exactly. We don’t [want to] have to question our opinions. We discount views we don’t like by saying [that the people who hold them] have been brainwashed.

Q. Does education make us less gullible?

A. I think it makes us less conservative. It makes it easier for us to change our minds… because education makes you more open to science and accepting new ideas. But at the same time, better-educated people can be more vulnerable to things that sound like science, but actually aren’t. In general, education makes you more open and better able to assimilate new information. That’s better overall… but it also makes you more vulnerable to some [forms of] speech.

Q. What do you think we could do to improve public discourse, so that there is more mutual trust and more respect for the facts?

A. When we look at the prevalence of conspiracy theories in different countries, researchers find that the more corruption you have in the country, the more conspiracy theories you have. If we want people to trust reliable authorities – like the media, or science, or even the government – [these authorities] have to be even less corrupt and even more transparent. A lot of the work we have to do – instead of just trying to educate the public – is to work on ourselves and think about how we can improve our own practices as good providers of information to the public.

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