How gullible are we, us Maltese?

We are not any more gullible than any other nationals or electorate. Fortunately, our country being so small, and so many people leave it, many of us are well informed about the world beyond its borders. This should tend to elect politicians who are not ignorant and do not enact foolish policies. Yet certain quarters have been echoing the refrain that the majority of Maltese voters are a gullible mob, so real political change is off the table. Is this actually a correct analysis or not?

If we are a functioning democracy, there has to be the possibility of a change in government. We have had changes in government several times. We have had opinion polls and the electorate swinging against a particular party, only to swing back at other times.

I am sure that the majority of us are all aware and fully comprehend the possibility that power and money are so interlinked but equally sure, I am, that we are not a gullible mob led by a ruling class.

Certain quarters have been echoing the refrain that the majority of Maltese voters are a gullible mob.

We have had situations where the need was felt for politics to mobilise the people against the oppressive bureaucracy and for its radical restructuring to restore accountability to all organs of the state. That was the challenge and it was overcome successfully.

We have had politicians framing policies which the bureaucracy, then, had to implement, policies which themselves were flawed or non-viable, ab intio, thanks to the non-availability of infrastructure or lack of resources. But when that happened, politicians got equal blame.

At times, we have had a general decline in the calibre of a generation of politicians driving them to populism and vote-bank politics. There were times when they forgot the so-called economic policies they enticed the electorate with before polls. So it was the people themselves, us, who became more enlightened about the capacity of politicians to deliver on their poll promises and eject them if they do not. The quality of governance ultimately depends on the quality of political leadership.

A long tradition of scholarship, from ancient Greece to Marxism or some contemporary social psychology, portrays humans as strongly gullible want to accept harmful messages by being unduly deferent.

In the past, in an era of a dearth of education, knowledge, information and insularity, there might have been a good part of the Maltese population who lacked the necessary level of maturity and, thus, were susceptible to gullibility. However, if humans are reasonably well-adapted, they should not be strongly gullible: they should be vigilant toward communicated information.

Most Maltese are equipped with well-functioning mechanisms of epistemic vigilance. They check the plausibility of messages against their background beliefs, calibrate their trust as a function of the source’s competence and benevolence, and critically evaluate arguments offered to them.

Most Maltese are equipped with well-functioning mechanisms of epistemic vigilance.

That notwithstanding, even if they are equipped with well-functioning mechanisms of epistemic vigilance, an adaptive lag might render them gullible in the face of new challenges, from clever marketing to omnipresent propaganda.

Converging evidence reveals that communication is much less influential than often believed—that religious proselytising, political propaganda, advertising, and so forth are generally not very effective at changing people’s minds. Beliefs that lead to costly behaviour are even less likely to be accepted. It is also argued that most cases of acceptance of misguided communicated information do not stem from undue deference, but from a fit between the communicated information and the audience’s preexisting beliefs.

We, Maltese, know how to decide whom we can trust and what we should believe and we are pretty good at making these decisions. All attempts at mass persuasion—whether by religious leaders, politicians, or advertisers—fail miserably. The narrative of widespread gullibility, in which a credulous public is easily misled by demagogues and charlatans, is simply wrong.

Converging evidence reveals that communication is much less influential than often believed.

We believe we are not gullible, but other people are. Do you feel like your political opinions are strongly influenced by the ads you see on PBS, NET, ONE or on Facebook? Probably not. But do you suspect that other people’s political opinions are dictated by either one or more of the others?  Maybe. After all, you might think, how could so many people be so wrong? The problem is that everyone thinks they are hard to influence, while others are easily swayed even by the most shallow or biased information.

We are not easy to fool into believing unfounded things. Instead of accepting everything we read or hear, we consider a variety of cues to decide how much we should listen to others. For starters, we compare what we are told with what we already believe and, if that does not fit, our first reaction is to reject what we are told. Fortunately, we can overcome this initial reaction if we have reasons to believe the source of the information is well-informed, competent, well-intentioned, part of a broader consensus, or if they offer us good arguments.

Neither subliminal advertising nor brainwashing have ever changed anyone’s mind. Instead, to influence people they should be made to think more, to be given grounds for trusting, and reasons to think who is right. Mass persuasion—from authoritarian propaganda to advertising—fails massively.

Does this mean, then, that people are merely pig-headed? No. People are not pig-headed, they are rationally sceptical. In the absence of good reasons to change their minds, they do not. But when the reasons are there, people do change their minds. In our everyday life, we are constantly influenced by what our friends, family members, colleagues tell us. That is because we know them, we know they do not want to con us, we know in which domain they are more likely to be right, and we have time to exchange arguments.

Genuine voting power has little to do with periodical drop-ins at polling sites. Votes are cast every day when we decide how to spend our money, time and energy. This is authentic democracy, participatory as against representational. “Vox populi vox Dei”.

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