Suggestibility

Are you suggestible? Gullible? Do you accept what someone tells you, even when others say the information is false? Do you tend to do what others suggest you do? Do you let your emotions rule your thinking and judgment? Is there a person in your life whose beliefs and statements you accept without question? Do you subjugate your needs, beliefs, morality, and values to those of this other person? If these questions describe you – even if only partially – you may have a suggestible personality – generally estimated to be about 20% of the population.

Excessive suggestibility can even make your brain fill in memory gaps with false information given by someone else. Experiments have verified that false memories can be implanted in those who are suggestible Anecdotal evidence from law enforcement also shows that witness testimony can change in response to suggestions from police or attorneys. Similarly, observations in clinical psychology show that clients in therapy can come to believe falsely that something as extreme as sexual abuse happened when they were children.

Being overly suggestible is a liability when trying to cope with stress. Why? For one thing, you are not personally empowered to direct your life because you accept passively and uncritically what others tell you. In short, you are vulnerable to those who want to use you for their purposes. Suggestibility also makes you likely to focus on imagination and hoped-for solutions to problems, rather than engage in reality-based planning.

“Ok,” you ask, “how do I become less gullible and naïve, less likely to be influenced by false information?”

For starters, when something sounds too simple, too easy, or too good to be true, be skeptical. Remember, believing in simple explanations may give you comfort, but navigating the challenges of life is not a simple task. Ask yourself, “Is there evidence for what is being said?” If evidence is presented, find out where the evidence came from – a reliable source or someone close to the original source? Is objective evidence presented, or just a subjective opinion?

Evaluate the person who is presenting you with information. Whether it be a friend, counselor, teacher, physician, or whomever – size them up. Are they demanding blind, unquestioned obedience? Do they act entitled and above the rules? Do they boast about how talented they are? All those traits indicate they are working to enlist you to their point of view, not simply give you information. Other warning signs would be if your source is an authoritarian type who devalues others as inferior; dictates rather than listens; is insensitive to the needs of others; considers critics and outsiders as “the enemy”; and asks you to help find those who are a threat to the group.

Imagine that a VP of your company has put you in charge of preparing a bid for a big government project. When the bids are opened, a competitor beats your bid by a small margin. A co-worker on the project comes to you and says, “They cheated. We have a mole in our group who kept our competitor informed about our bid. Plus, the feds didn’t want to use us anyway because they hate our CEO. We need to get our group together and come up with a joint strategy to present to the VP so she will see that we didn’t have a chance when we prepared bid, which was fantastic, right? There’s no way we could be undercut without the other guy cheating. This really makes us look bad.”

On the surface, your co-worker’s comments make sense, and he paints a simple, clear, straightforward picture that explains your failure to get the bid. But something doesn’t feel right to you. This co-worker is always bad-mouthing other employees; he normally doesn’t take responsibility for anything that goes wrong; he’s always complaining to you and asking you cover for him; he always acts like it’s him against the rest of the world and seems to have picked you out to help him stay ahead of them. Caution signals go off in your head.

You go to your VP and apologize to her for failing to get the bid, and you try to get some hint of the kinds of shenanigans your co-worker is describing to you. The VP says, “Don’t apologize. You came up with a great bid. I saw the winning bid and studied it carefully. Looks to me like they’re willing to cut their profit margin to almost zero, gambling that they’ll have an advantage for getting other projects. The fact is, I bet they cut some corners, and they’ll screw themselves in the long run. Your bid was honest and didn’t compromise us financially. In fact, if you had come to me with their bid, I would have rejected it.”

Your caution is justified! You discover that your co-worker is using you for his personal gain. He loads you with misinformation about a mole and cheating when, in fact, there was neither. Furthermore, had you been overly naïve and bought into his false message, you would have damaged your position in the company. Wisely, you resolve to keep your co-worker at arm’s length in the future, and think objectively, without emotion, about anything he tells you. Congratulations! You have become a critical thinker, and someone well-equipped to handle on-the-job stress created by your co-worker.

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