There are few areas of functioning where skepticism is more important than how one invests one’s life savings. Yet intelligent and educated people, some of them naïve about finance and others quite knowledgeable, have been ruined by schemes that turned out to be highly dubious and quite often fraudulent. The most dramatic example of this in American history is the recent announcement that Bernard Madoff, a highly-regarded hedge fund manager and a former president of NASDAQ, has for several years been running a very sophisticated Ponzi scheme which by his own admission has defrauded wealthy investors, charities and other funds, of at least 50 billion dollars.The author goes on to explain some of the dimensions of gullibility and then uses himself as a case study of how he fell for Madoff's multi-billion dollar scam.
In my new book Annals of Gullibility, I analyze the topic of financial scams, along with a great number of other forms of human gullibility, including war (the Trojan Horse), politics (WMDs in Iraq), relationships (sexual seduction), pathological science (cold fusion), religion (Christian Science), human services (Facilitated Communication), medical fads (homeopathy), etc. Although gullibility has long been of interest in works of fiction (Othello, Pinnochio), religious documents (Adam and Eve, Samson) and folk tales (Emperor’s New Clothes, Little Riding Hood), it has been almost completely ignored by social scientists. There have been a few books that have focused on narrow aspects of gullibility, including Charles Mackey’s classic 19th century book, Extraordinary Popular Delusion and the Madness of Crowds (most notably on investment follies such as Tulipimania, in which rich Dutch people traded their houses for one or two tulip bulbs). In Annals of Gullibility I propose a multi-dimensional theory that would explain why so many people behave in a manner which exposes them to severe and predictable risks. This includes myself — I lost a good chunk of my retirement savings to Mr. Madoff, so I know of what I write on the most personal level.
Tragedy and Philosophy
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