Scientists discover gene and part of brain that make people gullible

By Ed Yong | April 1, 2010 7:10 am

Supra_credulusScientists have discovered the part of the brain that makes people gullible, it was claimed today. The findings could have massive implications for treating the growing number of people who fall wide-eyed for sensationalist media reports.

Professor Cristoph Morris, who led the research, said that a part of the brain called the inferior supra-credulus was unsually active in people with a tendency to believe horoscopes and papers invoking fancy brain scans. “This correlation is so strong that we can speculate about a causal link with a high degree of certainty,” he concluded.

Morris made his discovery using a brain-scanning technique called fluorescence magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which can read people’s thoughts with an incredible degree of accuracy, just slightly better than chance. His results are published in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychoimagery.

When Morris studied individual neurons within the supra-credulus, he found that gullibility was associated with the activity of a single gene called WTF1. The less active it was, the more feckless people were. This fits with existing evidence, for faulty versions of WTF1 have already been linked to a higher risk of being Rickrolled and buying the Daily Mail. “You could say that gullibility is in your genes,” said Morris. “You’d be shatteringly wrong, but that wouldn’t matter to gullible people.”

The researchers described their discovery as “the holy grail of behavioural neurogenetics”. Morris explains, “It’s a real breakthrough. It means that we can fire a magic bullet right into the heart of sensationalist media stories. We can develop vaccines that stop people from buying things on the grounds that the packaging has a smiling farmer on it or that they’re endorsed by the cretin who may or may not have lost Big Brother.”

Morris has been collaborating with nutritionist Patricia Marber to develop just such as vaccine. Together, the duo found that they could completely stop the activity of neurons in the supra-credulus by smashing them with a giant hammer.

“We think that the iron in the hammers is somehow suppressing WTF1 in a way that stops nerve signalling in the supra-credulus,” explains Marber. “We might need some clinical trials to check that the hammers are effective and to work out any side effects, but you go right ahead and write your headline.  Say something about Thor. Everyone likes Thor.”

“It’s not like the people who need the treatment will question it,” she added.

The fMRI scans also revealed that the supra-credulus was more active in the brains of women than in men.  Evolutionary psychologist Stephan Koogin, who also worked on the study, thinks he knows why.

“Picture, if you will, a group of Pleistocene-Americans. The men are out hunting for mammoths and bears, and they can’t afford to be fooled by fake tracks. The women stayed at home picking berries or something, and they needed to tell each other far-fetched stories to keep each other entertained, because berries are really boring. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Assuming all of this is true, and who’s to say it isn’t, I’m right.”
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Comments (47)

  1. Victor

    April Fool’s day??

    The What The Fuck 1 gene put me on the track…

  2. Harman Smith
  3. Jon

    Very amusing.

  4. DonK
  5. Mike Phillips

    GREAT STUFF Ed.
    I SO wish there really was a part of the brain called the inferior supra-credulus! And as for the Journal of Evolutionary Psychoimagery – what a wonderful title!
    BTW – saw you on TV this morning. NOW I know what you sound like – and it is just as clear as your writings. Keep up the good work.
    Mike Phillips – Leeds

  6. john travis

    Ed–the inaugural issues of Natural Science made this a cover story!

  7. LKB

    Wait…this isn’t TRUE?

  8. HP

    Did you know that gullibility isn’t in Wikipedia?

  9. LucyH

    Just great. Aside from the article title, figure and legend it was the name of the Professor that gave it away – “because fact times importance equals news!”

  10. Zathras

    ‘“It’s a real breakthrough. It means that we can fire a magic bullet right into the heart of sensationalist media stories. We can develop vaccines that stop people from buying things on the grounds that the packaging has a smiling farmer on it or that they’re endorsed by the cretin who may or may not have lost Big Brother.”’

    But if such a vaccine were developed, who would be left to read neuroscience blogs?

  11. @LucyH – I was waiting for someone to get that. A little Easter Egg for British readers. The other researcher names are also tied into that. ;-)

  12. Matt

    Everything you wrote is ABSOLUTELY TRUE! This is a total revelation to me and makes total sense. I was going to invest my money in mining magnesium nodules from the sea floor, but this is so much better.

    Where can I get the treatment?

  13. Deb Frutiger

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! This was just what I was looking for to post for April Fool’s Day!
    Hilarious!

  14. Derek

    Not going to lie: at first I was like “wow! this is a really cool discovery!”

    Immediately followed by:

    “…. wait a minute…. well played sir… well played”

  15. This blog post is so sciency, and it has a brain image and everything, it just has to be true. Some people might be offended by that part at the end about berries and mammoths but that is just science and we cannot be afraid to speak the truth even if it is unpleasant. Thank you, Ed Yong, for exposing the sensational truthiness waiting for us out there!

  16. Together, the duo found that they could completely stop the activity of neurons in the supra-credulus by smashing them with a giant hammer.

    Their approach reveals that they’re in the hands of Big Hammer. Why use harmful, TOXIC heavy metals like iron when organic, NATURAL two-by-fours have been used for centuries to deal with these problems? Obviously because these “scientist” have been paid off by industries that want to KILL US ALL.

    [Bravo. I actually LOLed – Ed]

  17. octopod

    “Assuming all of this is true, and who’s to say it isn’t, I’m right.”

    ::applauds::

  18. Larry

    In a related story, a research paper published in the 26 March 2010 edition of the JOURNAL OF NEUROTOPOLODOGRAPHY authored by William Cardyff et al, documents research in which reversing high intensity magnetic fields in structures surrounding the supra-credulus and its associated medulla-ostensibilis can function as a simple on/off switch. Such non invasive magnetic interventions can completely reverse the decision making higher functions in the brains of humans. According to Dr.Cardyff the researchers held off on publishing their findings for several months given the societal implications of misuse of their discoveries. They only reluctantly made their research available to the scientific community upon discovery that the firm AGBENLOD AG, an E.U. manufacturer of MRI devices is planning to begin marketing a line of retail store displays and entrance doors.

  19. Nathan Myers

    Of course WTF1 is really an anti-gullibility gene. It gets knocked out by an antisense virus.

  20. Christina

    Of course WTF1 is really an anti-gullibility gene. It gets knocked out by an antisense virus.

    LOL! Good one :D

  21. Breaking news: ANOTHER gullibility gene has been discovered by a group of independent researchers. SCIENCE!

  22. Briana

    But WTF1 is a protein, not a gene: http://www.pnas.org/content/106/11/4537.full

    This is all lies!

  23. TL

    Though facetious, the last two paragraphs touch on something I’ve often wondered about. Seriously, are women or men more likely to be interested in (and/or believe in) horoscopes, psychics, extra-sensory perception and the like?

  24. Tom

    Granted, the media take fMRI scans and papers about tiny correlations too far… but this sounds like a semi-veiled shot at evolutionary psychology to me. People like Steven Pinker, E. O. Wilson, Dan Dennett and Denis Dutton are the voices of reason for skeptics in their respective fields (Psychology, Biology, Philosophy and Literary Criticism); Dennett and Dutton are bringing science into places it’s traditionally ignored. You gotta support that.

  25. TL: I think it’s just more socially acceptable for women. If some guy believes in horoscopes or parapsychology he may not talk about it as much.

  26. Sean Johnstone

    Hi, first time reading – very good. Perhaps a little obvious – a more subtle take on the story that people could fall for would have been amusing for the comments alone!

  27. This explains everything! I can die happy now! At last I understand the popularity of Fox News.

  28. Paul

    … and Victor goes and spoils it for the ladies.

  29. slam

    I only started to question the article when I saw he called fMRI “fluorescence [magnetic resonance imaging]”

  30. Bob

    Pretty much any story with the word “gullible” in the headline, and especially on April 1, is not for real.

  31. Tom – well, it’s a shot at a lot of stuff. The last paragraph is certainly a dig at a specific aspect of evolutionary psychology – the tendecy to extrapolate just-so stories that seem vaguely plausible from actual data (well, in this case, made-up data, but you get the point). This is an entirely valid criticism of evo-psych and it is not the same as what you suggested – a blanket condemnation of the area or all who have dipped a toe in it. I didn’t do that.

    Sean, Bob etc. – I deliberately wanted to make it a little obvious. On the internet, April Fool’s jokes last forever. This was more for a laugh than to actually dupe anyone. Although I note that at least the first three or so commenters on Digg still got taken in ;-)

    Slam – er, seriously? The “supra-credulus” bit didn’t give it away? Or, for that matter, the *quote*???

  32. greg zurbay

    I really think there is something quite valuable we could discuss in this Fool’s Day frolic, and that is why I seem to have a WTF Gene that activates whenever any self named Republican says anything at all about anything at all.

    It is my firm belief I was inoculated with the WTF virus during the Nixon administration after long term exposure to Tricky Dick and cohort VP Agnew.

    I am also convinced my condition has served me well all these years, having never bought a car from a used car salesman.

  33. Supra Credulous – name fits! Hoax?!?!?

  34. rdbcasillas

    i think “Honest” in the image should not have been there. Before reading, one looks at the image & “honest” sounds too prankish. I still believe, be it supra-credulous or WTF1, most people will fall for it as they do not care(or read properly) about the names of genes or parts of brain, mostly they care about the implications of the discovery because that ultimately becomes the gossip. Last paragraph could very well be true though.

  35. Passerby

    Clarification: WTF1 is constituitively over-expressed in plant-like (‘Shrub’) phenotypical induhviduals displaying supra-credulus center hypertrophy. WTF2 is polymorphic variant that is environmentally inducible* in susceptible subpopulations.

    * Example environmental inducers:
    Lack of suitable choices among political candidates.
    Nuculur / WMD development risk in certain developing nations.
    Indecision while facing a wall of nearly identical laundry detergents at WallyWorld.

  36. ianam

    “The What The Fuck 1 gene put me on the track…”

    If it took you that long, then you’re at least 90% gullible.

  37. This is a really disturbing article and I’ve forwarded it to several of my family members. We all seem to have these symptoms and I believe it may be genetically linked, and I’m praying for the possibility of a treatment or cure to come forward. I dream of a day when my grandmother doesn’t believe the door to door salesman’s sob story of his rehab for crack cocaine addiction and his 3 children to which he is a single father.

  38. nobody

    Just read a rave of you on the Discoveries blog and decided to check your blog out. Started to read the 4/1 entry and thought “yep, just another writer who doesn’t get science” but I kept reading to confirm my initial response. I was so caught off guard that I burst out laughing and splattered my screen with coffee. Thank you, thank you.

  39. @nobody – Yeah, you see, this is exactly why I didn’t want to make the joke too subtle ;-) Might actually add a disclaimer at the top now.

  40. brilliant humor. made my day and (naturally) i completely fell for it of course thought WTF was funny name but my gullibility was massively at work . I love online science community forums. Will subscribe ot heaps of science blogs or maybe just this one and dawkins. lol

  41. the norse witch

    Very funny! I wish I had read this on the first. You have to be highly intelligent to come up with something this funny… hehe… lmbo… (or at least very talented, hehe)

  42. Ben Koshkin

    For satire, this is not bad.

    Ben Koshkin

  43. Rosemary LYNDALL WEMM

    I wish to object to the placing of your neurological entity. I believe the inferior supra-credulus lobule is in the peri-orbital gyrus which is dorso-anterior to the post-Sylvian fissure at the distal end of the dental gyrus. In sinistrals it has been found at the junction of the mesial meesels gyrus and the post-central shingles operculum.

  44. Mangonuts

    Actually that area pictured is not too far from the region responsible for religious experience..

  45. Awesome, there really *is* a WTF family of proteins: http://bit.ly/dX4Fn7 – unsurprisingly, their function isn’t known.

  46. A classic case of the Fundamental Attribution Error which blames people, their cognitions and their neurology for gullibility. Its the Situation that determines gullibility.

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