Fooling Ourselves

There are certain things that large numbers of people believe, despite the most straightforward evidence to the contrary. I wanted to understand why we work so hard to fool ourselves.

Fooling Ourselves
Fooling Ourselves

Capital Thinking • Issue #810 • View online

They called Abraham Bredius “The Pope”, a nickname that poked fun at his self-importance while acknowledging his authority.

Bredius was the world’s leading scholar of Dutch painters and, particularly, of the mysterious Dutch master Johannes Vermeer.

-Tim Hartford

From forgeries to Covid-denial, how we fool ourselves

Tim Hartford The Undercover Economist:

When Bredius was younger, he’d made his name by spotting works wrongly attributed to Vermeer. Now, at the age of 82, he had just published a highly respected book and was enjoying a retirement swan song in Monaco.

It was at this moment in Bredius’s life, in 1937, that Gerard Boon paid a visit to his villa. Boon, a former Dutch MP, was an outspoken anti-fascist. He came to Bredius on behalf of dissidents in Mussolini’s Italy. They needed to raise money to fund their escape to the US, said Boon. And they had something which might be of value.

Boon unpacked the crate he had brought out of Italy. Inside it was a large canvas, still on its 17th-century wooden stretcher. The picture depicted Christ at Emmaus, when he appeared to some of his disciples after his resurrection, and in the top left-hand corner was the magical signature: IV Meer.Johannes Vermeer himself!

Was it genuine? Only Bredius had the expertise to judge.

The old man was spellbound. He delivered his verdict: “Christ at Emmaus” was not only a Vermeer, it was the Dutch master’s finest work. He penned an article for The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs announcing the discovery:

“We have here — I am inclined to say — the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft. Quite different from all his other paintings and yet every inch a Vermeer.”

He added, “When this masterpiece was shown to me, I had difficulty controlling my emotions.”

That was precisely the problem.

“Christ at Emmaus” was a rotten fraud, of course. But although the trickery was crude, Bredius wasn’t the only one to be fooled.

Boon had been lied to as well: he was the unwitting accomplice of a master forger. Soon enough, the entire Dutch art world was sucked into the con.

“Christ at Emmaus” sold to the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam, which was desperate to establish itself on the world stage. Bredius urged the museum on and even contributed. The total cost was 520,000 guilders — compared to the wages of the time, well over $10m today.

“Emmaus” drew admiring crowds and rave reviews. Several other paintings in a similar style soon emerged. Once the first forgery had been accepted, it was easier to pass off these other fakes.

They didn’t fool everyone but, like “Emmaus”, they fooled the people who mattered. Critics certified the forgeries; museums exhibited them; collectors paid vast sums for them — a total of more than $100m in today’s money. In financial terms alone, this was a monumental fraud.

It is also a puzzle.Vermeer is revered as one of the greatest painters who ever lived. He painted mostly in the 1660s, and no more than 40 of his paintings were thought to have survived.

The discovery of half a dozen new Vermeers in just a few years should have strained credulity. But it did not. Why?

The paintings themselves provide no answer. If you compare a genuine Vermeer with the first forgery, it is hard to understand how anyone was fooled, let alone anyone as discerning as Bredius.

Even to the most casual art lover, Vermeer stands out as a master. Consider his “Woman Reading a Letter”.

She stands in the soft light of an unseen window. Is she pregnant?

She holds the letter close to her chest, eyes cast down as she reads. There’s a dramatic stillness about the image — we feel that she’s holding her breath as she scans the letter for news.

“Christ at Emmaus” is a drab, static image by comparison. The yellow-sleeved arm of a disciple seems more attached to a table than to his body, like a prank prosthetic. Christ’s eyelids are droopy and strange — distinctive markers of the forger’s style. And yet this picture fooled the world.

Why were people so gullible?

And, as we gaze back through time at an entire community falling for an obvious con, is there a lesson we should learn today?

Those questions are why I find the “Emmaus” forgery so fascinating. In recent years, I have seen people believe that Donald Trump is the perfect person to clean up corruption in politics; that the British government “holds all the cards” in Brexit negotiations with the EU; that Covid-19 is no worse than flu and that if we only lifted lockdowns it would fade away.

There are certain things that large numbers of people believe, despite the most straightforward evidence to the contrary. I wanted to understand why we work so hard to fool ourselves.

In 2011, Guy Mayraz, then a behavioural economist at the University of Oxford, conducted a test of wishful thinking. Mayraz showed his experimental subjects a graph of the price of wheat rising and falling over time. He asked each person to make a forecast of where the price would move next and offered them a small cash reward if their forecasts came true.

Mayraz had divided his experimental participants into two categories. Half of them were told that they were “farmers”, who would be paid extra if wheat prices were high. The rest were “bakers”, who would earn a bonus if wheat was cheap.

The subjects could earn two separate payments, then: the first for making an accurate forecast; the second, a random windfall if the price of wheat happened to move in their direction. Yet Mayraz found that people tended to forecast what they hoped would happen.

The farmers hoped that the price of wheat would rise and they also predicted that the price of wheat would rise. The bakers both hoped and predicted the opposite. This is wishful thinking in its purest form: letting our reasoning be swayed by our dreams.

It’s one of many studies demonstrating what psychologists call “motivated reasoning”. Motivated reasoning is thinking through a topic with the aim of reaching a particular conclusion.

Sometimes it’s a conscious process, as with a lawyer in the courtroom or a candidate in a political debate. Often it is as instinctive as the sports fan’s limitless capacity to blame the bias of the referee.

I could see wishful thinking in operation over and over again during the pandemic of 2020.


Wishful thinking isn’t the only form of motivated reasoning, but it is a common one.

A “farmer” wants to be accurate in his forecast of wheat prices but he also wants to make money, so his forecasts are swayed by his avarice.

A political activist wants the politicians she supports to be smart and witty and incorruptible. She’ll ignore or dismiss evidence to the contrary.

And an art critic who loves Vermeer is motivated to conclude that the painting in front of him is not a forgery but a masterpiece. It wasn’t “Christ at Emmaus” that fooled the world. It was wishful thinking.

And we might continue to be fooled to this day had the forger not been caught out by a combination of recklessness and bad luck.

The unravelling began with a knock on the door. It was the evening of May 29 1945. The war in Europe was at an end. The reckoning was just beginning.

The door belonged to 321 Keizersgracht, one of Amsterdam’s most exclusive addresses. Outside stood two soldiers from the Allied Art Commission. The door swung open to reveal an artist and art dealer named Han van Meegeren.

The Dutch had just endured the near starvation of what they called the “hunger winter” but the visiting soldiers could see that at 321 Keizersgracht there was plenty of everything.

And Van Meegeren owned more than 50 other properties scattered across the city. At 738 Keizersgracht, a 15-minute stroll away, he hosted regular orgies at which prostitutes, driven into his orbit, were offered the chance to grab a fistful of jewels in the hallway as they left. Where had the money come from for all this?

The soldiers thought they knew.

A masterpiece by Johannes Vermeer, “The Woman Taken in Adultery”, had been found in the possession of a German Nazi. And not just any Nazi but Hermann Goering, Hitler’s right-hand man.

The paper trail led back to Van Meegeren, as did several other transactions involving other Vermeer paintings. Where had he obtained these Dutch treasures?

Van Meegeren was in serious trouble: treason could carry the death penalty. He was arrested and marched at gunpoint across town to prison. After days of furious denials, he cracked.“Idiots! You think I sold a Vermeer to that fat Goering? But it’s not a Vermeer. I painted it myself.”

He claimed the others, too — including “Christ at Emmaus”. The confession seemed absurd, a wild attempt to escape the firing squad. How did Van Meegeren propose to prove it?

I was just a boy when I first read about this tale. I was charmed by the idea that the despicable Goering had been duped by a master forger. I relished the irony of the situation Van Meegeren found himself in: to escape execution, he needed to prove that he’d committed a different crime.

I am not the only one to have been fascinated. Many biographies have been written about Van Meegeren — including authoritative accounts by Edward Dolnick and by Jonathan Lopez, on which I have relied in retelling the story. There is even a recent movie, The Last Vermeer. Van Meegeren is box office.

But the more I studied the story, the more I found my gaze drawn instead to Abraham Bredius, the art critic who first fell for the fraud.

Van Meegeren is fascinating because he seems unique. But Bredius is compelling for the opposite reason: his mistake is all too typical.

Bredius’s stumble is much more than a footnote in the history of art.

It can teach us why we buy things we don’t need or become infatuated with the wrong kind of romantic partner.

It explains why we vote for politicians who betray our trust, fall for implausible theories about the coronavirus and repeat statistical claims that even a moment’s thought would tell us cannot be true.

I recently published a book about how to use numbers to think clearly about the world and had pondered what sort of technical advice I should dispense first. Then I realised I shouldn’t be offering technical advice at all.

Instead, I began with the case of Abraham Bredius. Bredius knew more about his chosen subject than most of us will ever know about anything — and yet he was fooled.

Recall that Bredius wrote, “I had difficulty controlling my emotions.” That was a truer statement than he knew. When we are trying to interpret the world around us, we need to realise that our expertise can be drowned by our feelings.

Wishful thinking enabled Bredius’s seduction, but there was more to his error than the mere hope of finding one more Vermeer. He had published a number of conjectures about a mysterious gap in Vermeer’s painting career.

Might Vermeer have been working on biblical paintings, perhaps? Bredius fondly speculated about a link with the Italian master Caravaggio.

Van Meegeren was a forger who understood his victim all too well. He created “Emmaus” to confirm all Bredius’s theories. It was on the same theme, and even echoed the same composition, as a tense and understated “Emmaus” by Caravaggio himself.

When Bredius saw the picture, he didn’t just see a painting. He saw proof that he had been right all along.

The French satirist Molière once wrote that “a learned fool is more foolish than an ignorant one”.

Modern social science suggests that Molière was right.

In 2006, the political scientists Charles Taber and Milton Lodge looked at motivated reasoning about gun control and affirmative action. They asked people to evaluate various arguments for and against each position — and they found, as you might expect, that their subjects’ political beliefs interfered with their ability to dissect the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments in front of them.

More surprising was that the process of reading the arguments pushed people further towards political extremes. This was because they grabbed on to arguments they liked and quickly dismissed the rest.

Even more striking was that this polarising effect was stronger for people who already knew a lot about civics and politics. These well-informed people were better at cherry-picking the information they wanted. More information and more expertise produced more strongly motivated reasoning.

This effect is most apparent in views on climate change in the US: not only is there a huge gap between Democratic and Republican supporters over how concerned they are about climate change but the gap grows wider among Republicans and Democrats with higher levels of education and scientific literacy.

Greater knowledge does not guarantee convergence on the truth; when coupled with motivated reasoning it can simply provide fuel for polarisation.

From his Monaco villa in 1937, Bredius offers us the perfect warning about the dangerous combination of wishful thinking and deep expertise.

Bredius noticed details about the forgery that a less skilled observer would have missed. Those details led him astray.

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From forgeries to Covid-denial, how we fool ourselves
They called Abraham Bredius “The Pope”, a nickname that poked fun at his self-importance while acknowledging his authority. Bredius was the world’s leading scholar of Dutch painters and, particular…

Any of us is capable of falling for a lie.

There is no guaranteed method of keeping ourselves safe — except to believe nothing at all, a corrosive cynicism which is even worse than gullibility.

But I can offer a simple habit of mind that I have found helpful.

When you are asked to believe something — a newspaper headline, a statistic, a claim on social media — stop for a moment and notice your own feelings.

Are you feeling defensive, vindicated, angry, smug? Whatever the emotional reaction, take note of it.

Having done so, you may be thinking more clearly already.

Han van Meegeren’s Fake Vermeers
An illustrated study of the fake Vermeer paintings by Han van Meegeren

Photo credit: Breana Panaguiton on Unsplash