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Stephen Greenspan

STEPHEN GREENSPAN, Ph.D., professor, developmental psychologist, noted expert on gullibility, social competence, retardation and forensic issues

Stephen Greenspan, Ph.D., is the author of ANNALS OF GULLIBILITY: Why We are Duped and How to Avoid It (Praeger/Greenwood, 2009), the first comprehensive exploration of the topic--which was described by Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine and author of WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE WEIRD THINGS--in the following glowing terms:

Stephen Greenspan
  Annals of Gullibilty“Stephen Greenspan has penned the definitive book on why people are gullible. He reveals why so many people are so gullible, the psychology that drives gullible behaviors, and most importantly what we can do about it. ANNALS OF GULLIBILITY belongs on the bookshelves of skeptics and scientists, not to mention politicians and policy analysts, especially before they go to war.”  

Gullibility manifests itself in many areas of life, and the book touches on all of them, including: religion, war, politics, recreation, criminal justice, science, literature, humor, art, finance and personal relationships, and disability (including the elderly and people with disabilities).  Many philosophical questions are addressed (such as whether people who are gullible should be blamed) and the book ends with a discussion of things that people can do to be less gullible without at the same time sinking into distrust and cynicism.

For over 35 years, Stephen Greenspan has maintained a scholarly focus on the critical problem of social and personal competence, with particular emphasis on "social intelligence" (understanding of people and interpersonal events).  Dr. Greenspan has been particularly interested in the problem of "gullibility" (a tendency to be duped or manipulated by one or more other people using deceptive means).  Professor Greenspan has developed a theory of "foolish action" (of which gullibility is one of three sub-types) and has been exploring the implications of this construct for understanding and helping individuals, particularly those with vulnerabilities, to live happy and secure lives.

Stephen Greenspan illustrates the book, and his lectures, with many humorous and interesting examples from world literature, religious documents, the popular media, current events and his own personal experience.  Because of the world financial meltdown, there has been particular interest in applications of his theory of gullibility to irrational investment decisions, especially involving dubious or fraudulent schemes. This was fueled in part by a featured weekend essay in The Wall Street Journal, “Anatomy of Gullibility: Why We Keep Falling for Financial Scams”, in which he used his four-factor theory of gullible behavior to explain why so many knowledgeable and intelligent people--including Greenspan himself--were gulled into investing with Bernard Madoff or one of the Madoff feeder funds.

There has been tremendous media interest in Dr. Greenspan and his ideas. For example, he has been interviewed by numerous newspapers in the United States (The New York Times, The Denver Post, among others) and by many in Europe (the leading newspapers in Italy, England, Switzerland, Spain, Holland and Germany); has done several television interviews (France 24, History Channel, HBO) and been a featured guest on several radio shows, including NPR’s “Science Friday”, American Public Radio’s “Here and Now”,  the BBC’s “Up All Night” and Australian Public Radio.  

What is Mental Retardation?In addition, Stephen Greenspan is the leading scholar exploring the problems caused by the gullibility of people with brain-based cognitive disabilities. This is evident in a book he co-edited (and contributed four chapters to) titled WHAT IS MENTAL RETARDATION?: IDEAS FOR AN EVOLVING DISABILITY IN THE 21st CENTURY (American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 2006). This book has become a classic, as reflected in the following endorsement by Yale’s Sterling Professor of Psychology, Dr. Edward Zigler:  ”This must-read effort is one of the finest books I’ve read during my own half century of effort to properly define mental retardation."
Professor Greenspan, a former President of the Academy of Mental Retardation (the leading research organization in the field) and 2008 recipient of the Dybwad Award for Humanitarianism (the highest honor the Developmental Disabilities field has to offer) is especially known for being the first modern scholarto call attention to the critical problem of gullibility as an impediment to the life success of people with mental retardation, autism, fetal alcohol syndrome, brain injury and related disorders. This emphasis can be seen in several scholarly publications, in addition to a book,  GULLIBILITY AND DISABILITY, in progress.

Stephen Greenspan has a B.A. in political science from Johns Hopkins University; an M.A. in history from Northwestern University; he earned a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from the University of Rochester and was a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. He is Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Connecticut and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado.

He resides in the greater Denver metropolitan area with his wife and two sons.

For links to radio interviews, more information on ANNALS OF GULLIBILITY and his other books, The Wall Street Journal article and in-depth analysis of his academic pursuits, please click here

Suggested Speech and Seminar Topics


Having positive and agreeable relationships with others is important for becoming liked and being happy. But survival in the world requires one to recognize those (generally infrequent) occasions where to say “yes” can at the least imperil one’s interests and at the most expose one to great danger. Illustrating the nature of this danger, and providing advice as to how to avoid those dangers (without becoming a cynical and non-trusting person) is the purpose of this lecture. The problem of gullibility (susceptibility to being duped) is illustrated through many stories, from a variety of sources, including film clips, children’s stories, great works of literature, news accounts, and stories from the popular and professional literature. Gullibility is described as one of three varieties of ‘foolish action” (behavior that ignores foreseeable and serious risk). Gullible behavior, even in people of above-average intelligence, is explained as resulting from a combination of four factors: Situation (how much pressure and deception is there?), Cognition (how able is one to see through deception and recognize the risk?); Personality (how trusting and socially needy is the person?); and Affect/State (how much is the person motivated by emotion or judgment-impaired by exhaustion or inebriation?). This framework is illustrated with examples drawn from all walks of life. The lecture concludes with a discussion of the many things that people can do to protect themselves from exploitation and duping by others.


The recent financial meltdown in the United States and other countries, in combination with revelations of Ponzi and other fraudulent schemes, has brought the topic of “investor gullibility” to the forefront. Professor Greenspan’s four-factor explanatory theory of human gullibility (susceptibility to being duped) has been found to have great explanatory power in shedding light on the puzzling phenomenon by which competent people--some of them quite knowledgeable about investments--have exposed themselves to sizeable (sometimes catastrophic) losses. In this lecture, Professor Greenspan goes through a brief history of investor duping, ranging from confidence games to Ponzi schemes to inheritance scams to risky and irrational (even if not fraudulent) investment manias. A few recent scandals, starting with the Bernard Madoff scam, will be analyzed in terms of a four-factor model of investor gullibility. These factors are: Situations (social pressures from others who seem to be prospering from the investment), Cognition (difficulty in understanding the scheme or the attendant risks), Personality (people who are too trusting and not interested in understanding the risks) and Emotion (greed, and self-deception processes driven by desire). The final part of the lecture will focus on things that individual investors, as well as institutional investors (hedge funds, charities and the like) can do to reduce their gullibility to fraudulent or irrational investment schemes.


In the 19th century, it was understood that people with mild mental retardation and related brain-based disorders (such as the frail elderly) were highly credulous and gullible. However, that understanding went away only to be rediscovered very recently by professionals and legal authorities in the United States and other countries. The rediscovery of the importance of gullibility is due primarily to the writings of Stephen Greenspan.  In a series of important papers and presentations, he has demonstrated quite convincingly that people with cognitive impairments are at very high-risk of being fooled and manipulated, often with heart-breaking consequences. The diagnostic manual of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (which cites Greenspan more than any other scholar) in fact has modified its diagnostic framework--under the second “prong” of adaptive functioning--to include evidence of gullibility as one of the diagnostic indicators. This gullibility is due primarily to cognitive limitations (inability to “read” others and to understand and recognize social risk) but also reflects personality factors (because of loneliness and also as a way of covering up their limitations, people with brain-based disorders--including elderly people in early stages of dementia--tend to be too quick to agree with others). In this lecture, Professor Greenspan covers a wide range of forms of gullibility, including: false confession to crimes; financial scams; sexual exploitation; cult recruitment; etc. Greenspan’s four-factor theory of gullibility will be used to illustrate why it is that people with disabilities are so vulnerable to being gulled.  The final portion of the lecture will address various protective options--such as improving guardianship assessment measures and criteria--as well as ways of helping people with disabilities to make better decisions, to become more aware of various social dangers, and to adopt simple escape heuristics intended to make them less gullible.


There has resulted a tremendous upsurge of interest in Dr. Greenspan, his book, the phenomenon of gullibility, and his analysis of financial gullibility (in which he used his own experience as one of several informative case studies). Some of this was likely fueled by the irony of the world’s foremost gullibility expert being gulled (one notable British blogger wrote: “The first Greenspan, Alan, will be remembered as the Fed chairman who didn’t see it coming, while the second Greenspan, Stephen, will be remembered as the gullibility expert who forgot to read his own book.”)  But the bulk of the comments--including those from leaders of the financial community--have been very positive. Here is a small sample:

Dear Dr Greenspan,|

My name is Phyllis-------My training is in psychiatry. I am writing you, a bit belatedly. Not only was your essay wonderful (amusing and informative) I read it right after I wrote this brief piece: [name of article and magazine deleted]. Your article was the perfect illustration of the limits of what the brain can tell us about people. I suppose neuroscience will have more to tell us in the future, but right now the technology is not able to enrich our experience of human behavior--in my humble opinion. 
Again, bravo!  Best,  Phyllis [name changed]

Professor Greenspan,

Very much enjoyed your article in Saturday's WSJ and look forward to whatever insights you and your peers can add to the body of knowledge regarding this aspect of behavioral finance.  A couple of thoughts based on my 25+ years in investment management  [observations deleted] Thank you for your time,  Fred [name changed]

Dr. Greenspan,

I read your excellent Madoff piece on the WSJ website. From my experience on the sell-side of the investment business, you hit the nail on the head when it comes to individual investors. What seems to be unexplored in anything I've read in the wake of the Madoff situation or in previous literature is how decisions are made by institutional investors like pension funds, hedge funds, endowments, etc. While these were bit players when the madness of crowds was written, they are arguably far more important to the financial economy today than individual investors…[some material deleted].

This explains exactly why institutional investors--especially the money run by genuinely smart people like Tremont, Ascot, etc.--went with Madoff.  He got Fairfield Greenwich--the golden boy--on board.

Happy New Year.   Sam [name changed]


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