Dyson, Dyson, what have I done?

A large part of mass human behaviour is dictated by our gullibility; by which I mean not just a simple compound of ignorance, obedience to authority and conformity to one's peers but a more fundamental - and, in many ways, quite charming - will to be fooled. The etymology of the verb "to gull" is ascribed by the Oxford English Dictionary to the Old Norse gulr, meaning "pale" or "yellow". Until recently, I found this derivation rather dubious because a far more plausible provenance is the simpleton sea fowl. Gulls are oppressively social: they take flight in great flapping clouds of conformity and their cries - at once plaintive, raucous and infuriating - sound to me like those of children disabused of a cherished belief.

Consumerism, the popularity of Jeremy Clarkson, fascism, advertising, all manner of speculative manias from tulips to property - to explain phenomena as irrational and diverse as these, it is not enough to suppose human beings to be easily swayed. Rather, we must be congenitally in the swing of things and only awaiting the slightest push to soar still higher. An example from my own life will tease this out.

Pissing in the wind

A few months ago, the vacuum cleaner gave out and I went to buy a new one. Being design-conscious bourgeoisie, we've always favoured Dysons but the man at the local appliance shop said, "Oh, no, you don't want one of them - we call 'em '2CVs' in the trade 'cause you always see them fallen apart by the side of the road. They're dear, too."

I took this intelligence home and suggested we break brand loyalty but my wife snapped at me, "No, think again: we've had that Dyson for seven years. It's amortised at less than £50 a year and it's a good machine." So, in the space of a few minutes, I went from rejecting something to ordering another one on the internet, simply because of my innate gullibility. Then again, I was at the British Library a week or so ago and found myself marvelling at the efficiency of the Dyson Airblade hand-dryers that have been installed in the toilets.

The Airblade, for those not familiar with it, utilises thin, high-speed jets of cool air to dry the hands in seconds. Its manufacturer claims that this makes it more environmentally friendly but, whether or not this is true, it's damnably effective at desiccating.

Its modular form and positioning next to the urinals mean that, sooner or later, someone is bound to put it to the ultimate test. When the subject of Dyson products came up at lunch with a group of design professionals a day or so later, I said quite casually, "I pissed into a Dyson Airblade the other day and it completely evaporated all of my urine in mid-air."

One woman was a little shocked; a man contended that my flow can't have been that great; another man said there must have been some sort of spume - but the important thing is that none of them doubted my claim for an instant. This, I realised immediately, was yet another example of the well-attested "halo effect", whereby when an individual is possessed of an egregious characteristic, it renders people insensible to subtler ones.

Beyond the pale

True, it grieved me a little that my overriding characteristic was to be the sort of man who people instinctively believed would piss into in a hand-dryer but there was a complementary explanation: the halo effect of Dyson products. These design professionals, while disputing the excellence of Dyson's cyclonic separation system for vacuum cleaners, nonetheless remained convinced that, if there were to be a hand-dryer that could dissipate a stream of urine in mid-air, that hand-dryer would be a Dyson. Put the two halo effects together and a sort of aurora of credibility enveloped the entire pissing-in-the-Airblade scenario.

There was all of this and there was also that other key component of gullibility: people's need to conform. Meditating on the incident later, I realised that it had been the woman's outrage that had confirmed the veracity of my story; had she merely dismissed the tale, the others would no doubt also have begun to demur. As it was, this small crowd continued to reinforce one another's group-think throughout a long lunch. By the time I got home, I, too, had begun to believe that I had pissed in a Dyson Airblade hand-dryer; I was also more susceptible to the OED's etymology for "gullible". Pale? Yellow? It made perfect - albeit faintly disgusting - sense. l

Next week: Real Meals
newstatesman.com/ writers/will_self

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle