A recent study conducted by researchers from both the University of Waterloo’s Department of Psychology and Sheridan College’s School of Humanities and Creativity asserts a link between an individual’s “propensity to ascribe profundity” to “seemingly impressive assertions” and their “unwillingness to critically reflect on such beliefs.”
In other words, people who believe in feel-good catch phrases, or what the researchers call “pseudo-profound bullshit”, are probably not very bright.
Sounds like an uncontroversial conclusion, until you start using bullshit detection methodology to show up all the other various forms of “bullshit” that help people get to sleep at night, including the various forms of “paranormal belief, conspiracist ideation, and endorsement of complementary and alternative medicine” that the researchers single out in their study.
This is not even to mention all of the socially acceptable forms of bullshit, like marketing (all bullshit, all the time), political rhetoric (mostly bullshit, most of the time) to academia (your mileage will vary, depending on use).
After all, we each know lots of perfectly intelligent people who believe stuff that’s outright batty or strange or even dangerous.
Does the fact that someone you met at a party or one of your family members enjoys talking up 9/11 conspiracy theories or the link between vaccines and autism make you think less of them as people?
Sure it does, if you’re honest, but a feeling of superiority bolstered by the results of an academic study can also make social occasions like the upcoming holidays seem unbearably dark, unless you’re willing to allow friends and family at least a minimum quota of bullshit.
The research was broken up into four separate studies, featuring different groups of respondents, the ultimate goal of which was to develop a Bullshit Receptivity Scale (BSR) that correlated the participants’ overall cognitive skills with their receptivity to basically meaningless yet profound sounding statements, a.k.a. bullshit.
Part one recruited 280 University of Waterloo students who volunteered to take part in exchange for course credit over the course of two semesters.
Parts two, three and four recruited 198, 125 and 242 American participants, respectively, from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk marketplace in exchange for pay.
Several respondents from the latter three studies were eliminated when they responded affirmatively to a question of whether their responses consisted of random box checking.
A further bunch of participants were removed for failing a simple attention check question, such as selecting anything other than “strongly disagree” for a statement like “I have been to every country in the world”.
All four studies then fed the remaining respondents with statements sourced from a combination of random phrase generators, including WisdomOfChopra.com, which creates Deepak Chopra-esque slogans, and The New Age Bullshit Generator, as well as some phrases taken from Deepak Chopra’s actual Twitter feed.
These faux-profound statements were mixed in with a gradated scale of “bullshit” statements, ranging from conventionally profound (“A wet person does not fear the rain”) to mundane (“Newborn babies require constant attention”) to random gibberish, or “bullshit statements consisting of buzzwords randomly organized into statements with syntactic structure but no discernible meaning (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”),” similar to the Chopra phrase generator.
Student volunteers were asked to rank profundity on a scale from 1 to 5: 1= Not at all profound, 2 = somewhat profound, 3 = fairly profound, 4 = definitely profound, 5 = very profound.
Before the study even began, though, respondents were asked to complete a series of cognitive tasks “intended to assess individual differences in analytic cognitive style and components of cognitive ability.”
“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share.” – Harry Frankfurt, author of On Bullshit
While the results are detailed and interesting, they’re also somewhat less conclusive than you would like them to be if you were hoping to wield them like an axe at your next cocktail party.
“These results indicate that our participants largely failed to detect that the statements are bullshit,” write the researchers of their subjects.
By setting up a correlation between competence along a wide range of psychological test criteria and a receptivity, or lack thereof, to bullshit, the researchers have taken what they describe as “an important first step toward gaining a better understanding of the underlying cognitive and social mechanisms that determine if and when bullshit is detected.”
So basically, they’re on the right track, but more study is needed. Although it is a little worrying that a group of University of Waterloo students seemed not to have any greater immunity to bullshit than a bunch of random people from the Internet.
It’s impossible to toss around the word “bullshit” in an academic setting without acknowledging Harry Frankfurt’s 2005 book, On Bullshit, which was a cause célèbre in its day.
It has only been 10 years since Frankfurt wrote On Bullshit, but the world has changed during that decade in ways that are alarming when it comes to the production and distribution of bullshit.
For one, Frankfurt’s book was published before the widespread appearance of smartphones and social media.
The study’s authors write, “Indeed, given the rise of communication technology and the associated increase in the availability of information from a variety of sources, both expert and otherwise, bullshit may be more pervasive than ever before.”
One way that the study’s researchers deviate from Frankfurt’s book is that whereas his work was “primarily concerned with the goals and intentions of the bullshitter, we are interested in the factors that pre-dispose one to become or to resist becoming a bullshittee.”
On some level, one recognizes the value of noticing bullshit patterns and pointing out the mechanisms by which people who believe themselves to be smart are in fact susceptible to bullshit.
But a case can also be made that bullshit, at least in the form of delusion, is basically the glue that holds society together, or at its least harmful a form of untruth that allows people to sleep at night, secure in the knowledge that their worldview makes sense.
It can be a little cruel, not to mention smug, to be constantly calling out the bullshit of others while ignoring your own (cf. social media).
But both Frankfurt’s book and the study’s researchers are eager to point out that the larger goal is not so much to ridicule others as to simply quantify the point at which each of our privately held beliefs tips over into bullshit.
“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit,” writes Frankfurt on Page 1 of On Bullshit. “Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share.”
Adding to that sentiment, and perhaps explaining the motive behind their own work, the researchers write, “One benefit of gaining a better understanding of how we reject other’s bullshit is that it may teach us to be more cognizant of our own bullshit.”