Many people will admit to having “BS’d” something in their lives. But when it comes to detecting BS, a recent study has found that most people will not be able to discern it as well as they think they can.</p>
University of Waterloo researchers have published a paper titled “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit,” which is available for free online. The study looked at how receptive people are to bullshit and the conclusion was that people were very likely to rate bullshit statements as profound.
In the study, bullshit is defined as “something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth.” In other words, vague sentences that have syntactic structure (an example being “wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”) are likely to be considered profound by people.
The study presented people with syntactically coherent sentences consisting of random vague buzzwords as well as real-word examples of “pseudo-profound bullshit,” who were then asked to rate the phrases from one (not at all profound) to five (very profound). Across four studies, people judged these phrases to be at least somewhat profound.
The study also found that people who were more receptive to bullshit are “less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.”
The study suggests that one of the reasons why people are susceptible to BS is that humans must first believe something before they can comprehend it. This theory was proposed by Daniel T. Gilbert in his article “How Mental Systems Believe” published in the journal American Psychologist.
People confuse vagueness for profundity because they are more likely to believe what they can’t understand as profound. Extra processing is, therefore, needed for overcoming this bias.
One of the researchers, Gordon Pennycook, said that the biggest reason people are so susceptible to BS is because they aren’t naturally critical enough about the information that they come across in their daily lives.
According to Pennycook, even in media coverage, people missed the point of the paper; some outlets made the study about Facebook and inspirational quotes instead. “People then offered their opinion about it without bothering to read the paper,” Pennycook said.
The study was inspired by websites Pennycook came across (wisdomofchopra.com and sebpearce.com/bullshit/) that put random buzzwords together in sentences. Wondering if people found such sayings profound, he decided to conduct a study on it.
The University of Waterloo assisted the researchers by providing them with an office and access to the department of psychology’s participant pool.