On The Reception And Detection Of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit

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On The Reception And Detection Of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit


H/T Noah Smith

Gordon Pennycook

James Allan Cheyne

Nathaniel Barr

Derek J. Koehler

Jonathan A. Fugelsang


Editor’s note: we do not use four letter words in posts but that is the title of the post here so we are maintaining it


Although bullshit is common in everyday life and has attracted attention from philosophers, its reception (critical or ingenuous) has not, to our knowledge, been subject to empirical investigation. Here we focus on pseudo-profound bullshit, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous. We presented participants with bullshit statements consisting of buzzwords randomly organized into statements with syntactic structure but no discernible meaning (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”). Across multiple studies, the propensity to judge bullshit statements as profound was associated with a variety of conceptually relevant variables (e.g., intuitive cognitive style, supernatural belief). Parallel associations were less evident among profundity judgments for more conventionally profound (e.g., “A wet person does not fear the rain”) or mundane (e.g., “Newborn babies require constant attention”) statements. These results support the idea that some people are more receptive to this type of bullshit and that detecting it is not merely a matter of indiscriminate skepticism but rather a discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive sounding claims. Our results also suggest that a bias toward accepting statements as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity.

On The Reception And Detection Of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit – Introduction

“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.” – Harry Frankfurt

In On Bullshit, the philosopher Frankfurt (2005) defines bullshit as something that is designed to impress but that was constructed absent direct concern for the truth. This distinguishes bullshit from lying, which entails a deliberate manipulation and subversion of truth (as understood by the liar). There is little question that bullshit is a real and consequential phenomenon. 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. Despite these seemingly commonplace observations, we know of no psychological research on bullshit. Are people able to detect blatant bullshit? Who is most likely to fall prey to bullshit and why?

Pseudo-profound bullshit

The Oxford English Dictionary defines bullshit as, simply, “rubbish” and “nonsense”, which unfortunately does not get to the core of bullshit. Consider the following statement:

“Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.”

Although this statement may seem to convey some sort of potentially profound meaning, it is merely a collection of buzzwords put together randomly in a sentence that retains syntactic structure. The bullshit statement is notmerely nonsense, as would also be true of the following, which is not bullshit:

“Unparalleled transforms meaning beauty hidden abstract”.

The syntactic structure of a), unlike b), implies that it was constructed to communicate something. Thus, bullshit, in contrast to mere nonsense, is something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth. This sort of phenomenon is similar to what Buekens and Boudry (2015) referred to as obscurantism (p. 1): “[when] the speaker… [sets] up a game of verbal smoke and mirrors to suggest depth and insight where none exists.” Our focus, however, is somewhat different from what is found in the philosophy of bullshit and related phenomena (e.g., Black, 1983; Buekens & Boudry, 2015; Frankfurt; 2005). Whereas philosophe have been primarily concerned with the goals and intentions of the bullshitter, we are interested in the factors that predispose one to become or to resist becoming a bullshittee. Moreover, this sort of bullshit – which we refer to here as pseudo-profound bullshit – may be one of many different types. We focus on pseudo-profound bullshit because it represents a rather extreme point on what could be considered a spectrum of bullshit. We can say quite confidently that the above example (a) is bullshit, but one might also label an exaggerated story told over drinks to be bullshit. In future studies on bullshit, it will be important to define the type of bullshit under investigation (see Discussion for further comment on this issue).

Importantly, pseudo-profound bullshit is not trivial. For a real-world example of pseudo-profound bullshit and an application of our logic, consider the following:

“Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.”

This statement bears a striking resemblance to (a), but is (presumably) not a random collection of words. Rather, it is an actual “tweet” sent by Deepak Chopra, M.D., who has authored numerous books with titles such as Quantum Healing (Chopra, 1989) and The Soul of Leadership (Chopra, 2008) and who has been accused of furthering “woo-woo nonsense” (i.e., pseudo-profound bullshit; e.g., Shermer, 2010). The connection between (a) and (c) is not incidental, as (a) was derived using the very buzzwords from Chopra’s “Twitter” feed.1 The vagueness of (c) indicates that it may have been constructed to impress upon the reader some sense of profundity at the expense of a clear exposition of meaning or truth.

Despite the lack of direct concern for truth noted by Frankfurt (2005), pseudo-profound bullshit betrays a concern for verisimilitude or truthiness. We argue that an important adjutant of pseudo-profound bullshit is vagueness which, combined with a generally charitable attitude toward ambiguity, may be exacerbated by the nature of recent media. As a prime example, the necessary succinctness and rapidity of “Twitter” (140 characters per “Tweet”) may be particularly conducive to the promulgation of bullshit. Importantly, vagueness and meaning are, by definition, at cross purposes, as the inclusion of vagueness obscures the meaning of the statement and therefore must undermine or mask “deep meaning” (i.e., profundity) that the statement purports to convey. The concern for “profundity” reveals an important defining characteristic of bullshit (in general): that it attempts to impress rather than to inform; to be engaging rather than instructive.

Bullshit receptivity

What might cause someone to erroneously rate pseudo-profound bullshit as profound? In our view, there are two candidate mechanisms that might explain a general “receptivity” to bullshit. The first mechanism relates to the possibility that some people may have a stronger bias toward accepting things as true or meaningful from the outset. According to Gilbert (1991, following Spinoza), humans must first believe something to comprehend it. In keeping with this hypothesis, Gilbert, Tafarodi and Malone (1993) found that depleting cognitive resources caused participants to erroneously believe information that was tagged as false. This indicates that people have a response bias toward accepting something as true. This asymmetry between belief and unbelief may partially explain the prevalence of bullshit; we are biased toward accepting bullshit as true and it therefore requires additional processing to overcome this bias. Nonetheless, it should be noted that previous work on belief and doubt focused on meaningful propositions such as “The heart produces all mental activity.” The startling possibility with respect to pseudo-profound bullshit is that people will first accept the bullshit as true (or meaningful) and, depending on downstream cognitive mechanisms such as conflict detection (discussed below), either retain a default sense of meaningfulness or invoke deliberative reasoning to assess the truth (or meaningfulness) of the proposition. In terms of individual differences, then, it is possible that some individuals
approach pseudo-profound bullshit with a stronger initial expectation for meaningfulness. However, since this aspect of bullshit receptivity relates to one’s mindset when approaching (or being approached with) bullshit, it is therefore not specific to bullshit. Nonetheless, it may be an important component of bullshit receptivity. Put differently, some individuals may have an excessively “open” mind that biases them to make inflated judgments of profundity, regardless of the content.

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