Accepting ‘pseudo-profound bulls**t’ linked to lower intelligence

Scientists identify differences in buying into impressive-sounding ‘vacuous’ statements

Scientists say they have identified differences in how people accept or reject profound-sounding statements that don’t actually make any sense. File photograph: Getty Images

Scientists say they have identified differences in how people accept or reject profound-sounding statements that don’t actually make any sense. File photograph: Getty Images

 

Scientists in Canada have identified a number of factors, including lower levels of cognitive abilities, that determine whether someone is likely to accept “bullshit” statements as being profound.

The study, published in the Journal of Judgement and Decision Making last month, was conducted by researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada into what it called “pseudo-profound bullshit”.

A “pseudo-profound bullshit” statement, the study says, is more than a “nonsense” statement or a lie, in that it makes syntactic sense, but aims to “impress rather than inform”.

‘Hidden meaning’

Among others, the study lists the following statement as an example: “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.”

The above makes sense in terms of sentence structure, but is just a collection of vague words designed to seem profound, the paper says. More examples can be seen on this bullshit generator, which is used in the study.

In a series of experiments, participants were shown a statement like the one above. They were then asked to rate how profound it was on a scale from 1 (not at all profound) to 5 (very profound).

Overall, the study says the participants “largely failed to detect that the statements are bullshit”.

Real-life statements

They repeated the process with real-life statements from Deepak Chopra, a well-known author and public speaker whom the paper alleges frequently makes profound-sounding statements that in reality have little meaning.

As a control, researchers also tested mundane statements, like “most people enjoy some sort of music”, along with ones that are conventionally considered to be profound, including: “A river cuts through a rock, not because of its power, but its persistence”.

Religious belief

Participants also underwent various tests of cognitive measures including verbal intelligence and numeracy. They were also tested for levels of religious belief, among other factors.

The results showed that people who consider “bullshit” statements to be more profound are less reflective in their thinking; are of lower cognitive ability; are more likely to be religious and hold paranormal beliefs and are more likely to endorse “complimentary and alternative medicine”.

The researchers acknowledge that there are different types and levels of bullshit and that “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,” says the study.

Real phenomenon

The paper says “bullshit” is a real phenomenon with consequences and it “may be more pervasive than ever before” due to the rise of communication technology and the availability of information.

The full paper is open access and can be found here - be warned, it uses the word “bullshit” about 200 times, according to a tweet from co-author Gordon Pennycook.