Like many of us, I incessantly scroll through my Facebook feed throughout the day, hoping to discover what’s happening in my friend’s lives. Most days, I’m disappointed. Between the personality quizzes, Game of Thrones updates, political rants, and slightly disingenuous, largely attention-seeking, status updates claiming that “I know I don’t have many friends who read my updates, but if you truly read this, post it as your status,” it’s tough to find meaning in the vacuous largesse of banal messages. And sometimes, I run across seemingly reflective, thoughtful quotes about life:
“The temptation to quit will be greatest just before you are about to succeed.”
“Seek to be worth knowing, rather than well known.”
“One small positive thought in the morning can change your whole day.”
In a study released in early November, researchers from the Canadian University of Waterloo discovered that there is a link between individuals who find quotes posted on social media, like the above, to be profound and insightful and decreased cognitive ability.
In the first part of their study, scholar Gordon Pennycook and four other researchers, asked nearly 300 university undergraduates to evaluate a series of statements containing randomly selected, vague buzzwords on a scale of 1 to 5 as to their profundity. Many of the evaluated statements for the study were generated by the New Age Bullshit Detector, operated by writer Seb Pearce. They are syntactically correct, but are mundane and ambiguous:
“The goal of molecular structures is to plant the seeds of insight rather than illusion.”
“This life is nothing short of a maturing spark of authentic inseparability.”
“Guidance is the driver of knowledge. By summoning, we dream.”
“The complexity of the present time seems to demand a maturing of our dreams if we are going to survive.”
"I came across the website; I just kind of thought about if there was any research on this; I wanted to know if people thought those statements were profound," Pennycook told VICE. "I often see quotes [on my newsfeed] that are maybe not quite as egregious, but you see a lot of motivational ones. ... There's quotes and a picture of somebody who obviously did not say the quote — you come across that quite often."
Once the participants rated the profoundness of the quotes, they were given other tests to measure their cognitive ability and personality. Additionally, participants were tested as to their belief in the paranormal and alternative medicine. The results indicated that at least some participants found meaning in the “statements that contained a random collection of vague buzzwords organized in a sentence with syntactic structure.”
Further, those participants that were unable to detect the pseudo-profoundness of the presented statements were also “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 posits that people who believe that mundane, vacuous quotes are truly profound and meaningful also show indications of decreased cognitive ability. That is, they are dumb, believe in ghosts, are conspiracy nuts, and hold that alternative forms of medicine have the ability to heal.
Simply put, it seems some of us find meaning in the meaningless and are worse off for it. Perhaps this can explain why we can’t stop ourselves from running through our Facebook feeds attempting to discover significance when, in fact, all we’re doing is deceiving ourselves. Perhaps, meaningfulness is not found in quotes, but in the world around us.
I mean surely it's like the New Age Bullshit Detector says: “We must learn how to lead life-affirming lives in the face of materialism.”