In the immortal words of Dan Sperber, “All too often, what readers do is judge profound what they have failed to grasp,” but until now we’ve never had an empirical answer to a very important question: Exactly how often is often?
Now a paper has just been published (in a genuine journal) with what may well be my favourite title for a research paper of all time (step aside Kieran Healy). But it’s not just worth a read because of its amusing title (and the fact that it mentions the word “bullshit” over 200 times). The question of “who is most likely to fall prey to bullshit and why?” — though clearly tongue-in-cheek — is an important one in a world where “pseudo-profound bullshit” often costs lives.
The researchers defined “bullshit” as statements that are designed to impress, but are in fact absent of any actual concern for truth or meaning. To test susceptibility to “bullshit,” the researchers used The New Age Bullshit Generator and Wisdom of Chopra, which are applications that randomly mash together “buzzwords” into a sentence with a certain syntactic structure. For example: “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.” The researchers showed a variety of such automatically generated phrases to students, before asking them to score the phrases for “profundity”, the average of these scores was labelled the participants' “bullshit receptivity score”.
Perhaps not surprisingly, susceptibility to “pseudo-profound bullshit” was correlated very strongly with religious beliefs, as well as beliefs in the paranormal, conspiracy theories, and complementary and alternative medicines. It was negatively correlated with measures of intelligence, skepticism, and rationality, but interestingly not numeracy. The participants fell for the pseudo-profound statements in spades, scoring them on average somewhere between “somewhat profound” and “fairly profound.” Roughly 27 percent of the participants gave the statements an average score above fairly profound — i.e., they judged the statements either “definitely profound” or “very profound."
In a follow-up experiment, the researchers asked participants to rate the profundity of actual quotes from Deepak Chopra, an author famed for his “woo-woo nonsense” (a direct quote from the paper). Chopra is known for sounding profound while in fact to all extents and purposes writing things that are entirely meaningless. The students’ ratings of profoundness for the “pseudo-profound bullshit” items correlated very highly with their ratings for the actual quotes from Chopra.
Bullshitting is a problem in a great many parts of modern life, most obviously with self-professed gurus and religious preachers, but also in the worlds of academia and business. Picking apart Chopra’s brand of relatively harmless, but particularly compelling nonsense may well prove to be a good way to explore how best to teach the critical-thinking skills necessary to identify when people are pulling the wool over our eyes.
Perhaps equally as noteworthy as the study itself is Chopra’s reaction to it, responding on Twitter, he said something uncharacteristically profound: “I thank the authors for the study. Their #bullshit is getting me more speaking engagements & new book offers.”
Bullshit sells, it seems.