Why Do People Fall for Pseudo-Profound Bullsh*t?

Researchers assessed what makes someone likely to believe collections of randomly mixed buzzwords were "profound."

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.

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  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
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On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.