Bullsh*t isn't hard to sniff out: It proliferates on college campuses, political debate stages, and online dating profiles. Now, Poynter reports that researchers are closer to identifying what motivates people to bullsh*t in the first place.
In a new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Wake Forest University psychologist John V. Petrocelli defines BS as "communications that result from little to no concern for truth, evidence and/or established semantic, logical, systemic, or empirical knowledge." To assess what makes people engage in such behaviors, he conducted two experiments. For the first one, participants were asked to fill out a survey. One had a disclosure saying they weren't required to list their thoughts, and one lacked the disclosure. Petrocelli found that subjects who felt like they had to come up with answers were more likely to make stuff up, suggesting that BS is often the result of societal pressure.
For the second experiment, undergraduate psychology students were asked to complete a similar survey. This time, participants were either given free rein to write what they wanted or told their responses would be recorded and assessed by an expert. Once again, the participants who were given the questions with no conditions were more likely to let the BS flow uninhibited.
To Petrocelli, this indicates that bullsh*tting is something people tend to do more when there's no one around to call them out on their bullsh*t. He writes in the paper, "When receiving a social pass for bullsh*tting is not expected to be easy—when people are held accountable or when they expect to justify their positions to people who disagree with their attitudes—people appear to refrain from bullsh*tting.”
These findings provide some hope for people who still value honest, transparent discourse. Bullsh*t isn't inevitable: It only flourishes under the right conditions. The best shield against BS is an ability to recognize it and hold people accountable for it. Unfortunately most people aren't great at recognizing nonsense when it's passed off as something profound.