Lots of People Think Complete Nonsense Is Profound, Study Finds

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People are incredibly receptive to meaningless buzzwords, according to a new study in the journal Judgment and Decision Making. Yes, the vast majority of people are willing to believe complete bullshit, to use the scholarly term. (Title of the study: "On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit.")

Over the course of four different experiments including hundreds of participants, researchers from Canada’s University of Waterloo and Sheridan College tested how profound people would rate a bunch of buzzwords strung together in a plausible syntactic structure. The psychologists intended to establish a method of testing people’s individual receptivity to bullshit.

Participants rated statements on a scale of profundity from 1 to 5, 5 being “very profound.” As source material, the researchers used Wisdom of Chopra, a site that draws words from the tweets of holistic health guru Deepak Chopra (sample tweet: “experience is made out of awareness”) and turns them into randomly generated sentences; and a website called New Age Bullshit Generator, which comes up with a slew of nonsense phrases based on New Age buzzwords. In a subsequent experiment, they used actual tweets from Chopra deemed to be particularly vague. In another, they compared motivational quotes like “a river cuts through a rock, not because of its power but its persistence” to regular statements like “most people enjoy some sort of music.” In the fourth, they also tested people’s tendency to agree with conspiracies. The hundreds of subjects in the final three studies were all recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk and paid for their participation.  

The researchers found that people vary in their proclivity to assign profound meaning to vague statements, a characteristic they call “bullshit receptivity.” But some people will find almost anything profound, including not very insightful sentences like “most people enjoy some sort of music.” A quarter of the 280 participants in one experiment rated the randomly generated sentences from Wisdom of Chopra and the New Age Bullshit Generator as a 3 or higher on the 5-point profundity scale, indicating that they found them pretty meaningful. "These results indicate that our participants largely failed to detect that the statements are bullshit," the researchers write. 

This may be the result of a lack of critical thinking. Those who are particularly receptive to bullshit, the researchers found, tend to show lower cognitive abilities (like verbal intelligence); are less reflective; more prone to conspiracy theories; more likely to subscribe to religion and belief in the paranormal; and more likely to be a fan of alternative medicine. (The latter, of course, you could probably have predicted based on the motivational quotes that show up on your hippie relative’s Facebook feed.) 

So why do so many people fall prey to complete nonsense masquerading as deep thoughts? It could be that they’re just categorically open minded, and accept these statements without critical thought. It could also be a factor of verbal intelligence, since people with higher verbal intelligence, the researchers hypothesize, would have greater knowledge of word meanings that might help them detect the banality of a statement. Or, it could be that people naturally assume that the statements provided to them in the course of a psychological study must have some meaning.

Regardless, we should all cultivate a little more awareness of the bullshit around us. As Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt put it in his essay (later book) "On Bullshit" [PDF], "One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit."  

[h/t The Washington Post]