Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 10, No. 6, November 2015, pp. 549–563
On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit
James Allan Cheyne†
Derek J. Koehler†
Jonathan A. Fugelsang†
Although bullshit is common in everyday life and has attracted attention from philosophers, its reception (critical or ingenuous) has not, to our knowledge, been subject to empirical investigation. Here we focus on pseudo-profound bullshit, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous. We presented participants with bullshit statements consisting of buzzwords randomly organized into statements with syntactic structure but no discernible meaning (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”). Across multiple studies, the propensity to judge bullshit statements as profound was associated with a variety of conceptually relevant variables (e.g., intuitive cognitive style, supernatural belief). Parallel associations were less evident among profundity judgments for more conventionally profound (e.g., “A wet person does not fear the rain”) or mundane (e.g., “Newborn babies require constant attention”) statements. These results support the idea that some people are more receptive to this type of bullshit and that detecting it is not merely a matter of indiscriminate skepticism but rather a discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive sounding claims. Our results also suggest that a bias toward accepting statements as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity.
Keywords: bullshit, bullshit detection, dual-process theories, analytic thinking, supernatural beliefs, religiosity, conspiratorial ideation, complementary and alternative medicine.
2 Pseudo-profound bullshit
“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he
knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.” – Harry Frankfurt In On Bullshit, the philosopher Frankfurt (2005) defines
bullshit as something that is designed to impress but that
was constructed absent direct concern for the truth. This
distinguishes bullshit from lying, which entails a deliberate manipulation and subversion of truth (as understood by the
liar). There is little question that bullshit is a real and consequential phenomenon. Indeed, given the rise of communication technology and the associated increase in the availability of information from a variety of sources, both expert and otherwise, bullshit may be more pervasive than ever before. Despite these seemingly commonplace observations, we know of no psychological research on bullshit. Are people able to detect blatant bullshit? Who is most likely to fall prey to bullshit and why?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines bullshit as, simply,
“rubbish” and “nonsense”, which unfortunately does not get to the core of bullshit. Consider the following statement:
Funding for this study was provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Copyright: © 2015. The authors license this article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.
∗ Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo, 200 University Avenue West, Waterloo ON, Canada, N2L 3G1. Email: email@example.com. † Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo.
‡ The School of Humanities and Creativity, Sheridan College.
“Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.” Although this statement may seem to convey some sort of
potentially profound meaning, it is merely a collection of
buzzwords put together randomly in a sentence that retains
syntactic structure. The bullshit statement is not merely nonsense, as would also be true of the following, which is not bullshit:
“Unparalleled transforms meaning beauty hidden
The syntactic structure of a), unlike b), implies that it was constructed to communicate...
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