Bad news for those of us who gravitate towards what is now ‘theoretically’ known as ‘pseudo-profound bullshit’, i.e., inspirational quotes. The liking and sharing of alleged uplifting content are strongly correlated with poor brain cognition. Disaster! More pointedly, as this study has found, those who are more susceptible to such BS, ‘score lower for verbal and fluid intelligence’. Lead by Gordon Pennycook (published in the Journal of Judgement and Decision Making) this paper aims to ‘inoculate against bullshit’ and argues that these ‘seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful are actually vacuous’. And here we thought every quote we shared was rooted in ancient philosophy and bound to have a lasting and meaningful impact on our lives.
As one of the first ever empirical investigations into a cultural phenomenon that was once the reserve of bearded philosophers (but is ubiquitous across social media today), these researchers gathered a group of 300 participants, presenting them ‘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.’
Participants’ profundity ratings were similar when faced with the researchers’ made up statements, such as “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty,” as when presented with real life examples from the likes of Deepak Chopra: “Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation”, suggesting that their ability to recognise bullshit was below par.
But if it makes us feel good, who cares? Needless to say, some of the quotes that will crop up on your Facebook feed or Instagram are nothing more than a collection of impressive sounding words that make almost no sense. However, if all it takes is one thoughtful statement that resonates with you to improve your mood, encourage you to take a leap of faith or whatever it is that perplexes you, is it any harm? We don’t think so; as long as we’re not receptive to every bit of BS that comes our way. The ability to separate the wheat from the chaff is something that these researchers feel requires serious consideration from cognitive and social psychologists. ‘That people vary in their receptivity toward bullshit is perhaps less surprising than the fact that psychological scientists have heretofore neglected this issue.’
And now, for our inspirational and BS-proof quote of the day, straight from the mouth of a 92-year-old: ‘Don’t take advice from anybody else. Nobody has a clue what the hell they’re doing.’
Hat tip to entertainment.ie