The notions of ”alternative
facts” and fake news have rapidly become viral. Although research
on receptivity to falsehoods is useful, there is also a problem here.
These notions are often used for ideological rather than scientific
purposes—the real facts of the ingroup tribe are pitted against the
lies of the other tribes. We need more research that focuses not on
what facts people subscribe to but on how they engage with evidence
and arguments, and how to promote a more scientific (as opposed to
ideological or tribalist) attitude among the public.

One
interesting new line of research focuses on the notion of receptivity
to bullshit, which the
philosopher Harry Frankfurt famously defined (in his book ”On
bullshit”) as a statement produced for a purpose other than
conveying truth (e.g., persuading or impressing others).

One
type of bullshit is that which emerges when someone does not really
know the answer to a question but tries to say something that sounds
convincing anyway in order to come off as competent. An example is
the student who is bullshitting to try to pass an exam by trying to
write something that sounds good to fool the teacher. This is a type
of bullshit focused on self-promotion. It has been addressed a recent paper by Petrocelli (2018).

Another type of bullshit is the political bullshit. This is the type of
bullshit that results when a person says whatever s/he can to place
his or her own party or ideology in the best light possible and
persuade others or convince them to join him or her. This is the type
of bullshit that often makes political debates and opinion journalism
so predictable and
boring—facts are tortured and twisted to fit into an ideological
”box”, and the whole thing is more a game of trying to ”score” a goal on the
opposite team and getting cheered on by your own team than a serious engagement in a rational debate in which you are open to pursuing the
truth and learning something new. This type of bullshit is focused on
promoting an ingroup cause or ideology rather than the self.

It is, however, the pseudo-profound bullshit that has been the main focus on recent research.


Receptivity
to pseudo-profound bullshit

Pseudo-profound bullshit is
composed of sentences designed to sound intellectually profound, through the use of buzzwords and jargon, that are actually vacuous.
This type of bullshit has a long history in intellectual (or
pseudo-intellectual) circles. There has even been a culture of
bullshitting in some academic circles, particularly in some quarters
of continental and postmodern philosophy. For instance, see this
funny Youtube-clip
, in which the philosopher John Searle recounts a
conversation in which the famous postmodernist Michel Foucault says
that in Paris you need to have at least 10% that is incomprehensible
in your writings to be considered a serious and profound thinker. The
postmodern movement was also the target of the infamous hoax
perpetrated by the physicist Alain Sokal, who was able to publish an
article crammed with bullshit in a leading postmodern journal. This
is how Sokal described the article when he made the hoax public:

I
intentionally wrote the article so that any competent physicist or
mathematician (or undergraduate physics or math major) would realize
that it is a spoof … I assemble a pastiche — Derrida and general
relativity, Lacan and topology, Irigaray and quantum gravity — held
together by vague rhetoric about “nonlinearity”, “flux” and
“interconnectedness.” Finally, I jump (again without argument) to
the assertion that “postmodern science” has abolished the concept
of objective reality. Nowhere in all of this is there anything
resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of
authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.“

Another
prominent source of pseudo-profound bullshit is New Age literature,
particularly in the
alliance between pseudo-science and spirituality that has come to be
symbolized by the well-known New Age guru Deepak Chopra. A Swedish
book called ”Life through the eyes of quantum physics” that
recently hit the best-seller lists provides an
almost parodic
illustration of this sort of pseudo-profound bullshit. This book is
full of vague Chopraesque
claims about quantum
consciousness and its
”scientifically proven” power to
shape reality, including
preventing serious illnesses such as cancer, promoting success in life, altering the magnetic field of the earth, and causing miracles. The authors
not only did lacked knowledge of the basics of quantum physics, they
had no interest in it either (as interviews have made
apparent)—their interest was in selling New Age spirituality with
the help of pop-bullshitting about quantum physics and
superficial narratives about Eastern spiritual wisdom.

The
reason that pseudo-profound bullshit is so pernicious is in part, I
suspect, that it plays on the human yearning for a deep sense of
mystery and understanding of the cosmos. Our existential predicament
is mind-boggling and anxiety-provoking, and it is comforting to
believe that there are gurus or other authorities out there with a
deeper sense of the truth, and to therefore attribute your own lack of
ability to understand what they say to our own ignorance.

Recent findings

How do you study bullshit receptivity scientifically? First, you need a sample of bullshit sentences. Fortunately, there is a very simple, algorithmic way of constructing such sentences. You let a computer randomly string together impressive-sounding buzzwords into a syntatically correct sequence. There are a number of such bullshit generators available online, including the Postmodernism generator and the Wisdom of Chopra. These sentences are by definintion bullshit, since they are constructed absent concern for the truth.

In a pioneering paper that won them the Ig-Nobel Prize, Pennycook, Cheyne, Barr, Koehler, and Fugelsang (2015) constructed a set of bullshit sentences (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”) through this method, with a focus on New Age-jargon, and then let people rate how profound they thought these sentences were. The found that receptivity to the bullshit sentences was associated with an intuitive cognitive style, a lack of reflectiveness, supernatural beliefs, and other related constructs. Pennycook and Rand (2019) have later also found that this sort of receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit plays a role in receptivity to fake news.

My colleagues and I constructed a Swedish measure based on the Pennycook et al. (2015) paradigm. We have used this measure to address, among other things, the debates in political psychology over whether there are ideological asymmetries in epistemic orientations (Nilsson, Erlandsson, & Västfjäll, 2019). We found in essence that social conservatism (and particularly moral intuitions about ingroup loyalty, respect for authority, and purity) is robustly associated with receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit, consistent with the classical notion of a “rigidity of the right”. Interestingly, we also found a particularly high bullshit receptivity among persons who vote for the green party in Sweden, and a very low bullshit receptivity among right-of-center social liberals.

What are the mechanisms driving these differences? A part of it appears to be a failure to critically engage with information. Like Pennycook and colleagues, we have found that bullshit receptivity is robustly associated with low cognitive reflection, and we have also found it to be negatively associated with numeracy and positively associated with confirmation bias.

But this cannot be the whole story. For example, the greens were close to the average in terms of cognitive reflectiveness in our study. We speculated that their high bullshit receptivity is instead due to a strong openness to ideas that is not always tempered by critical thinking. Interestingly, two papers suggesting that this is indeed a mechanism underlying bullshit receptivity appeared right after our paper was accepted for publication. Bainbridge, Quilan, Mar, and Smillie (2019) found that receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit is associated with the personality construct “apophenia”—the tendency to see patterns where none exist—which is a form of trait openness. Walker, Turpin, Stolz, Fugelsang, and Koehler (2019) measured illusory pattern perception through a series cognitive tests rather than personality questions but came to a similar conclusion—bullshit-receptive persons tend to endorse patterns where none exist.

There may of course also be other mechanisms that contribute to receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit. For example, Pennycook and colleagues have suggested that perceptual fluency contributes to receptivity to fake news. It is possible that persons who are commonly exposed to a specific type of pseudo-profound jargon are more likely to be receptive to this kind of bullshit.

Another great addition to this growing body of research is a paper by Čavojová, Secară, Jurkovič, and Šrol (2019), which presents conceptual replications of many of the key findings on receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit in Slovakia and Romania. I often lament that psychology fails to take the problem of WEIRD samples and studies seriously, but these studies certiainly do. By demonstrating that the research paradigm I have discussed here is meaningful and useful outside of the U.S. and Western Europe, they put this new, fascinating field on firmer ground.

Key papers

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Bainbridge, T. F., Quinlan, J. A., Mar, R. A., & Smillie, L. D. (2019). Opennes/Intellect and susceptibility to pseudo-profound bullshit: A replication and extension. European Journal of Personality, 33(1), 72-88. https://doi.org/10.1002/per.2176

Čavojová, V., Secară, E-C., Jurkovič, M., & Šrol, J. (2019). Reception and willigness to share pseudo-profound bullshit and their relation to other epistemically suspect beliefs and cognitive ability in Slovakia and Romania. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 33(2), 299-311. https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.3486

Nilsson, A.,
Erlandsson, A., & Västfjäll, D. (2019). The complex relation
between receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit and political
ideology. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167219830415

Pennycook,
G., Cheyne, J. A., Barr, N., Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A.
(2015). On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound
bullshit. Judgment
and Decision Making
, 10(6),
549-563. http://journal.sjdm.org/15/15923a/jdm15923a.pdf

Pennycook,
G. & Rand, D. G. (2019). Who falls for fake news? The roles of
bullshit receptivity, overclaiming, familiarity, and analytic
thinking. Journal
of Personality
. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12476

Petrocelli, J. V. (2018). Antecedents of bullshitting. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 76, 249-258. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2018.03.004

Walker,
A. C., Turpin. M. H., Stolz, J. A., Fugelsang, J. A., & Koehler,
D. J. (2019). Finding meaning in the clouds: Illusory pattern
perception predicts receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgment
and Decision Making
, 14(2),
109-119. http://journal.sjdm.org/18/181212a/jdm181212a.html
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