A new study shows a connection between assigning meaning to meaningless aphorisms, and lower levels of intelligence.
Image via (cc) Flickr user h-k-d
“Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena.”
Does that move you? Does it encapsulate some inner truth of yours? Are you inspired?
Don’t be. It’s total nonsense—randomly generated ephemera meant to mimic something deep and profound, but actually devoid of all meaning and significance. The phrase was created by researchers from Canada’s University of Waterloo and Sheridan College for a new study that sheds light on how people process nonsense masquerading as truth. What they found is that a sizable segment of the population often sees profundity where there is none, and that those who do may actually be less intelligent than their peers. What’s more, this phenomenon can be measured.
Deliciously titled “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit” and published in the November issue of the journal Judgment and Decision Making, the study focuses on what its authors call “a consequential aspect of the human condition”—bullshit, specifically the sort philosopher Harry Frankfurt describes in his 1986 book-length essay On Bullshit. There, bullshit is defined as something constructed to impress another person but which, the study’s authors explain, exists “absent direct concern for the truth”—as opposed to the deliberate manipulation, modification, and rejection of the truth, which is simply lying.
For their work, the researchers asked nearly 300 respondents to rate the profoundness of seemingly inspirational statements concocted by the “New Age Bullshit Generator” website, which randomizes New Age buzzwords while mimicking proper sentence stucture and syntax. They then added select quotes from well-known speaker Deepak Chopra’s Twitter feed into the mix. What they found, researcher Gordon Pennycook explained to the Washington Post, is that around a quarter of the respondents “basically thought the tweets were just as profound as the randomly generated sentences. So they were equally bad at seeing the B.S. in both.”
The researchers also had participants rank the profundity of innocuous general statements and well-known maxims. Similarly, they tested respondents for things like their propensity to believe in the paranormal, alternate medicine, and conspiracies. As it turns out, when it comes to identifying bullshit, there’s a correlation among all these factors.
In the “General Discussion” section of their paper, the researchers explain:
We have provided evidence that individuals vary in conceptually interpretable ways in their propensity to ascribe profundity to bullshit statements; a tendency we refer to as “bullshit receptivity.” Those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.
Ultimately, the research team concludes, it comes down to a question of critical thinking. As Pennycook told the Post, “I would say that a lot of people are just far too open to everything. They aren't skeptical or critical enough of what they hear and read.”
To that end, the study is meant in part to be a starting point for what its authors hope to be ongoing engagement with the psychological effects of bullshit. In their paper’s conclusion, they write:
The development of interventions and strategies that help individuals guard against bullshit is an important additional goal that requires considerable attention 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. Accordingly, although this manuscript may not be truly profound, it is indeed meaningful.
Chopra, for his part, has weighed in on the study’s use of his quotes to help prove the ubiquity of bullshit, tweeting: “I thank the authors for the study. Their #bullshit is getting me more speaking engagements & new book offers.”
So, the next time you see that profound, inspiring quote pop up on your Facebook feed, it’s probably best that you think critically and ask yourself, “Is this really meaningful, or is it simply bullshit?”