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Study Looks at Why We All Spew So Much BS

The social pressure to have an opinion and a lack of accountability are what lead to the mix of truth, half-truth and outright falsehood known as bullshit

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Human beings, no matter how much we say we’re dedicated to virtues like reason, logic and above all truth, produce an endless stream of what is academically called “bullshit.” Why is every area of public and private life full of these half-truths, misstatements and outright falsehoods? That’s what a recent experiment aimed to find out, reports Poynter's Daniel Funke.

According to John V. Petrocelli of Wake Forest University, the author of a new paper in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the technical definition of bullshitting is “a pervasive social behavior involving communication with little to no concern for evidence and/or established semantic, logical, systemic, or empirical knowledge.” Bullshitting is not lying per se—Petrocelli says a liar is someone who is actually concerned with the truth and is actively trying to divert their audience from the truth. Bullshitters, on the other hand, don’t really care if what they are saying is true or not, they’re just putting their opinion out there. As philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote in his 2005 treatise On Bullshit, “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.”

To study the phenomenon, Petrocelli ran two experiments. In the first, he looked at answers from 594 participants to a questionnaire posted on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform. According to the paper, half the participants were given facts about a target individual and the other half learned about an unrelated person. They were then told about the behavior of the target individual and asked to explain why they engaged in that behavior. Half the participants were told their answer would be reviewed by people who knew that individual well and the other half were told that the reviewers did not know the person. And most importantly, half were told they must write answers about the person and half were told they did not have to.

In the second experiment Petrocelli asked 234 undergraduates enrolled in an introductory psychology course to provide four opinions. In one of the opinions they were just instructed to answer with complete candor. For the other three, they were told their opinions would be assessed by experts and they would have justify their answers in a recorded discussion.

The surveys from the two experiments were then assessed for how much bullshit was spilled. Results from the studies revealed two major factors that might cause someone to engage in BS. First, if a person is expected or forced to have an opinion on a topic, even though they may not have the knowledge or experience to have an informed opinion, the social pressure will cause them to spout off. Second, if there is no accountability for bullshit, a person is more likely to let it roll. For instance, having a few drinks with friends who simply nod their heads at everything you say might lead to more bullshitting, whereas having a conversation with a co-worker who questions every detail of your story might make you think twice before riffing.

While Petrocelli acknowledges there is plenty more work to do on the science of bullshit, he says his results do suggest a tactic for battling it: simply calling people out on their bullshit will usually put a stop to it. “Whether they be claims or expressions of opinions about the effects of vaccinations, the causes of success and failure, or political ideation, doing so with little to no concern for evidence or truth is wrong. With their reliance on empirical evidence, it is estimated that social scientists are well positioned to “call bullshit” (i.e., identify it) when they see it,” he writes in the paper.

But calling people out is not a panacea, and shutting down bullshit may get you bad rap as a killjoy at the bar. “Common experience suggests that asking bullshitters to consider evidence in support of their claims can be a serious conversation killer. Doing so may stop the bullshitting, but it may not necessarily enhance evidence-based communication," he writes. "Future research will do well to respond to such questions empirically and determine effective ways of enhancing the concern for evidence and truth.”

While Petrocelli is looking at why people tend to bullshit, other scientists have looked into why some people accept all the bullshit others spew forth. In a 2015 paper, Gord Pennycook at the University of Waterloo found that some people with a heightened response bias are more disposed to accept corresponding ideas and pseudo-facts they come across. He also found they have lower responses in a part of the frontal lobe called the anterior cingulate cortex, which includes the brain’s built-in bullshit detector. For some people, this region simply doesn’t sound the alarm in the presence of bullshit.

According to his study, certain people assigned higher “profundity” ratings to Deepak Chopra-style pseudo-profound bullshit that, at least syntactically makes sense but logically does not, like “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.”

Pennycook and his co-authors found that those people most susceptible to BS were less analytic, less intelligent, higher in religious belief and more prone to “ontological confusion,” like believing the mind can control the physical world via ESP. Also, we heard the other day that if you slept on the left side of the bed as a child you’d grow up to be more gullible, so that probably has something to do with it as well.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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