• Who Believes Bullshit?

    I have a new favorite research topic. There is a relatively new field in sociological research on bullshit. The seminal paper in the field was only published last year (Pennycook 2015), but it seems there are additional researchers jumping onto the bandwagon. The particular paper I discuss today is about how pseudo-profound bullshit is perceived by members of US political ideologies.

    In other words, do conservatives or liberals think bullshit is profound or is it just bullshit?

    The paper, by Stefan Pfattheicher and Simon Schindler is called “Misperceiving Bullshit as Profound Is Associated with Favorable Views of Cruz, Rubio, Trump and Conservatism“.

    In it, the author presume that conservatives will be more likely to think that pseudo-profound statements are profound. These nonsensical statements are the bullshit we’re talking about. The authors are very clear that they are not discussing exaggerations, lies, or nonsense. The example that they give of a pseudo-profound statement is

    Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.

    These are sentences that contain lots of interesting “intellectual” buzzwords and sound as if they are vastly important. But in reality, the statements are utterly meaningless. The phrase used in the paper is ‘lack plausibility and truth from the natural science perspective”. Like all the works of Deepak Chopra for example.

    The authors presume that, based on Pennycook, the ability to detect bullshit requires reflective and critical thinking (another way to say skepticism). Also, based on other works (Kemmelmeier, 2009; Jost 2003; Hinze 1997), the authors presume that conservatives tend to use intuitive thinking and reject cognitive complexity. Judging by an admittedly small sample size of people I know, I confirm that this is probably a valid presumption.

    Thus, based on the assumptions that individuals need to process pseudo-profound bullshit statements in a reflective and critical thinking mode to detect their vacuous content whereas conservatives compared to liberals are less likely to engage in the reflective and critical thinking mode but are more likely to use the (in this case maladaptive) intuitive thinking mode, we expect that political conservatism is related to judging bullshit statements as profound.

    The study used Pennycook’s 10 statement test for pseudo-profound bullshit. The authors also added some not bullshit statements as a control. They also asked respondents to rate the 6 leading US presidential candidates (at the time Trump, Rubio, Cruz, Sanders, Clinton, and O’Malley) and to self judge their own conservative/liberal ranking.

    The results were pretty much as expected. I should add that both myself and the authors of the paper do not think that this is a statement on the relative intelligence of any member of any political party or anything else. It’s purely a small group study to discuss trends in cognitive effort.

    Fig 1. Spearman’s rho correlations among favorability ratings of the six candidates, conservatism, and seeing profoundness in bullshit and mundane statements.
    Fig 1. from http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0153419.g001

    The figure shows the correlation between the favorability of the six candidates and a measure of the profoundness of the bullshit and mundane statements (the control statements).

    As you can see, conservatism (especially related to Cruz) was positively correlated with judging bullshit as profound. This was not true of he mundane statements.

    Meanwhile, no significant relationship exists between the more liberal leaning respondents and the profoundness of bullshit. However, the more liberal people did tend to see profoundness in the mundane statements.

    The authors make five notes

    1. The correlations are small to medium sized.
    2. The sample is not representative of the US population.
    3. The study is correlational.
    4. The study does not say why the correlation may exist (i.e. not causational).
    5. it is likely that conservatives are receptive to pseudo-profound bullshit but not other forms of bullshit.

    Personally, I think that there are two factors that should be considered. The first is the desire/need of conservatives to have the respectability and air of competence that comes from pseudo-profound bullshit. They see smart people saying things in complex ways without understanding that there are reasons for that complexity. They want to be perceived as intelligent and are thus, more likely to think complexity equals intelligence (sort of like our creationists).

    Second, is the idea of accepting ideas that they think supports their beliefs (another trait of creationists) regardless of if they understand what they are hearing and whether it actually supports their beliefs or not.

    The authors mention a third idea and that’s just, they don’t have the critical thinking skills needed to correctly judge bullshit from not bullshit. I mean, how else do you explain some 40% of the US population that actively and regularly works against their own best interests. For example, my dad, a retiree living solely on social security and medicare, routinely votes for the party that tries to shut down and reduce social security and medicare.

    The authors also mention that conservatives might be perfectly good at judging other forms of bullshit that does not require the cognitive effort of pseudo-profound bullshit. For example, lies and exaggerations.

    I’ll leave this with a quote from Pennycook (Pennycook G, Cheyne JA, Barr N, Koehler DJ, Fugelsang JA. It’s still bullshit: Reply to Dalton (2016). Judgm Decis Mak. 2016;11: 123–125.)

    [b]ullshit that is viewed as profound is still bullshit.



    Pennycook G, Cheyne JA, Barr N, Koehler DJ, Fugelsang JA. On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgm Decis Mak. 2015;10: 549–563.

    Kemmelmeier M. Authoritarianism and its relationship with intuitive-experiential cognitive style and heuristic processing. Pers Individ Dif. 2010;48: 44–48. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2009.08.012

    Jost JT, Glaser J, Kruglanski AW, Sulloway FJ. Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychol Bull. 2003;129: 339. pmid:12784934 doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.129.3.339

    Hinze T, Doster J, Joe VC. The relationship of conservatism and cognitive-complexity. Pers Individ Dif. 1997;22: 297–298. doi: 10.1016/s0191-8869(96)00171-7

    Category: featuredGovernmentLifeScienceSkepticismSociety


    Article by: Smilodon's Retreat

    • Clare45

      I am always amazed at my Humanist or liberal friends and acquaintances who continue to quote “iffy” pseudo-scientific websites and their so- called experts. These are mainly in the area of GMOs, health foods, nutrition, and medical “cures”. Some are even anti-vac, or at least against the idea of giving infants several vaccines at once. So it is not just conservatives. There must be other factors at play. Maybe suggestibility or gullibility.

      • SmilodonsRetreat

        I wonder about that myself and it’s a good thought.

        Just from my personal experience, the examples you mentioned seem to be what “ought” to be, rather than what “is”. It’s back to that accepting intuition over reason and evidence.

        Organic food, SHOULD be better, because it has less chemicals and uses “natural” (whatever that means) fertilizer and processing. But the evidence shows it’s just not.

        I think those kinds of things fall outside the scope of this research (though, I’d be interested in seeing more on those subjects). The research here is specifically strings of buzzwords that sound profound to someone who doesn’t think about them. The ones like vaccines and GMOs are sincerely held beliefs (that are wrong).

        Definitely something to think about though.

    • Travis

      As a leftie, I don’t think this really tells us that much. I suspect it will be used as evidence that “gun nutters” are all retarded, though. *sigh*

      Still interesting, anyway.

    • Shatterface

      Is there a list of the bullshit statements? Depending on the choice of statements it would be just as easy to demonstrate a correlation between the Left and belief in bullshit, especially where postmodernism and cultural relativism has taken hold.

      Also, attributing bullshit statements to particular groups might skew results. The line ‘There’s an old Texan saying that ‘a man who is already wet need fear no rain” would more likely be called out as bullshit by the Left, but change that to ‘There’s an old Navaho saying…’ and there’s a good chance that liberal bias/soft racism would slip in.

      After all, the Right may reject climate change but they’re not writing academic papers on how cooking in oils ‘angers’ glaciers, or claiming that carbon fibre prostheses enable teh patriarchy.