May 18 2021

Bullshit and Intelligence

The term “bullshitting” (in addition to its colloquial use) is a technical psychological term that means, “communication characterised by an intent to be convincing or impressive without concern for truth.” This is not the same as lying, in which one knows what they are saying is false. Bullshitters simply are indifferent to whether or not what they say is true. Their speech is optimized for sounding impressive, not accuracy. I have discussed before research showing that people who are more receptive to “pseudoprofound bullshit” are also more gullible in their evaluation of fake news and false claims.  Pseudoprofound bullshit are statements that superficially sound wise but are actually vacuous, and operationally for these studies are generated randomly, such as “Innocence gives rise to subjective chaos.”

A new study extends this bullshit research further by looking at the measured and perceived intelligence of subjects correlated to their ability to generate bullshit and receptivity towards it. The study is done to test an evolutionary hypothesis that intelligence evolved largely to provide social skill. Humans are an intensely social species, and the ability to navigate a complex social network requires cognitive skill. Therefore, the authors hypothesize, if this is true that the ability to bullshit (which is used as a marker for social skill) should correlate with intelligence. While the results of the study, which I will get to shortly, are interesting, I think we have to recognize that it is horrifically difficult to make such evolutionary statements of cause and effect.

Cognitive ability is so multifaceted that boiling down selective pressures to any one factor is essentially impossible. At best we can say that the ability to sound confident and convincing is a social skill that would provide one type of advantage to a social species. But we also have to recognize that individuals may pursue many different strategies favoring different attributes. Further, other personality characteristics could have a great influence on the willingness and ability to bullshit that have nothing to do with intelligence. And finally, intelligence bestows so many general advantages that could provide selective reinforcement that, again, it becomes problematic at best to isolate one factor as dominant. While I found the results of this study interesting, there is nothing here that is not incompatible with the interpretation that they are all epiphenomena, not primary selective pressures.

Having said that, here is what the authors found. They gathered several types of data and divided them into two discrete studies looking for specific correlations. They had 1,017 subjects across the two studies do various tests. One provided 10 topics, four of which were completely fake (such as subjunctive scaling, declarative fraction, genetic autonomy, neural acceptance), and then asked to rate their knowledge of each topic and tasked to create a convincing sounding explanation for each. This tested the subjects’ willingness to bullshit and ability to bullshit. The generated explanations were then given to other subjects to rate for accuracy and satisfactoriness. Subjects were then further given two measures of cognitive ability, the Wordsum task, which measure language ability, and the Raven’s progressive matrices, which measure abstract reasoning. Finally they were also tested for their receptiveness toward pseudoprofound bullshit, using methods similar to the study linked above.

What they found in the first study was that, in line with their hypothesis, those who scored higher on bullshitting ability also scored higher on the two cognitive tests. So there was a modest correlation between intelligence as measured in this study and ability to bullshit. However, there was no correlation between ability to bullshit and willingness to bullshit (despite greater facility). And there was a negative correlation between intelligence and willingness to bullshit and receptivity to pseudoprofound bullshit.

To me this all can be explained as a generic effect of general intelligence, without needing to resort to special explanations about the role of bullshitting in human intelligence. Smarter people are better able to pull together ideas and arguments to spin a convincing story, but are also less willing to do so, probably because intelligence may also correlate with a greater appreciation for the importance of truth and honesty. They are also better able to detect bullshit, and people tend to project, meaning they assume other people are like them. So if they can detect bullshit, they assume other people can too, and so are less willing to sling it.

Gullible people who are less intelligent are less able to detect bullshit and more willing to use it, and their bullshit is less compelling. All this makes perfect sense. In fact, one could argue that it goes against the author’s hypothesis. If bullshitting is a privileged skill because it is favored in a highly social species, then it’s possible that even individuals of below average general intelligence might excel at it. Further if bullshitting is a viable survival strategy, one might expect willingness to engage in bullshit to correlate with bullshitting ability, but it doesn’t. But if it is simply an epiphenomenon of general intelligence, we would expect the exact pattern in the results that we find.

In the second study they included a measure of the perception of the intelligence of the bullshit producers. They found that the more convincing bullshit producers were also perceived to be more intelligent. The authors state:

This association is consistent with the hypothesis that producing satisfying and seemingly accurate explanations of completely fictional concepts is perceived by individuals as a signal of intelligence.

That may be because it is a signal of intelligence, as this study demonstrated. But again, subjects could be responding to general language and cognitive ability that just happens to be applied to bullshitting in this situation. We do not have to invoke that bullshitting is a unique or special strategy for earning the perception of being intelligent.

While this may seem gratuitous (it isn’t), I find it interesting to contemplate how all of this informs our recent four year experience with President Trump. Trump is a lifelong bullshitter, and he applied this as his primary skill to the presidency. Regardless of your political views (that’s not what this is about), just step back a bit and try to look at this objectively. Trump lied publicly more times during his presidency than any other president – over 30,000 times. But Trump is not really a liar, he is a bullshitter, He makes statements optimized for branding and self-promotion, with complete disregard for whether or not it’s true. That is why he frequently says things like, “People are saying,” and “I heard”. He just makes whatever claim suits him in the moment with a maximally vague sourcing.

His bullshitting was also utterly transparent and unsatisfying. Trump also seemed highly susceptible to the bullshitting of others, including dictators and strongmen around the world. All this is in line with the results of this study. Why, then, was he so politically successful? I think it is for exactly the same reason that a terrible mentalist, with poor skills and unconvincing performance, can be world famous if they present themselves not as an entertainer but a genuine psychic. Just think about Sylvia Browne – it amazes me still that anyone can watch her performance and think anything other than she is a low-grade con-artist.

What Browne and Trump share is that they tell their intended audience what they want to hear. The message reinforces tribalism, cultural identity, and validates hopes and grievances.  If Trump were selling you a used car I don’t think he would be terribly convincing. Really – just transpose Trump’s typical phrasings into a sales-pitch and tell me you would buy that car. “This is a beautiful car, you’ve never seen anything like it. I hear it gets a hundred miles to the gallon, that’s what people are saying. Your going to miss going to the gas station. This is going to be a driving experience better than any in the history of cars.”

This is partly why Trump is so divisive. If you align with his message, he is hero and a savior, a warrior for your side. If you don’t, he’s an obvious con-artist, his bullshit unbelievably terrible and unconvincing. This creates a wide gulf between the two sides with no way to close the gap. And like all people victimized by a con-artist, the last thing they want to do is admit they were conned.

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