Aug 20 2018

Bullshit Research

I am not talking about dubious research, but rather research into the phenomenon of bullshit (BS) itself. BS has an operational definition or paradigm within psychological research – it is the extent to which subject rate as highly meaningful statements which are crafted to be vacuous, unconcerned about the truth, and lacking in any unambiguous meaning. Think just about anything Deepak Chopra says. Such statements are also called “pseudoprofound” when they are BS and try to sound profound or philosophical.

“Intuition expresses visible choices.”

“Meditation makes the entire nervous system go into a field of coherence.”

“Experiential truth belongs to the expansion of abstract beauty.”

One of those quotes is from Chopra, the other two from the Chopra simulator.

A recent study extends the research on BS a bit, but first gives a brief summary of what existing research has found:

Recently, some psychological research has focused on individual differences in the extent to which people perceive bullshit as meaningful. These studies have shown that people who rate bullshit sentences as highly meaningful have more religious and supernatural beliefs, are less reflective, intelligent, and numerate, more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, endorse free market policies more, and have more favorable views of Republican presidential candidates in US politics. The aim of this study is to develop the academic field of bullshit further.

Given the relatively few number of references in the paper, it’s probably best to consider these conclusions preliminary. While many of these features make sense, like being prone to believing in the paranormal and conspiracies, I would want to see some independent replication before making any firm conclusion.

BS researchers actually measures three things: BS receptivity, profoundness receptivity, and BS sensitivity. Receptivity is the tendency to rate statements as meaningful. Whereas BS sensitivity is obtained by subtracting BS receptivity from profoundness receptivity.

For example, someone may rate BS and genuinely profound statements as highly meaningful. They many think everything is meaningful, and not distinguish. But if they rate BS statements low and genuine statements high, they appear to be able to distinguish BS from genuinely meaningful statements (BS sensitivity).

An example of a BS statement used in the study is, “Your movement transforms universal observations.” A genuinely meaningful statement used is,  “A river cuts through a rock, not because of its power but its persistence.”

What the researchers in the current study wanted to do it test the association of BS sensitivity in this paradigm to measures of actual behaviors, rather than just other beliefs. They decided to measure prosocial behavior in two ways. The first was simply to ask participants if they donated to any charity in the last year. The second was to give the subjects an option when the necessary information has been completely to either go to the end of the survey, or answer additional questions for charity. If they chose to answer additional questions, the researchers would donate a small amount of money to a charity of their choice.

They found:

Central to the current study, bullshit-sensitivity was clearly positively associated with both measures of prosocial behavior. People who responded YES to the donation experience question had higher profoundness-receptivity but similar bullshit-receptivity compared to those answering NO. People who responded YES to the volunteering decision question had higher profoundness-receptivity but lower bullshit-receptivity compared to those who answered NO.

They conclude that BS sensitivity as measured in this way does tell us something meaningful about a person. They also emphasize that future research should not just measure BS receptivity, but also sensitivity – it is the ability to distinguish between BS and the genuinely profound that appears to be important.

Like all such psychological studies, this study finds correlations only. It is very difficult to draw cause and effect conclusions. The researchers did control for as many variables as they could, such as religiosity, socioeconomic status, gender, and age, and the correlation held up. The problem is always in the factors that you don’t measure. BS sensitivity and prosocial behavior as measured may correlate because they both correlate to some other factor not considered in the study (a confounding factor).

But even if here is a confounding factor, the study is still interesting. They found a fairly robust effect that was linked to actual behavior, and not just self-report. Further research into why there is this correlation is likely to be interesting. Remember – a confounding factor in one study may be a variable of interest in another study, depending on how it is designed. It depends on what question you are asking.

Often in this stage of research, psychologists are just trying to figure out what questions they should be asking. Is there an effect worth pursuing? If so, it will take many studies from many different angles to figure out something fundamental about human psychology.

Right now we have a construct of BS sensitivity, which likely does reflect something real and important about people. But this area of research is relatively young, and so it will take some time before we figure out what that something real actually is.

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