Apr 08 2019

More Research into Bullshit

Often times when I state that I do not accept a claim at face value, I am challenged with the question – “Well, do you think they are lying?” The question results from a false dichotomy – that someone is either telling the truth or consciously lying. It misses a phenomenon that is perhaps vastly more large than conscious lying – bullshit.

Lying is when you say something that you know to be false. Bullshitting is when you say something that you don’t know is true or not. There is a spectrum here also, where people may be exaggerating or stretching what they know to be true, mixing in speculation and opinion with facts, distorting what is known with a conscious or unconscious agenda (motivated reasoning), or they are simply gullible themselves. How carefully do you vet a specific piece of information before you accept it and repeat it as true, and how transparent are you about your sources and your confidence in the information?

Most people, I would argue, are not careful enough. Being skeptical is essentially about being really careful and transparent about the information you accept.

Psychological researchers are trying to understand the phenomenon of bullshit, and actually use that term in the literature. A recent study extends this a bit, and is in line with previous research. Pennycook and Rand looked at 1,606 participants through online surveys. They evaluated how receptive they are to statements which are referred to as “pseudoprofound bullshit” and also their ability to discriminate real news from fake new.

Pseudoprofound bullshit are statements that are designed to superficially sound deep, but are actually utterly meaningless (think of pretty much anything Deepak Chopra says). For example, “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.”

There is even a website that generates random “Chopraesque” statements. For example, it just generated for me, “Innocence gives rise to subjective chaos.” This literally just uses an algorithm to string together random words but structured in such a way as to produce such statements.

The researchers found, as they suspected, that people who are more receptive to pseudoprofound bullshit were also more accepting of fake news headlines. They were less able to discriminate fake news from real news. They also found the same people overestimate their own knowledge, and are less analytical in their thinking style.

Again – none of this is surprising, and it’s easy to imagine how these features would all be related. If your overall cognitive style (what is referred to as analytical) involves thinking about things in precise detail, being careful in terms of meaning and accuracy, then you are not likely to be impressed by vacuous bullshit, are more likely to see that a headline makes no sense, and probably are more careful in assessing your own knowledge.

At the other end of the spectrum, the intuitive thinking style, are people who go more with their gut reactions, what they feel rather than what they think, are more receptive and “open minded” in general, and less discriminating by focusing on tiny details. And of course this is a spectrum, not two distinct styles, and they interact with the entire range of human personality and cognitive style. But this does seem to be a quantifiable and consistent cognitive trait that people have.

There is still much research to be done to more fully understand the cognitive processes that underlie being open to bullshit and fake news. Is it more because of the presence of biases and things like motivated reasoning, or the absence of things like attention to detail and self-reflection? Is there a suite of cognitive traits that tend to cluster together, or are we seeing just the net effect of multiple independent variables (which means different people can be “gullible” for different reasons).

Further, what I am most interested in, to what extend is the tendency to be gullible in this fashion a deeply ingrained personality trait, and to what extent is it a lack of teachable skills. I suspect, as with most things, it is both. People start with a general tendency, but this can be modified through education. Most people are somewhere in the middle, where environment and education have the largest effect, while some are out on the statistical fringes and will be refractory to environmental factors.

I also wonder if there is a trade-off, as with many cognitive and personality traits. For example, people who are extroverted likely have better social skills, while people who are introverted may be better at focusing on certain precise tasks. It is not better or worse to be one or the other, just different. There is a trade-off. There is a general trade-off with being analytical vs intuitive – the former is more precise but also more slow, while the latter is quicker but also more sloppy. Most people actually use both styles as circumstances demand and allow.

I am having a hard time seeing the benefit of being gullible, however. Perhaps it tracks with other traits, like being socially open, that have an advantage.

But in modern society I think there is an increasing price to pay for being open to bullshit. The trade-off, to whatever extent there is one, is shifting sharply toward the analytical end of the spectrum. It is simply too easy to take advantage of gullibility, and in fact doing so has been mass produced and industrialized. We all need to be more careful in what we believe and the information we spread. We need to have some process by which we at least ask a few basic questions – what is actually being claimed, what is the evidence, what do the people who should know the answer think, and what is my personal level of knowledge here. Than be honest and transparent in your answers.

Many people don’t even engage in this process. They simply accept what feels right to them, which is all bias, ideology, and motivated reasoning. This makes them very easy to manipulate. But I am not proposing a false dichotomy here – we all do this some times to some degree. The research shows, however, that people vary in this regard. The goal, therefore, should be to move people toward the more skeptical and less gullible end of the spectrum through education, and also by establishing norms and standards.

As the flow and democratization of information increases, these skills are becoming more important. We all need to polish our bullshit detectors and give them regular use.

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