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Psychologists write about “bullshit”

BullshitAnyone who's been to the West Coast or visited hippie towns like Covington, VT or Asheville, NC has undoubtedly heard some version of the New Age spiel. It generally involves “energy work,” “intuition,” and somewhere along the way, “quantum” something gets dropped into the mix—as in “quantum healing,” “quantum intention,” or “quantum intuitive energy work.” What does that even mean? And who buys this stuff? A recent study led by Gordon Pennycook seeks to answer the latter question, regardless of whether New Age clichés mean anything at all. According to the authors, the propensity to interpret garbled phrases as profound is a sign of “Bullshit Receptivity,” and it's correlated with low intelligence and high gullibility.

Gordon Pennycook is presently a doctoral candidate in the psychology department at the University of Waterloo.His paper on “bullshit” was conducted with assistance from his supervisors, Jonathan Fugelsang and Derek Koehler, whose respective research efforts focus on the cognitive processes underpinning decision-making. Choice plays heavily in the present study, which looks at whether or not people take the time to analyze the actual validity of “pseudo-profound bullshit,” and if so, whether there's variation between individuals.

The team used world-renowned New Age guru Deepak Chopra as the objective baseline of pseudo-profundity. By reassembling random words taken from the guru's Twitter account, Pennycook created fairly hilarious phrases that would likely elicit approving nods in a suburban yoga studio or crystal healing workshop. Each phrase is syntactically correct, but in the researchers' view, they're utterly meaningless. Examples include:

“Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena.”

“Imagination is inside exponential space time events.”

“We are in the midst of a high frequency blossoming of interconnectedness that will give us access to the quantum soup itself.”

Whether the last statement is profound or not, it should conjure images of fashionable turbans, glowing electron clouds on sleek PowerPoint slides, and vegetarian lunch options offered for exorbitant prices. Participants were asked to rate these supposedly nonsensical statements on a 1-to-5 profundity scale. This rating was a gauge for each individual's “Bullshit Receptivity.”

Three other qualities were tested for and compared with “Bullshit Receptivity”: analytic thinking, ontological confusions, and epistemically suspect beliefs. The authors identify two aspects of analytic thinking when approaching pseudo-profundities: the individual's capacity to discern whether the statement is nonsensical, and his or her willingness to put in the effort to work it out. The authors assume that more analytic individuals—said to possess refined “baloney detectors”—will be more likely to rate these “woo-woo” statements as less profound. Clearly, Pennycook and company came prepared to have fun with this paper.

The authors define “ontological confusion” as categorical mistakes in which physical and mental qualities are confused, such as a belief in psychokinesis, healing through prayer, or any mind over matter phenomenon. Related to this are “epistemically suspect beliefs,” which are any notions that defy “common naturalistic conceptions of the world.” These include beliefs in paranormal activity, alternative medicine, and that time-honored intellectual punching bag: religion. Also included is “conspiratorial ideation,” or the belief that disagreeable science rises to general acceptance by way of conspiracy. People displaying ontological confusion and epistemically suspect beliefs are predicted to more readily accept pseudo-profundities. If this experiment's premises are starting to sound to you like a cliché contest at a skeptic's roundtable, you're probably an analytic thinker. Every organization from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry to the Council for Secular Humanism takes these same dismissive potshots at religion and supernaturalism with the riling predictability of “quantum skeptical debunkery.”

Pennycook's project unfolded in four phases, beginning with an initial study on U. of Waterloo undergraduates who participated for class credit, and it continued with three follow up studies conducted via Amazon's Mechanical Turk survey program. All four studies sought to establish the overall cognitive style of each participant—particularly their relative levels of analytical skill and gullibility—and then see how profound they determined New Agey “bullshit” to be.

The first study looked at 279 students, and found an average “Bullshit Receptivity” rating of 2.6 on a 1-to-5 scale, meaning that most participants thought the statements were passably profound. According to the researchers' measures, the less analytically inclined and more “epistemically suspect” the participants were, the more receptive they were to “pseudo-profound” statements.

The next three studies were set up to tease out nuances of “BS Receptivity,” and tested participants via Amazon's M-Turk (with sample sizes of 189, 114, and 217 people, respectively). The second study added actual Deepak Chopra tweets as a control for the supposedly nonsensical statements. Those participants who had prior knowledge of Deepak Chopra were less likely to ascribe profundity to either statement, but unsurprisingly, those who found Chopra's statements to be profound were more likely to feel the same way about the BS statements.

The third study added generic but coherent motivational statements, such as “A wet person does not fear the rain,” as well as mundane statements like “Some things have very distinct smells.” There turned out to be a high correlation between those who rated these non-spiritual statements as being profound and those who were impressed by the Deepak derivatives. This supports the authors' prediction that some people will find profundity in pretty much anything.

In all four studies the less mental acuity and the more supernatural beliefs a participant displayed, the more likely he or she was to find some deep meaning in “pseudo-profound” statements. This is the takeaway point in Pennycook's paper. That, and proving that it's possible to drop the word “bullshit” over a hundred times in a peer-reviewed journal.

Pennycook's research reinforces a well-worn stereotype in the skeptical community: New Age flakes are dumb and easy to dupe. But it's a mistake to call these “pseudo-profound” statements completely meaningless. They are ridiculous, sure, but not necessarily meaningless. Meaning is highly subjective, and even the brightest minds find deep meaning in the strangest of places.

It would also be a mistake to ignore the number of intelligent, reasonably discerning individuals in the study who saw profundity in a chopped up Chopra word salad. High correlation isn't absolute correlation, so at least some of those who were impressed by phrases like “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty” were neither measurably unintelligent nor certifiably gullible. Anyone familiar with academia knows the ivory tower is swarming with hyperintelligent individuals whose impenetrable writings look a lot like “pseudo-profound bullshit” to outsiders. Take the writings of celebrated philosopher Slavoj Žižek for example: “[A]s soon as we renounce fiction and illusion, we lose reality itself; the moment we subtract fictions from reality, reality itself loses its discursive-logical consistency.”

Is that profound or bullshit?

That Pennycook's “pseudo-profound” statements garnered any approval from research participants is an amusing accomplishment in itself, and it highlights two facets of the human mind: 1) Meaning is highly subjective; and 2) There's always a place for “bullshit” in academic journals.

For more, read “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit” in Judgment and Decision Making.

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