Bullshit is manipulative - at least for some

Many people are impressed by profound-sounding 'bullshit'. That's the finding of a study released this week with the impressive title On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit, published in Judgement and Decision Making.

Professor Harry Frankfurt, author of On Bullshit, explains the difference between bullshit and lies this way:

“It consists of a lack of concern for the difference between truth and falsity. The motivation of the bullshitter is not to say things that are true – or even things that are false – but serving some other purpose. And the pursuit of whether something is true or false is irrelevant to that ambition.” (Frankfurt, 2007)

Take for example the phrase 'As you self-actualize, you will enter into infinite empathy that transcends understanding'. Not only does it have no meaning whatsoever, it was produced by a random quote generator. Yet the study's participants judged it as 2.87 out of five for its level of profoundness.

Those more receptive to bull** are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions [beliefs in things for which there is no empirical evidence (i.e. that prayers have the ability to heal)] and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine. (Pennycook, et al., 2015, p. 559)

Discussion

"Respect for the truth and a concern for the truth are among the foundations of civilisation."

Its getting harder and harder to determine what information is based in carefully checked facts and what isn't. Parents used to tell kids that they should never believe anything just because its in a newspaper. These days newspapers look highly credible compared to what shonks and celebrities post on social media.

Unfortunately the proliferation of seemingly profound statements by self-professed experts may be weakening people's defences to this kind of information. Tracking this data over time would be very interesting.

Of course people often lazily rely on heuristics to sort whether information is credible and using scientific-sounding words is a tried and true way of exploiting that vulnerability in human psychology - in fact that's what the art of pseudoscience is.

Australia's Macquarie Dictionary defines pseudoscience as 'an apparently scientific approach to the process or presentation of a theory, invention, product etc, which on close analysis is shown to have no scientific validity.'

While randomly generated phrases are unlikely to hurt anyone, there is no doubt that this method could be used to manipulate large numbers of people to form views contrary to the facts in scientific topics like vaccinations, climate change, alternative medicine and genetically modified organisms.

Of course finding a solution this problem is difficult. The victims often have deeply held world-views that are very hard to reverse, even when presented with verifiable facts. Even worse, if they are not motivated to change those world-views they are unlikey to even realise they are the victims of deliberate manipulation.

References

  • Frankfurt, H., 2007. On Bullshit Part 1 [Interview] (18 September 2007).

  • Pennycook, G. C. J. A., Barr, N., Koehler, D. & Fugelsang, J., 2015. On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgment and Decision Making, 10(6), pp. 549-563.