People who are impressed by seemingly profound statements that are actually nonsensical tend to be less charitable, suggests new research published in PLOS One. The study indicates that bullshit-sensitivity is linked to prosocial behavior.
“The overarching theme of my research is prosocial decision making (e.g. donating money to charity organizations) so this was the reason I wanted to focus on that dependent variable,” said study author Arvid Erlandsson, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Linköping University.
“Bullshit-sensitivity refers to the ability to distinguish pseudo-profound bullshit sentences such as ‘Good health imparts reality to subtle creativity’ from genuinely profound sentences such as ‘A river cuts through a rock, not because of its power but its persistence’,” he explained.
“I got interested in bullshit-sensitivity after reading the very alluringly named article ‘On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit‘ by Pennycook et al. (2015) in Judgment and Decision Making and we decided to include reactions to bullshit as one individual difference variable in one large scale survey that we conducted.”
In the study, one thousand participants rated the meaningfulness of 14 statements. They also indicated whether they had donated to charity in the past year and were given an option to complete a few questions on behalf of a charity.
The researchers found receptivity to bullshit was negatively related to prosocial behavior. In other words, people who tended to rate bullshit sentences as being meaningful also tended to be less likely to donate to charity.
“To our knowledge, we are the first study that links reactions to bullshit to an actual behavior rather than to self-reported measures. We also measure prosociality in two different ways, which makes the findings more robust and generalizable,” Erlandsson told PsyPost.
“We emphasize the importance to distinguish bullshit-receptivity (the tendency to perceive bullshit-quotes such as ‘The hidden meaning transforms the abstract beauty’ as meaningful) from bullshit-sensitivity (the ability to distinguish pseudo-profound quotes from quotes that are actually profound such as ‘Your teacher can open the door, but you have to step in’).”
“We find that people who are good at distinguishing the actually profound from the pseudo-profound are more prosocial.”
The study has some limitations.
“We see this finding as a small but interesting contribution to a fun and quickly emerging field of research rather than something groundbreaking or conclusive. We are open with the fact that the results were found in exploratory analyses, and we cannot currently say much about the underlying mechanisms,” Erlandsson explained.
“As the reaction to bullshit is currently a rather ‘hot’ and easily accessible topic in social and decision-making psychology, we thought that it was appropriate to publish these findings even though we currently can only say something about correlations.
“Future studies could potentially test causality (e.g. see whether courses in critical thinking could make people better at distinguishing the actually profound from the pseudo-profound and whether this also influences their prosociality compared to a control group).”
The researchers who are studying bullshit believe that modern communications technologies have probably made the problem worse.
“This paper focuses on pseudo-profound bullshit sentences, but we and others have tentatively linked this to individual differences in susceptibility to fake news and the ability/inability to distinguish real ‘true’ news from fake news,” Erlandsson said.
“Improving people’s (on both sides of the political spectrum) ability to separate fake news from real news is arguably a more important task than increasing their ability to detect bullshit.”
The study, “Bullshit-sensitivity predicts prosocial behavior“, was authored by Arvid Erlandsson, Artur Nilsson, Gustav Tinghög, and Daniel Västfjäll.