People who are religious and ‘ontologically confused’ are more likely to share pseudo-profound bullshit

A new study has found that the more literally a person understands metaphorical statements and the more religious they are, the more likely they are to share pseudo-profound bullshit on social media.

The new research, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, replicated Gordon Pennycook’s 2015 study on bullshit receptivity — meaning the propensity to interpret nonsensical sentences as profound statements — using a sample from two Eastern European countries.

But, unlike the original study, the new research also examined the willingness to share bullshit.

“We were studying cognitive biases and their relationship to various unfounded beliefs, such as paranormal claims, conspiracy theories and pseudoscience,” said study author Vladimira Cavojova of the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

“Focusing on these kinds of unfounded beliefs made us aware that social media is full of nonsense (e.g. pseudo-profound tweets that are also part of this study), and Pennycook and his colleagues came up with a very original way to test this kind of general receptivity to bullshit.

“We were also interested in the propensity to share bullshit statements, because social media also allows for the rapid spread of this kind of content,” Cavojova explained.

In the study, 76 Slovak and 45 Romanian participants completed several measures of bullshit receptivity, willingness to share pseudo-profound bullshit, cognitive abilities, and thinking dispositions.

Examples of pseudo-profound bullshit included statements like “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty” and “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena.” The researchers also included 10 of Deepak Chopra’s tweets, including one which read: “Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.”

The participants were asked to rate how profound they thought the statements were and how likely they would be to share the statements on social media.

Cavojova and her colleagues found that people who were more receptive to bullshit and more likely to say they would share it tended to be more prone to ontological confusions, more likely to believe conspiracy theories, and more likely to be religious.

“People more prone to judge nonsense statement as profound are also more likely to believe in other unfounded things. Moreover, it seems that especially more religious people and people with troubles to differentiate between various ontological categories (e.g. differentiating metaphorical statements from factual statements) are more vulnerable to transcendental sounding bullshit like the one we measured,” Cavojova told PsyPost.

For example, ontologically-confused people interpret phrases such as “Old furniture knows things about the past” as more literal than metaphorical.

The researchers also found that statements that were rated as more profound were more likely to be shared. But the willingness to share bullshit statements was lower than their profundity ratings.

“The positive message is that even though people often fall for this kind of bullshit, they are generally less willing to share it,” Cavojova added.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“The major caveat is that the measure we used – the Bullshit Receptivity scale – is based on pseudo-transcendental bullshit which can be criticized as being too tightly related to spiritual (and mainly New Age) beliefs. Even though the items were randomly generated and thus have no intended meaning, people still could find some personal meaning in them (based on their vagueness and their personal beliefs),” Cavojova explained.

“Therefore, it is necessary to study bullshit also in a non-transcendental context, allowing us to determine what features of bullshit makes it so likeable, controlling for the role of personal spirituality.”

“We are currently working on a scale that would enable us to measure receptivity to bullshit in non-transcendental domains, such as health or interpersonal relationships. Preliminary results show that people don´t trust too obscure statements, but rather simple-sounding but untruthful statements relying on imprecise metaphors or analogies,” Cavojova said.

The study, “Reception and willingness to share pseudo‐profound bullshit and their relation to other epistemically suspect beliefs and cognitive ability in Slovakia and Romania“, was authored by Vladimíra Čavojová, Eugen‐Călin Secară, Marek Jurkovič, and Jakub Šrol.