People who see patterns where none exist are more receptive to pseudo-profound bullshit

A new study has found that apophenia, or the tendency to see patterns or causal connections where none exist, is associated with receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit.

The findings, which appear in the European Journal of Personality, indicate that people high in apophenia have trouble distinguishing truly profound statements from pseudo-profound statements.

“Since a young age, I’ve enjoyed dissecting different interpretations of ambiguous statements. This interest was revived with the pseudo-profound bullshit statement (PPBS). The strangely alluring sense that they should mean something, while not meaning anything, made PPBS incredibly interesting to me,” said study author Timothy Bainbridge of The University of Melbourne.

“Similarly, when I first read DeYoung’s (2012) paper on the Openness/Intellect simplex, I found the connection they drew between madness and genius a compelling description of a somewhat counter-intuitive relationship.”

“It was my co-author (Luke Smillie) who first noted the connection between the constructs assessed in Pennycook’s (2015) paper and those present in the Openness/Intellect simplex, and when he invited me to work on a paper looking at this relationship, I naturally agreed,” Bainbridge said.

In two studies, with a total of 297 participants, the researchers had college students read and rate a number of truly profound, mundane, and pseudo-profound statements. Examples of pseudo-profound bullshit included statements like “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty” and “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena.” An example of a truly profound statement used in the study, on the other hand, is the sentence “The creative adult is the child who survived.”

Those who scored higher on measures of apophenia tended to rate the pseudo-profound bullshit as more profound, while those who scored higher on measures of intelligence tended to give pseudo-profound bullshit lower profundity ratings.

But those with higher intelligence scores did not rate all the statements as less profound in general. Intelligence was associated with detecting a difference between pseudo-profound bullshit and truly profound statements.

“I think the take-home from this paper is that people who find PPBS profound do so more because of an inability to discriminate the profound from the pseudo-profound rather than because of a general propensity to find all statements profound,” Bainbridge explained to PsyPost.

“Given the connection between PPBS and paranormal beliefs, for example, it may follow that these types of beliefs are accepted, not because people will believe anything, but because people sometimes find it difficult to distinguish such beliefs from those that are more reasonable or likely. To be sure, some of the effect is likely a greater bias toward believing these types of theories, but an inability to discriminate seems to play the larger role.”

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“The conclusions in the paper should be taken as tentative. Only student samples were assessed and the results were not as clear as they perhaps might have been,” Bainbridge said.

“However, there are a number of interesting avenues down which future research might turn. For example, the types of statements used could be expanded to see if the results generalize beyond PPBS. In the paper, we noted that an interesting extension might involve analyzing a type of statement called ‘deepities’ (e.g., ‘Love is just a word’).”

“Deepities share many features of PPBS, but importantly are meaningful, so might provide an interesting test of whether the illusive meaning of PPBS is important for generating the results observed in the PPBS literature,” Bainbridge told PsyPost.

“More broadly, future research could delve into the causes and mechanisms behind finding PPBS statements profound, which we could only speculate about. Another interesting angle might consider the practical implications of finding PPBS profound. For example, Pennycook and Rand (2017) compared how PPBS ratings related to believing fake news. I think such practical implications are a potentially fruitful vein of research and could, in future, be related to the Openness/Intellect connection that we explored.”

The study, “Openness/Intellect and Susceptibility to Pseudo-Profound Bullshit: A Replication and Extension“, was authored by Timothy F. Bainbridge, Joshua A. Quinlan, Raymond A. Mar, and Luke D. Smillie.