Swedish study: Bullshit receptivity is robustly linked to social conservatism — and support for the Green Party

Specific subgroups of right- and left-wingers are more receptive to pseudo-profound bullshit, according to new research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Pseudo-profound bullshit describes statements that can appear to be deep but have no real meaning, such as the sentence “We are in the midst of a high-frequency blossoming of interconnectedness that will give us access to the quantum soup itself.”

The new findings help to untangle some of the complex relationships between bullshit receptivity and political ideology.

“I am interested in how a person’s worldview might get in the way of the pursuit of knowledge. Ultimately, I want to understand how we can better promote scientific thinking among persons with different worldviews,” explained study author Artur Nilsson, an associate professor of psychology at Linköping University.

“I think that the notion of pseudo-profound bullshit specifically caught my attention because I have a background in philosophy and an aversion to unclear statements. Understanding how bullshit operates also struck me as particularly urgent in our current digital age, in which fake news, conspiracy theories, and ‘alternative facts’ may have greater destructive potential than ever — although people have probably engaged in bullshitting for thousands of years.”

In the study of 985 Swedish adults, participants were asked to rate the profoundness of bullshit statements such as “Your movement transforms universal observations” and genuine aphorisms such as “Your teacher can open the door, but you have to step in.”

The participants also completed assessments of moral intuition, political orientation, religiosity, and cognitive dispositions.

The results confirmed many of the past findings on bullshit receptivity: people with a less analytic and more intuitive cognitive style were more likely to view bullshit as profound, and the same was true of people who scored higher on measures of confirmation bias and supernatural belief.

But when the researchers examined how bullshit receptivity was related to political beliefs and voting behavior, the findings were not straightforward.

“Receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit was robustly associated with social conservative ideas among Swedes. This finding fits well with a long tradition of research based on the notion that conservatives have a simpler, more intuitive cognitive style, and greater proneness to cognitive biases than liberals do,” Nilsson told PsyPost.

“But we did not find that economic right-wing ideas were associated with greater receptivity to bullshit. What is more, we found that Swedes who voted for the Green Party, which is on the left, were the most bullshit receptive, while those who voted for the social liberal parties, which are on the right, were the least bullshit receptive.”

“So, it is probably not as simple as right-wingers being more bullshit receptive than left-wingers in general. Receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit may be common among some groups both on the left and the right, and neither side of the political spectrum is immune to bullshit,” Nilsson said.

Though the study uncovered bullshit receptivity among both right- and left-wingers, that doesn’t mean the same processes account for both. “On the left, it may stem from an uncritical openness to ideas that sound ideologically appealing or familiar; on the right, it may stem from a disinclination to critically engage with information and its sources,” the researchers wrote in their study.

The study controlled for age, education, religiosity, gender, receptivity to genuinely profound aphorisms, and other factors. But like all research, it includes some limitations.

“More research is needed to test the robustness and replicability particularly of the findings concerning party preference and bullshit receptivity, which were serendipitous,” Nilsson said.

It is also unclear how well the results generalize to other countries with different political cultures.

One study conducted in the United States found evidence that supporters of Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio had a higher tendency to see profoundness in bullshit statements compared to those who supported Democratic presidents. Another found that endorsement of free market ideology was modestly associated with greater bullshit receptivity.

“It would be interesting to explore whether different kinds of pseudo-profound bullshit vary in terms of their attractiveness to persons of different ideological stripes,” Nilsson added.

“The million-dollar question is how we can reduce bullshit receptivity among individuals with different ideological proclivities and worldviews.”

The study, “The Complex Relation Between Receptivity to Pseudo-Profound Bullshit and Political Ideology“, was authored by Artur Nilsson, Arvid Erlandsson, and Daniel Västfjäll.