According to new research published in The British Journal of Social Psychology, frequency of bullshitting intended to impress or persuade others (i.e., persuasive bullshitting) predicts susceptibility to misleading misinformation, including pseudo-profound bullshit, scientific bullshit, and fake news.
“I’ve always been interested in why relatively smart people believe dumb things. Given the growth of the internet and social media recently, answering that question feels more important than ever,” said study author Shane Littrell (@MetacogniShane), a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University.
“We’ve all fallen victim to believing some sort of dumb bullshit at one point or another in our lives. Whether it’s astrology or the latest ridiculous diet or health fad that’s ‘based on science!’. Some types of bullshit that we fall for are relatively harmless but might make us feel stupid later when we realize we’ve been duped. But other types can potentially be more harmful, especially when one’s health is concerned.”
Bullshit receptivity and bullshitting frequency are both negatively associated with cognitive ability and analytic thinking. Thus, it could be the case that individuals who frequently engage in bullshitting are also more likely to fall for bullshit.
There are two types of bullshitting: 1) attempting to impress, persuade, or fit in with others by stretching or exaggerating the truth (i.e., persuasive bullshitting) and 2) being evasive when direct answers could result in reputational harm for oneself or others (i.e., evasive bullshitting).
“There’s a growing body of research focusing on trying to figure out why some people are more likely than others to fall for ‘epistemically questionable’ things, and a lot of my research focuses on that. But I’m also really interested in the other side of the problem; the people who intentionally bullshit others. There hasn’t been much work on that so far and I think if we’re ever going to fully understand why misinformation and disinformation spread, we not only need to figure out why some people are more likely to fall for it, but also why others are more likely to spread it.”
Littrell and colleagues recruited a total of 826 participants from Canada and the United States. Study 1 explored the extent to which bullshitting frequency was associated with pseudo-profound bullshit, scientific bullshit, and fake news, with each task including a measure of receptivity to relevant non-bullshit (e.g., genuinely profound statements, scientific information, actual news headlines).
Study 2 more closely examined the extent to which bullshitting frequency was associated with bullshit receptivity, specifically pseudo-profound bullshit. It included measures of cognitive ability, factors related to engagement in cognitive reflection, as well as subjective and objective measures of metacognition.
Lastly, Study 3 experimentally tested whether the observed association was the product of higher frequency persuasive bullshitters being insensitive to the differences in statements that sound profound and those that actually are profound. One group of participants were instructed to rate items on the bullshit receptivity scale based on how profound they sound, while ignoring how profound they believe the items actually are. The other group received the reverse instructions and were prompted to rate items based on how profound they actually are, while ignoring how profound they sound.
“I’d say the biggest, and most ironic, takeaway is that people who often intentionally try to mislead others – by bullshitting – are themselves more susceptible to falling for misleading information (as in, bullshit). Also, it might not matter how smart or analytically-minded a person is; if they’re a big persuasive bullshitter, they’re more at risk of falling for bullshit and may not even be aware that they’re more susceptible,” Littrell told PsyPost.
“Not being able to tell a stale fact from persuasive fiction means that the amount of bullshit being spread by the bullshitter is potentially a lot more than they even realize. Bullshitting is a strategic attempt to impress, persuade, or otherwise fit in better with others by misleading them in some way. Bullshitters do it in situations where they think it will gain some advantage and they can get away with it. But if they’re spreading bullshit even when they’re not trying to mislead others – because they actually believe it – then there’s a much higher chance that they will lose whatever strategic advantage that bullshitting might have provided, because fewer people will take them seriously.”
Challenging the popular maxim “you can’t bullshit a bullshitter,” Littrell and colleagues found that persuasive (but not evasive) bullshitters were more receptive to bullshit, even when controlling for various cognitive predictors (i.e., intelligence, analytic thinking).
Littrell noted there are two important limitations to consider. “The first is, in our daily lives, it’s sometimes easy to spot the biggest bullshitters because, not only do they do it a lot, they also tend to be pretty bad at it. It’s kind of the ‘double curse of being a bullshitter.’ If they were good at bullshitting us, we’d probably never know it. And there are people out there who are really good at misleading others. Those are the bullshitters who are so good at it that we can’t tell, so they’re usually able to get away with it more often. And, for now, we just don’t know if our findings apply to those ‘expert bullshitters’ or not. It could be the case that they actually are better at detecting other people’s bullshit, so they’re better able to use different kinds of misleading info to their advantage.”
“Another limitation is that this research was conducted in the West with English-speaking participants. Non-Western and non-English-speaking cultures might have different conceptions of what does or doesn’t qualify as bullshitting and different definitions of what they’d consider to be bullshit. So, we’d need to test this in those areas to be sure that this is a universal, rather than a culture-specific, phenomenon,” he added.
There are promising avenues for future research. “We’re still not sure why people who engage more in ‘persuasive bullshitting’ are more likely to fall for bullshit. We’ve identified the metacognitive error that they’re making – that they have difficulty distinguishing bullshit from non-bullshit – but we’re still not sure exactly why they’re more susceptible to making that error,” Littrell said.
“Also, this greater susceptibility to falling for bullshit wasn’t found for evasive bullshitting. People who are more likely to engage in evasive, rather than persuasive, bullshitting tend to be more analytically minded and are often bullshitting for more prosocial reasons, rather than trying to mislead someone to advance a self-serving agenda. So, there appear to be some cognitive, metacognitive, and motivational factors that differ between these two types of bullshitting that we need to explore more in-depth.”
The research, “‘You can’t bullshit a bullshitter’ (or can you?): Bullshitting frequency predicts receptivity to various types of misleading information”, was authored by Shane Littrell, Evan F. Risko, and Jonathan A. Fugelsang.