People who mistake meaningless sentences for profound statements tend to be poor judges of their own cognitive performance, particularly when it comes to their creative ability, according to new research published in the journal Thinking & Reasoning. The study provides new evidence that susceptibility to bullshit is related to impaired metacognitive judgment.
“Consider the statement: ‘wholeness quiets infinite phenomena.’ At first glance, this statement might appear really deep. You can imagine your yoga teacher or hippie uncle saying it. But if you stop and really think about it, this string of words doesn’t actually communicate any meaning – it’s bullshit,” explained study author Tim George, a visiting assistant professor at Union College.
“The concept of bullshit – language that appears profound or important but is actually meaningless – is interesting because it is all around us, and recent research shows that some people are more susceptible to finding meaning in bullshit than others.”
“This got us thinking: do people who find bullshit meaningful also tend to feel more confident in their ability to solve problems and generate ideas? We saw some parallels in finding meaning in bullshit and solving creative problems – both might require ‘connecting the dots’ in unusual or unexpected ways. So we thought, maybe people who believe bullshit statements are meaningful might experience a similar illusion when judging their ability to solve challenging creative problems.”
George and his colleague, Marta K. Mielicki, conducted two separate studies to examine the relationship between bullshit susceptibility and metacognitive judgments.
In the first study, 100 participants read various sentences and rated how profound they thought each statement was. The sentences included a mix of pseudo-profound bullshit (“The future explains irrational facts”) and meaningful statements (“A wet person does not fear the rain”). They then completed two assessments of creative ability.
Participants completed twelve remote associates tests in which they were given three words and asked to come up with a fourth word related to all of them. Six tests were solvable, but six were unsolvable. Participants also completed the alternate uses task, where they were given two minutes to generate as many novel uses for a car tire as they could. A panel of three independent judges rated the creativity of the ideas. Prior to attempting each task, the participants were asked to predict how well they thought they would perform.
The second study, which also included 100 participants, followed a similar methodology but the participants were asked to complete verbal analogy problems and an assessment of memory recall ability instead of the creativity tasks.
“We found that people who perceived bullshit to be more profound tended to be overconfident in their ability complete these creative thinking tasks compared to those who rated the bullshit as less profound,” George told PsyPost. “Not only did people who believed bullshit was profound tend to show higher confidence when initially predicting their success in these problems, they actually performed worse on the problems than people who didn’t believe bullshit was profound. Interestingly, this pattern was most apparent for creative problem solving tasks, as opposed to simpler memory recall tasks.”
But as with any study, the new research comes with some caveats.
“Our study suggests a link between susceptibility to bullshit and overconfidence on certain kinds of tasks, but we still don’t have a good explanation for why this link might exist,” George said. “Since this study was correlational (we didn’t manipulate whether someone was high or low in bullshit susceptibility), it is possible that bullshit susceptibility and confidence in creative problem solving are both related to some other factors we haven’t considered, such as overreliance on intuition.”
Previous research has found that people who are more susceptible to bullshit also tended to show heightened signs of apophenia, or the tendency to see patterns or causal connections where none exist.
“This research adds to our knowledge of metacognition – a term that basically means thinking about thinking. When we think about our own ability to learn and remember things, that’s metacognition. It turns out our metacognition is sometimes inaccurate – we misestimate our future memory performance, problem solving, etc,” George said.
“I think what this research suggests is that the factors that make us poor judges of our own cognition might be the same factors that make us poor judges of meaning and patterns. Perhaps nudging people toward reflective or analytic approaches might reduce overconfidence and make people more accurate in evaluating meaning and solving problems.”
The study, “Bullshit receptivity, problem solving, and metacognition: simply the BS, not better than all the rest“, was published May 2, 2022.