Politically conservative individuals tend to be slightly more receptive to political bullshit, according to new research that examined participants from three different countries. The study, which examined “statements of political content that intend to persuade voters, but are so vague and broad that they are essentially meaningless,” has been published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology.
Vukasin Gligoric, the corresponding author of the study and a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam, said he was motivated to investigate the topic of political bullshit for two primary reasons.
“One is that I’ve been interested in politics and political psychology for quite some time,” he explained. “Secondly, I was inspired by Gordon Pennycook and colleagues’ very related work on pseudo-profound bullshit (sentences that sound deep because they use complex words, but are actually meaningless). Specifically, it was one paper that investigated whether neoliberals are more receptive to pseudo-profound bullshit. In the discussion, they give a possible example of bullshit in politics, where politicians could say something like ‘I believe in America!’ Then I realized – oh my God, there is a lot going on here.”
Given how often politicians use grandiose phrases that lack any real meaning, Gligoric was surprised to find that there was little research on it. “For me, the discrepancy between how prevalent the phenomenon is and the lack of investigation of the topic is staggering,” he said.
The new findings are based on research conducted with 179 U.S. participants, 185 Serbian participants, and 170 Dutch participants.
In line with previous research on bullshit receptivity, the researchers presented the participants with a list of statements that included both pseudo-profound bullshit (“Good health imparts reality to subtle creativity”) and meaningful sentences (“A river cuts through a rock, not because of its power but its persistence”). The participants were asked to rate how “profound” they thought each statement was.
To measure receptivity to political bullshit, the researchers then had the participants read about hypothetical political programs that had been proposed during presidential elections in the fictitious country of Gonfel.
Three of the programs were “meaningless and empty.” For example, “Our political program is based on the unity of our people in Gonfel. We promise that the government that we form will work for its people, and not against its people as it has been the case for the last several decades. Our greatest effort will be put in returning dignity to our country so that we do not put shame on our ancestors. Pride and dignity are our values, and I pledge myself to fight for them.”
Three meaningful political programs that described specific policies were also included. For example, one program outlined a “plan to reduce the university tuition fees by 20% and provide affordable medical service to the citizens with income lower than the average.” The researchers asked the participants to rate how much they would support each program and how likely they would be vote for the candidate who had proposed it.
Finally, the researchers asked the participants to rate how convincing five politicals slogans were, and then to rate how persuasive 15 political statements were. The political statements included a mix of bullshit (“To politically lead the people means to always fight for them”) and factual statements (“The president and prime minister have important political functions”).
Across all three samples, Gligorić and his colleagues found that participants who were more receptive to pseudo-profound bullshit tended to be more receptive to political bullshit as well. The findings provide evidence that “there is such a thing as bullshit in politics (e.g., in speeches, slogans),” Gligorić told PsyPost. “And by ‘bullshit’ we don’t mean nonsense or lying: we mean saying something so abstract that you can’t agree or disagree with that – it’s just meaningless. And we give a lot of examples in the paper itself.”
The researchers also found that participants who endorsed statements such as “The free market economic system is a fair system” and “The free market economic system is an efficient system” were more receptive to political bullshit. Additionally, endorsement of political bullshit was associated with a higher probability of having voted for conservative candidates.
“It seems that right-wing individuals, especially neoliberals, are more likely to fall for it,” Gligorić said. “However, the effect is not very strong, and we need more research on this. One important note about the study is that we investigated how receptive people are – we don’t know which side of the political spectrum employs it more. But I would say that everyone employs it – it is just a structural feature of politics.”
Future research might help to devise a simpler measure of receptivity to political bullshit. “Right now, we have several measures which we use to investigate how receptive someone is to political bullshit,” Gligorić explained. “I think the best move forward is to come up with a measure of how much politicians use political bullshit. If we were to develop such a measure, there would be a lot of things to explore: what is the prevalence in an average political speech, when politicians turn to it, which politicians rely on it more often, and so on.”
The study, “Political Bullshit Receptivity and its Correlates: A Cross-Country Validation of the Concept“, was authored by Vukašin Gligorić, Allard Feddes, and Bertjan Doosje.