“One man’s bullshit is another man’s catechism.”
— “Bullshit and the Art of Crap Detection,” Neil Post
What Is Bullshit and Why Is There So Much of It?
With his 1986 essay “On Bullshit,” Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt gave birth to bullshit as a topic of serious academic inquiry.
What is bullshit exactly? In technical terms, it has been defined as “communications that result from little to no concern for truth, evidence and/or established semantic, logical, systemic, or empirical knowledge.” Put more simply, bullshit is “something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth.”
So bullshitting isn’t just nonsense. It’s constructed in order to appear meaningful, though on closer examination, it isn’t. And bullshit isn’t the same as lying. A liar knows the truth but makes statements deliberately intended to sell people on falsehoods. Bullshitters, in contrast, aren’t concerned about what’s true or not, so much as they’re trying to appear as if they know what they’re talking about. In that sense, bullshitting can be thought of as a verbal demonstration of the Dunning-Kruger effect — when people speak from a position of disproportionate confidence about their knowledge relative to what little they actually know, bullshit is often the result.
If that sounds all too familiar in today’s world, consider that Dr. Frankfurt’s 1986 essay (as well as his 2005 book of the same name) began with the claim that “one of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” More than 30 years later, that claim seems more relevant than ever now.
Wake Forest University psychologist John Petrocelli found evidence to support that beyond the Dunning-Kruger effect, bullshitting tends to happen when there’s social pressure to provide an opinion and a social “pass” that will allow someone to get away with it. Three decades ago, Dr. Frankfurt noted that such conditions were present in an America where people felt entitled if not obligated to offer “opinions about everything,” and politics in particular, and where objective reality was often denied in favor of voicing impassioned personal opinions.
Fast-forwarding to the “post-truth” world of 2020, where facts and expertise have been declared dead, opinions are routinely confused with news, and objective evidence is endlessly refuted, the case could be made that bullshit has reached epic proportions. In this regard, the contribution of the internet is hard to ignore. Psychology research from Dr. Matt Fisher and colleagues at Yale University demonstrated that the Dunning-Kruger effect is amplified by access to the internet — we tend to conflate the ability to look up information on the internet with actual personal knowledge. Social media also offers an environment that combines the social pressure to bullshit with an anonymity that provides the social “pass.” In 2018, education experts from Queen’s University in Belfast summed it up this way:
“…along with a pervasive and balkanized social media ecosystem and high internet immersion, public life provides abundant opportunities to bullshit and lie on a scale we could have scarcely credited 30 years ago.”
Pseudoprofound Bullshit Receptivity and Its Implications
While Dr. Frankfurt sparked the academic study of bullshit and bullshitting, few have advanced our knowledge of “bullshittees” — those who consume bullshit — more than Regina University psychology professor Dr. Gordon Pennycook. He and his colleagues won an Ig Nobel Prize for developing a questionnaire designed to quantify receptiveness to a particular kind of bullshit that they called “pseudoprofound bullshit.”
The Bullshit Receptivity Scale (BRS) asks respondents to rate the profoundness of “seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous” constructed from a random mash-up of words taken from Deepak Chopra’s tweets (e.g. “hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty”) and similar “profound-sounding words” from The New Age Bullshit Generator (e.g. “consciousness is the growth of coherence, and of us”). This scale has revealed that the appeal of such seemingly profound, but actually meaningless statements varies across individuals as a continuous psychological trait that can be quantified.
Across various research studies, bullshit receptivity has been associated with paranormal and pseudoscientific beliefs, belief in conspiracy theories, the tendency to perceive connections between unrelated things, and the tendency to perceive false or fake news as accurate as well as a willingness to share it on social media.[3,6–10] It’s inversely correlated with intelligence and analytical thinking.[3,9–11] Studies exploring associations between bullshit receptivity and political ideology have found positive correlations with certain aspects of political conservatism including support of conservative social policies, as well as favorable views of Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and President Trump.[12–14] However, bullshit receptivity is by no means a trait exclusive to conservatives — evidence from Sweden indicates correlation with Green Party affiliation. Behaviorally, higher bullshit receptivity has been associated with lower engagement in “prosocial” acts like donating to or volunteering for charity.
Collectively, although correlation doesn’t equal causation, the early returns on bullshit receptivity research thus far suggest that receptivity to pseudoprofound bullshit is a tendency of those who think more intuitively than analytically. Stated another way, the opposite of bullshit receptivity — bullshit detection — seems to require active, deliberate reflection and analysis, rather than accepting things based on gut feeling. This requires considerable cognitive effort on our part, whereas bullshit receptivity may reflect a kind of cognitive laziness or, less pejoratively, a trap into which it’s all too easy for us to fall.
“Bullshit is the glue that binds us as a nation.”
— It’s Bad For Ya, George Carlin
When Dr. Harry Frankfurt described the ubiquity of bullshit in the 1980s, he attributed much of it to the deliberate and painstaking efforts of ad men and politicians:
“The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept. And in these realms there are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who — with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing, and so forth — dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right. Yet there is something more to be said about this. However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something.”
Political bullshit seems even more relevant in today’s digital landscape, with politicians often pressured for comments on a wide range of subjects for which they often lack true expertise, and their comments often rapidly becoming internet memes. Frankfurt’s phrase “trying to get away with something” highlights how bullshit exists alongside intentional lying on a spectrum of political propaganda tools.
For political psychology, bullshit receptivity is probably as good a marker for susceptibility to propaganda as any. Unfortunately, the BRS may not adequately capture receptiveness to the kind of bullshit often encountered in politics. Unlike pseudoprofound bullshit, political bullshit isn’t designed to sound profound so much as it’s deliberately crafted as accessible if vague rhetoric to be used in speeches or off-the-cuff press conference remarks in the service of evading a more nuanced discussion of complex topics. Political bullshit is therefore often a smokescreen, either to cover for ignorance or to avoid conceding that one might be wrong.
In order to quantify bullshit that might be more relevant to politics and other domains, researchers from Slovakia have developed the General Bullshit Receptivity Scale (GBRS) to measure receptivity to “non-transcendental” bullshit across politics, health, relationships, and emotions. It asks respondents to rate the perceived truthfulness, likeability, and profoundness of questions like “detox is the process of cleansing the mind of toxic thoughts” and “a salary is payment for doing what we would not do for free.” Research using the GBRS found that it is correlated with the BSR and like the BSR, is in turn correlated with endorsement of conspiracy theories, paranormal beliefs, and other pseudoscience beliefs.
These findings suggest that bullshit receptivity might represent a kind of generalized gullibility, with some evidence indicating that gullible individuals have greater susceptibility to general bullshit than pseudoprofound bullshit. This may explain why so many people are vulnerable to political propaganda today.
If analytic thinking is the antithesis of bullshit receptivity, then teaching bullshit detection may be our best path to salvation. But analytic thinking is also the opposite of intuitive thinking, so it isn’t automatic or easy. It requires instruction to learn and deliberate practice to master. More precisely, teaching analytic thinking — like teaching the scientific method — means that we have to help people unlearn our more reflexive patterns of information processing and belief formation. In that sense, the road to salvation will likely be a long and hard one.
In much the same way, Brandonlini’s Law, also known as the “bullshit asymmetry principle,” holds that “the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than [what’s needed] to produce it.” This truism highlights that while the battle against misinformation more generally must be fought “face to face,” the larger war against belief in misinformation won’t be won without prevention. Once people are set in their ways, beliefs are notoriously hard to change. Building immunity against false beliefs in the first place is the more effective long-term strategy.
Almost 20 years before Dr. Frankfurt, and half a century before now, the late NYU professor Neil Postman gave a talk entitled, “Bullshit and the Art of Crap Detection” at the 1969 National Convention for Teachers of English in Washington DC. He started by telling his audience that “helping kids to activate their crap-detectors should take precedence over any other legitimate educational aim.” Half a century later, his conclusion of both pessimism and hope suggests that little progress has been made and that much still needs to be done:
“… I said at the beginning that I thought there is nothing more important than for kids to learn how to identify fake communication. You, therefore, probably assume that I know something about now to achieve this. Well, I don’t. At least not very much. I know that our present curricula do not even touch on the matter. Neither do our present methods of training teachers. I am not even sure that classrooms and schools can be reformed enough so that critical and lively people can be nurtured there. For all I know, there may be so few [teachers] interested in the matter that it is hardly worth talking about. Nonetheless, I persist in believing that it is not beyond your profession to invent ways to educate youth along these lines.”
Fortunately, a few such efforts are now underway. A few years ago, University of Washington professors Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West started teaching “data reasoning in a digital world” within a college course they called “Calling Bullshit.” They then launched the Calling Bullshit website and have a book with the same title due out later this summer.
“We have a civic motivation … It’s not a matter of left- or right-wing ideology; both sides of the aisle have proven themselves facile at creating and spreading bullshit. Rather (and at the risk of grandiose language) adequate bullshit detection strikes us as essential to the survival of liberal democracy. Democracy has always relied on a critically-thinking electorate, but never has this been more important than in the current age of false news and international interference in the electoral process via propaganda disseminated over social media.”
While Calling Bullshit may be just what America needs, it’s only one college course at one university. If we are to win the war against belief in misinformation and our collective appetite for bullshit, courses like this should be offered not only in universities, but in scaled-down versions starting in elementary school and extending through high school.
At the same time, like so many modern problems, we cannot place our hopes for the future entirely within the next generation. Education in school is too often undone in the home. Unless we all work on developing our powers of discernment, learning to separate reliable information from crap, the bullshit will continue to pile up.
This article was originally published as a two-part series on my blog, Psych Unseen, at Psychology Today.
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