Turns Out You Can Bullshit a Bullshitter
The common wisdom that you can’t bullshit a bullshitter is a bunch of BS. Rather, people who habitually exaggerate stories and distort facts with the intent to persuade or impress others are more likely than straight shooters to be fooled by misinformation themselves, a new study of people in the US and Canada finds.
“It probably seems intuitive to believe that you can’t bullshit a bullshitter, but our research suggests that this isn’t actually the case,” says Shane Littrell, a cognitive psychology PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo in Canada and lead author of the research paper, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology. “In fact, it appears that the biggest purveyors of persuasive bullshit are ironically some of the ones most likely to fall for it.”
Psychiatrists have long understood that bullshit isn’t always pure baloney, and that purveyors of BS can seed the spread of misinformation like a bad virus.
“It’s constructed in order to appear meaningful, though on closer examination, it isn’t,” explains Joe Pierre, MD, a UCLA professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. Scientists in fact distinguish between bullshit and outright lies, which we’re all capable of telling.
“Bullshit isn’t the same as lying,” Pierre writes. “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.”
Two types of bullshitters
For the new study, Littrell and his colleagues defined BS as “information designed to impress, persuade, or otherwise mislead people that is often constructed without concern for the truth.” They surveyed 826 people to determine their levels of self-confidence and degrees of thinking ability on various measures. Each participant also ranked the accuracy, truthfulness and profoundness of statements that were in fact pseudo-scientific, pseudo-profound or just plain fake-news.
The research revealed two types of bullshitters:
- Persuasive BSers exaggerate and embellish to “impress, persuade, or fit in.”
- Evasive BSers spew irrelevant, evasive responses to avoid hurt feelings or damaged reputations.
“We found that the more frequently someone engages in persuasive bullshitting, the more likely they are to be duped by various types of misleading information regardless of their cognitive ability, engagement in reflective thinking, or metacognitive skills,” Littrell says in a statement.
BS is everywhere
The findings build on other research that’s shown some people are more receptive to pseudo-profound bullshit, and mere skepticism is not the only tool people use to ferret out deceptive vagueness. “A bias toward accepting statements as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity,” researchers concluded in a 2015 study.
BS is, of course, everywhere. “The world is awash in bullshit,” the scientists Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West write in their book “Calling Bullshit.”
“Politicians are unconstrained by facts,” they point out. “Science is conducted by press release. Higher education rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture elevates bullshit to high art.”
BS is nothing new
During the pandemic, bullshit-fueled misinformation grew to deadly levels, infecting our entire society with false claims and conspiracy theories that caused people to question not just Covid science but the foundations and institutions of our government. However, BS has presumably been around as long as the spoken word.
“Socrates was put to death 2,400 years ago because he wasn’t willing to let it slide,” Bergstrom and West note.
The new study offers some fresh insight into which type of bullshitter is most likely to be duped by his own brand of shenanigans.
“Persuasive BSers seem to mistake superficial profoundness for actual profoundness,” Littrell says. “So, if something simply sounds profound, truthful, or accurate to them, that means it really is. But evasive bullshitters were much better at making this distinction.”