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Is Bullshit the Normal Condition?

June 26, 2020

What does it mean to label someone a bullshitter? Does it mean they are a liar? Does it mean they are guilty of talking too much? Does it mean they have something to say about everything, even if they know little or nothing about it? The term bullshit, as used in everyday conversation, is generic and excessively ambiguous. This makes it hard to investigate, which can result in comparisons of different concepts that are labeled with the same word. In the context of this article, the definition of bullshit is provided by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt.

In the book On Bullshit, Frankfurt (2005) defines bullshit as something that is constructed to impress but is constructed without concern for the truth. Bullshitters have no idea if the claims they perpetuate are true or false; they have put little effort into investigating the claim. The truth value of a claim is not important to the bullshitter. This distinguishes bullshit from lying; lying involves a deliberate manipulation and misrepresentation of what one believes is true. A statement is a lie if the person making the statement believes that the statement is false; it is the belief in the truth value that determines whether it is a lie. As Frankfurt notes, “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.”

The rise of communication technology and the associated increase in the availability of information contribute to increasing levels of bullshit (and lying). In addition to communication technology, bullshitting might be attributed to the desire to attain higher intellectual status. Those who have an excessive need to boost their prestige like to always be right—or at least make others think they are right. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be right, but it becomes problematic when being right becomes more important than finding the right answer. Many people pride themselves on being good bullshitters; you know the type of person that can carry on a conversation with anyone, or wow people with their smarts. They have something to say about everything, never mind that they have seen little to no evidence regarding their statements. Some of the most popular people are bullshitters. Calling the bullshitter’s bluff consistently, and asking for evidence, may deter future bullshit from the perpetrator. However, in many cases, the effort required to deter bullshit may be more than people are willing to give. 

Social standards often require bullshitting. Bullshit is unavoidable whenever someone is required to talk about something they don’t know much about. Consider the following: you and your friend attend a dinner party thrown by a mutual friend. Your friends are talking, and you are having a pleasant evening until the conversation addresses complex drug treatments for depression. Your friends appear to be relatively knowledgeable about the subject. After a few minutes of chatting, they ask for your opinion. You panic because you have no knowledge on the subject, but you decide to express your opinion anyway. Why would you comment on something you know nothing about? You felt obligated to say something because you didn’t want to be labeled ignorant or anti-social. This type of situation occurs often and is guaranteed to induce bullshit. When asked to comment on a topic you know little about, you could politely say you aren’t well read on the topic or that you have limited knowledge and are interested in what others have to say. This may be worded in a way that expresses your curiosity. At the same time, you avoid being tagged with a negative label. Bullshit may be driven by factors other than the ones mentioned here. Regardless of the variables associated with bullshit, bullshit is undoubtedly ubiquitous.       

Bullshit Receptivity

We’ve discussed sources of bullshit, but understanding its origins is important; it is also important to identify who is most receptive to bullshit. Are there predictors regarding one’s acceptance of bullshit? Gordon Pennycook and colleagues (2015) designed a scale to measure bullshit detection and receptivity. The research focus was on pseudo-profound bullshit, which consisted of seemingly impressive statements that were presented as true and profound (having deep meaning) but were senseless. The bullshit statements consisted of buzzwords randomly organized into statements  (such as “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”). Across multiple studies, the tendency to judge bullshit statements as profound was positively associated with a nonreflective cognitive style (fast thinking and noncritical) and belief in the supernatural. This indicates participants who rated high in a nonreflective cognitive style and those rating high in supernatural belief were likely to rate the statements as having deep meaning (being high in profundity). 

A common strategy of bullshitters is to impress listeners with ambiguous words and phrases. Those receptive to this type of information assume the bullshitter must know what he or she is talking about, because of the bullshitter’s use of these complex, technical terms. Pseudo-profound bullshit saturates the pages of New Age mysticism books, testimonials, and self-help and motivational books. Consider the following example and notice the similarity to the type of phrases that were used in the Pennycook study: “Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.” The statement lacks any truth value and is meaningless. It wasn’t randomly generated but instead a tweet from Deepak Chopra (Pennycook 2015).       

Humans are cognitive misers; in many situations, we don’t like to think hard (Kahneman 2011). Thinking hard requires additional cognitive resources; it is much harder than nonreflective thinking. Generally, people have a bias toward accepting statements as true from the outset. Research from Daniel T. Gilbert and colleagues (1993) suggests that a response bias toward accepting something as true may be an important mechanism involved in accepting information as true even when it is false. Pennycook and colleagues assert another reason for bullshit receptivity is an inability to detect bullshit. This inability involves the lack of knowledge (mindware gap) relevant to analyze the statement. In the context of pseudo-profound bullshit, one often confuses an ambiguous statement as one of deep meaning.

Conclusion

Bullshit isn’t going away; it is thriving. Not all bullshit is bad, and in small doses it can serve as an ice-breaker or be used to promote social cohesion. Not all bullshit sessions need to be taken seriously. However, bullshit can be problematic, especially when it involves untruthful claims and has a negative impact on decision making and wellbeing. In an effort to educate and build a society that is less receptive to false information, strategies to improve critical thinking are needed. It is more important to distinguish a true claim from a false claim than it is to distinguish a liar from a bullshitter. Critical thinking is about determining what is true (epistemic rationality) and what actions are most conducive to attaining goals (instrumental rationality). 

References

Frankfurt, H.G. 2005. On Bullshit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gilbert, D.T. et al. 1993. You can’t not believe everything you read. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65: 221–233.

Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking Fast and Slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Pennycook, G. et al. 2015. On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit.    Judgment and Decision Making 10(6): 549–563.