“Violence quivers in the wake of justice defeated.”
“The infrastructure of oppression subverts nobility in jest.”
“Deep-seated anxieties are profilgate only under duress.”
Yes, I strung together words to make fancy-sounding sentences that mean nothing. But, according to a new study, that’s all it takes to dupe literate dolts into into thinking I’m deep.
A snarky group of researchers from the University of Waterloo ran a study on “pseudo-profound bullshit,” and found that a sizeable chunk of participants couldn’t distinguish between legitimately profound statements and “syntactically coherent sentences that consisted of random, vague buzzwords.”
The study included four experiments, involving four different groups of people. In the first part, almost 300 undergraduate students took cognitive assessments and rated the profundity of randomly generated sentences on a scale of one to five. A quarter of the deep souls rated the meaningles sequences of fancy-sounding words as a three or higher, meaning profound or very profound.
Next, study authors supplemented the randomly generated sentences with hollow sentiments from the mouths (or social media accounts) of real people. Naturally, they chose 140-character New Age nonsense from Deepak Chopra, including “nature is a self-regulating ecosystem of awareness.” Participants rated Chopra-isms as equally profound to bot-generated sentences.
In the third and fourth experiments, participants had to additionally rate plain-language phrases considered truly profound (“A river cuts through a rock, not because of its power but its persistence”) as well as mundane statements (“Most people enjoy some sort of music”). “The difference between profundity ratings between legitimately meaningful quotations and pseudo-profound bullshit will serve as our measures of bullshit sensitivity,” wrote study authors. One quarter of the participants assigned the highest profundity ratings to the nonsense sentences.
The participants most susceptible to bullshit shared a few qualities in common, study authors wrote:
“Those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions [beliefs in things for which there is no empirical evidence (i.e. that prayers have the ability to heal)] and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.”
The experiment shows that “there is indeed a good way to measure how receptive someone is to B.S.,” suggested one study author, who lamented the lack of critical thought and skepticism on display. “A lot of people are just far too open to everything.”
It’s true, we — politicians, social media activsts, “thought leaders” and many intelligent people who’ve donned headsets and climbed atop the TED ivory tower — rely too heavily on jargon to cull favor and “likes.” Consider a New York Times column from this weekend concerning the overuse of the term “resilience,” deemed “a word that is somehow so conveniently vacant that it manages to be profound and profoundly hollow.”
Without pseudo-profound bullshit, think of how many fewer memes and viral content would crowd the internet. Most of us could stand to be more critical of the ways in which language is co-opted to obscure meaning rather than illuminate it.
But, the authors also offered an interpretation of their findings that's important to note:
“It may be that people naturally assume that statements presented in a psychology study (vague or otherwise) are constructed with the goal of conveying some meaning. Indeed, the vagueness of the statements may imply that the intended meaning is so important or profound that it cannot be stated plainly.”
It’s hard to call bullshit on words you don't understand in the first place. The study links raw intelligence and bullshit receptivity, but it seems likely that education, exposure to language and conviction are relevant here, too.