It Turns Out You Can Bullshit A Bullshitter After All

By Emma Young

You can’t bullshit a bullshitter. Well, that’s the saying — but is it true? Shane Littrell and colleagues at the University of Waterloo, Canada, set out to investigate. And in a new paper in the British Journal of Social Psychology they report that, in fact, people who bullshit more often in a bid to impress or persuade others are also more susceptible to bullshit themselves. The reason for this — also uncovered by the team — is truly fascinating.

Some earlier work has suggested that better liars are also better at detecting lies. But as the team notes, bullshit isn’t quite the same, as it falls just short of outright deception. Recently, researchers have begun to treat bullshitting as having two separate dimensions. “Persuasive bullshitting” is motivated by a desire to impress or persuade. “Evasive bullshitting” is different — as a “strategic circumnavigation of the truth”, it’s the sort that a politician might engage in when trying to cover up a mistake, for example. By definition, the creation of either type of bullshit is intentional, though of course the spreading of bullshit may not be. 

In an initial study, 219 adults recruited online completed the Bullshitting Frequency Scale. (This assesses, for example, how likely you think you are to persuasively bullshit a contribution to a discussion on a topic that you don’t know much about, or to evasively bullshit “when being fully honest would be harmful or embarrassing to me or someone else.”) These participants also completed the Bullshit Receptivity Scale, using a 5-point scale to rate the level of profundity of 10 made up but grammatically correct sentences, all of which had been constructed from pseudo-profound buzzwords. (If “We are in the midst of a high-frequency blossoming of interconnectedness that will give us access to the quantum soup itself” sounds extremely profound to you, you’d probably score highly on this scale…).

The participants also completed scales that assessed their receptivity to “scientific bullshit” (e.g. feeling that a randomly generated sentence that used a lot of terms like “entropy”, “constructive interference” and “quantum ground states” is probably genuine) and also to fake news. For this, the participants were presented with five factually accurate and five fake news items. The latter were taken from a list of genuine popular recent fake news items. The participants had to indicate how accurate they believed each headline to be. 

The team found that people who reported engaging in more persuasive bullshitting were more receptive to all forms of bullshit (pseudo-profound, pseudo-scientific and fake news). However, higher scores for evasive bullshitting were not related to susceptibility to the first two forms of bullshit, and were actually associated with less susceptibility to believing fake news.

In a subsequent study, the team found that, when levels of evasive bullshitting were controlled for, people who engaged in more persuasive bullshitting were not only more receptive to pseudo-profound bullshit but were also more over-confident in their own intellectual ability. They also scored lower for cognitive ability (measured using simple numeracy and vocabulary tests) and reported less insight into their own thoughts, feelings and behaviours. In contrast, when persuasive bullshitting was controlled for, high evasive bullshitters scored higher on the tests of cognitive ability. As the researchers write, “persuasive bullshitting may rely on less engagement in analytic thinking processes compared to evasive bullshitting”.

The team wondered if persuasive bullshitters might have difficulty telling apart statements that actually are profound from those that only sound profound. So they asked a new group of 400 participants to rate the profundity of various sentences (sentences in the genuinely profound list included, “A river cuts through a rock not because of its power but its persistence”, for example). The results were clear: while those who scored highly for evasive bullshitting were also better at distinguishing between the genuinely profound and the pseudo-profound statements, the high persuasive bullshitters were poor at this. “Put another way, high persuasive bullshitters appear to interpret/mistake superficial profoundness as a signal of actual profoundness,” the team explains.

Overall, the results of the three studies are consistent: “one can ‘bullshit a bullshitter’.” And as the frequent persuasive bullshitters were also more over-confident in their intellectual abilities, they could be seen as experiencing their own Dunning-Kruger type effect, and suffer from a “bullshit blindspot”, the researchers add. (It’s worth noting that they didn’t explore how good these participants actually were at bullshitting — just because they did it more often doesn’t mean they’re better at it.)

Understanding what makes some people more likely to believe misleading information — and right now, there’s a lot of that around COVID-19 vaccines, of course — is crucial. This work does suggest that the people who like to bullshit themselves are more likely to fall for it, too. 

‘You can’t bullshit a bullshitter’ (or can you?): Bullshitting frequency predicts receptivity to various types of misleading information

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest