Prepare yourselves. What you’re about to read is story about bullshit, but it’s not a bullshit story. A recent study in the scientific journal, PLoS One, examined the potential connection between political leanings and a susceptibility to bullshit, specifically to pseudo-profound bullshit.
In the study, bullshit was defined technically, rather than colloquially, as an expression that, “…lacks content, logic, or truth from the perspective of natural science.” Pseudo-profound bullshit was taken from the Bullshit Receptivity Scale (BRS), and yes it’s a real thing. The BRS was created systematically by compiling a set of esoteric sounding words, most of which were taken from tweets by Deepak Chopra, then having a computer randomly string these words together in correct syntactical structure (e.g., “Imagination is inside exponential space time events”)
Participants, 196 Americans, were first asked to rate their political leanings (‘liberal’ vs ‘conservative’) on a scale of 1-to-7, and to rate how positively viewed 6 presidential candidates (Cruz, Rubio, Trump, Clinton, O’Malley, and Sanders) from 1-to-5. They were then given a questionnaire containing a list of statements and asked to rate how profound they thought each expression was.
What the participants did not know, however, was that the list of statements was constructed from two categories, neither of which were particularly profound. The first category was a set of simple mundane statements (e.g., “A wet person does not fear rain”). The second category was a set of pseudo-profound statements drawn from the BRS.
The researchers found significant correlations between conservatism, favorability for Trump, Cruz, and Rubio, and a tendency to think that bullshit was profound. The strongest effect seemed to be for those who supported Ted Cruz, with Rubio second, and Trump running in third. Importantly, these effects were significant even after controlling for the profoundness ratings of mundane statements. In other words, while self-identified conservatism, and support for Trump, Cruz or Rubio, are associated with thinking that bullshit smells like roses, it isn’t because those supporters think everything smells like roses. Mud, for example, just smells like mud.
Unexpectedly, in the Democratic field, while those who viewed Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley favorably seemed immune to the power of bullshit, their supporters were significantly more likely to think that mundane statements were actually profound. Supporters of Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, seemed unaffected by both of these effects.
Putting this all in terms of the three remaining candidates, the findings suggest that while Trump supporters are more likely to think bullshit smells like roses, and Clinton supporters are more likely to think mud smells like daffodils, Sanders supporters are more likely to think that both just smell like bullshit and mud.
Now, if the main purpose of you clicking and reading to this point was simply to confirm your intellectual superiority, then congratulations, mission accomplished. You can stop reading and go back to watching videos of cats, writing pro-Bernie tomes in the comment sections of anti-Bernie posts, or tattooing #DropOutHillary on every available square millimeter of the internet. On the other hand, if you want a more complete view of the research and have a little extra time to kill, you might want to keep reading.
The Inconvenient Caveats of Science
Publishing scientific research is all about caveats. In fact, about a third of any given paper will be devoted to caveats under the guise of the heading, “Discussion.” So, in order to dig a little deeper and give the research a fair treatment, it’s necessary to cover a few of these caveats.
When scientists use the word ‘significant’ it’s often a lot less significant than how everybody else uses it. What they really mean is that the mathy stuff they found in the data is very unlikely to have happened just by luck. However, ‘significant’ very rarely means large, especially in the social sciences. It usually refers to finding some subtle nuance that is only revealed through the sheer volume of experimentation. The current study is a good example of this, because while the association between conservatism, Trump-loving-ness and a susceptibility to bullshit is probably real, the magnitude of the association is relatively small. Translating this into the real world it means that just because a conservative is more likely to be fooled by pseudo-profound bullshit doesn’t mean that all or even most will fall victim to this trap.
This study is correlational not experimental, which in non-nerd speak is just code for saying that you can’t draw any conclusions about which effect is causing the other. The results don’t tell us that being a conservative rots brain tissue, making a person more likely to be fooled by bullshit. Conversely, we can’t conclude that thinking bullshit smells like roses eventually puts you on the inexorable path towards becoming a conservative. All that the study says is that there is a link between identifying as a conservative and thinking that random esoteric words strung together actually sound meaningful. Did one come before the other? Who the heck knows. In order to find that out you’d probably have to do something deeply unpleasant, not to mention unethical, perhaps involving Fox News, electroshock treatment, and a sensory deprivation tank. Not everyone’s idea of a fun weekend.
The type of bullshit examined in this study is specific to pseudo-profound bullshit. There are many types of bullshit, blatant exaggerations for example, and there is no evidence to suggest that conservatives are more susceptible to any other type of bullshit other than the pseudo-profound kind.
Describing these results is radically more simple than explaining them. This study did not examine what cognitive processes might underlie these associations. However, while this line of research is relatively new, previous work has begun to try to address the issue. Thus far, the leading hypothesis is that the ability to detect pseudo-profound bullshit is related to a cognitive style that tends to be more reflective and critical, while falling for it is associated with a more automatic and intuitive style. This is measured by something called the Cognitive Reflection Test, which contain problems that suggest an immediate, often incorrect, answer, but require critical reflection to solve correctly: For example, “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” The automatic response here is to say the ball costs 10 cents, but that’s wrong. It costs 5 cents (read it a few more times and you’ll figure it out, if you haven’t already).
Another equally probable hypothesis has to do with a close association between high scores on the BRS and religiosity. This makes sense in that much of religion (and spirituality) requires a willingness to interpret information and events non-literally. This cognitive style might be problematic in some contexts, but quite beneficial in others. One could argue that in the domain of poetry, for example, this tendency might be a strength rather than a weakness.
So, it seems that upon more careful reflection, we can’t really draw any strong conclusions here yet. Or scientists are fond of saying: More research is needed. Yes, there’s a tendency for conservatives to misinterpret pseudo-profound bullshit, but it’s a small effect. The same is likely true for Clinton supporters. Some may find overt simplification profound, but most likely do not. In fact, a deeper dive into most research on our individual differences often only serves to highlight that though many are significant, very few are large. The majority of us fundamentally want the same things. We simply tend to disagree on the method of getting there or on their degree of relative importance.
Disappointing isn’t it? It’s so much easier to minimize the beliefs of our rivals by simply ascribing their refusal to accept our logic as an indication of their tiny troglodyte brains. Instead, more often than not, we’ll have to go through the laborious and often frustrating prospect of trying to convince others of our perspective by patiently appealing to inconvenient things like evidence and facts, and using blunt tools like discourse and reason. Oh well, what did you expect? No one ever said the revolution would be easy, just that it would be worth it.
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