Bullshitting can be an indication of cognitive ability, according to new research published in the scientific journal Evolutionary Psychology. The study found that people who are better at producing made-up explanations for various concepts tend to be more intelligent compared to those who struggle to produce convincing bullshit. But skilled bullshitters are not necessarily frequent bullshitters.
Researchers have found that receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit is associated with several cognitive factors, such as lower levels of cognitive reflection and higher levels of ontological confusion. Pseudo-profound bullshit refers to computer-generated statements that seem profound but actually have no real meaning, such as the sentence “We are in the midst of a high-frequency blossoming of interconnectedness that will give us access to the quantum soup itself.”
But little attention has been paid to people’s ability to produce their own bullshit statements.
“I first got involved in pseudo-profound bullshit research as an undergraduate research assistant. My task was to gather captions describing various artworks. These were used as stimuli for Study 4 of ‘Bullshit Makes the Art Grow Profounder,’” explained study author Mane Kara-Yakoubian (@ManeYakoubian), a graduate student at Ryerson University.
“We found that people couldn’t differentiate artspeak (i.e., the language artists and art scholars use to discuss art) from pseudo-profound bullshit. I thought this was amusing, as I was doing a minor in Fine Arts at the time, predominantly taking art history courses. The more I bullshitted an essay, the better my grade was. Naturally, the research grew on me; I could see its relevance in my life. So when the opportunity to conduct more research in this area presented itself, I was quite eager to pursue it alongside my graduate mentors.”
The researchers recruited 1,017 participants for two studies examining cognitive ability, the willingness to bullshit, and bullshitting ability.
To measure the willingness to bullshit, the participants were shown ten concepts and asked to rate their knowledge of each concept on a 5-point scale ranging from “never heard of it” to “know it well, understand the concept.” Six of the concepts — such as “Sexual Selection Theory” and “General Relativity” — were real. But the four other concepts — “Subjunctive Scaling,” “Declarative Fraction,” “Genetic Autonomy,” and “Neural Acceptance” — were fake.
Those who claimed to be knowledgeable about the fake concepts were considered as having a greater willingness to bullshit.
To measure the ability to bullshit, a subset of the participants were asked to read the list of concepts again, and “produce the most convincing and satisfying explanation that you can for each term.” If a participant was not familiar with the concept, they were urged to “be creative and make up an explanation that you think others will find convincing and satisfying” and “not worry about the truth of your claims.”
Another sample of participants then rated how accurate and satisfactory they believed the explanations were on a 5-point scale. In the second study, the participants also rated the intelligence of the person who created the explanations.
The researchers found that participants who were better able to generate seemingly satisfying and accurate explanations of fake concepts tended to also score higher on a vocabulary test as well as a measure of abstract reasoning and non-verbal fluid intelligence.
“A person’s bullshitting ability is positively associated with how smart they seem and how smart they genuinely are. We propose that bullshitting may have emerged as an energetically inexpensive strategy of obtaining prestige, status, or goods in domains where success is determined by the subjective evaluation of others (such as the fine arts, politics, public speaking, etc.) A person can go through the process of acquiring the necessary skills to succeed in a particular domain, or they can bullshit their way through it, and be rewarded similarly,” Kara-Yakoubian told PsyPost.
But one’s willingness to bullshit was not associated with their bullshitting ability. In fact, those who scored higher on the measures of intelligence tended to be less willing to bullshit.
“We found that bullshitting ability and bullshitting willingness were independent of each other. Smarter individuals were less willing to engage in bullshitting despite their superior skills. This might be explained by their greater capacity to attribute mental states to others (i.e., theory of mind), enabling them to be more cognizant of when bullshitting will work and when it won’t,” Kara-Yakoubian explained.
“Future research might explore the relationship between bullshitting, mentalizing, and theory of mind, as well as personality factors that may predict bullshitting willingness.”
Kara-Yakoubian and her colleagues also found that people who were more willing to bullshit tended to also be more receptive to pseudo-profound bullshit. The findings are in line with another study, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, which found that people who engaged in more frequent bullshitting tended to be mores susceptible to falling for various types of misleading information, such as pseudo-profound bullshit and fake news headlines.
“It probably seems intuitive to believe that you can’t bullshit a bullshitter, but our research suggests that this isn’t actually the case,” explained Shane Littrell, the lead author of that study, in a news release. “In fact, it appears that the biggest purveyors of persuasive bullshit are ironically some of the ones most likely to fall for it.”
The study, “Bullshit Ability as an Honest Signal of Intelligence“, was authored by Martin Harry Turpin, Mane Kara-Yakoubian, Alexander C. Walker, Heather E. K. Walker, Jonathan A. Fugelsang, and Jennifer A. Stolz.