A new paper claims that people who think meaningless statements are profound are more sympathetic to Republican candidates in the current U.S. election. Delightful as this conclusion may be to anyone worried by the rise of Donald Trump, the authors caution against drawing too wide conclusions. On the other hand, the study, published in PLOS ONE, opens new lines of research in the emerging field of bullsh*t studies.
“In this contribution, bullsh*t is used as a technical term which is defined as communicative expression that lacks content, logic, or truth from the perspective of natural science,” write Dr. Stefan Pfattheicher and Dr. Simon Schindler. Working from this definition, the authors adopt the “Bullsh*t Receptivity scale (BSR)” to measure how likely people were to see bullsh*t statements as profound.
As the paper notes, “Various forms of bullsh*t exist.” The paper tests receptivity to only one of these, which the authors refer to as “pseudo-profound bullsh*t,” inspired by the work of Gordon Pennycock on the topic. This refers to statements that sound deeply meaningful at first, but are “actually vacuous.”
The capacity to detect this sort of bullsh*t requires reflective and critical thinking.
A sample of 196 American adults were measured on the BSR and asked to rate themselves as liberal or conservative, and to give a 1 to 5 rating to six presidential candidates. The average age was 36, and 57 percent were male, but no information was collected on racial background or education level.
Possibly for safety's sake, both authors are based in Germany, comfortably out of reach of outraged Trump fans. Although Trump supporters aren't the ones with the greatest reason to be unhappy with the findings; the strongest correlating factor with BSR was liking Ted Cruz.
Participants were presented with 20 statements, half of which the authors considered bullsh*t, and half “mundane,” and were asked to rate how profound they were.
Those who identified as conservative were more likely to find the bullsh*t profound, while liberals preferred the mundane statements, although there were exceptions on both sides. Bernie Sanders supporters were more negative about both the bullsh*t and the mundane statements than anyone else.
In keeping with the ideological results, liking the then three Republican candidates, Trump, Cruz, or Marco Rubio, correlated with susceptibility to bullsh*t, but liking Trump showed the weakest correlation.
Displaying the same critical thinking that the study's conservatives apparently lacked, it is worth noting that Democrats were over-represented in a sample the authors acknowledge was unusually small for online studies. Just 15 participants gave Trump a 5, while 11 did the same for Cruz – small sample sizes on which to base conclusions. On the other hand, the more general conclusion, that political conservatives are less likely to have critical thinking skills, is consistent with past work in the field.
Anyone skeptical enough about the findings to want to do their own research can find the raw data in a file on the open access paper. In the light of the paper's observation that “bullsh*t seems to be prevalent in all our lives,” the field of bullsh*t studies is likely to grow.