People who like “pseudo-profound” quotes are not so smart, says science

Image: AP Photo/Dan Balilty
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“By maturing, we self-actualize.”
“We dream, we vibrate, we are reborn.”
“Choice is the driver of purpose.”

If you found yourself rolling your eyes at the above quotes, congratulations: Your cynicism may be a sign of intelligence, according to a study published in November in the journal Judgment and Decision Making.

Researchers led by Gordon Pennycook from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, claim to have proven that people who buy into pseudo-profound quotes are less intelligent. As they write in their paper, On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit:

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 and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.

The paper, which uses the word “bullshit” 200 times, defines bullshit as a meaningless string of buzzwords in correct syntactic structure. “Thus, bullshit, in contrast to mere nonsense, is something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth,” write the authors.

Examples of pseudo-profound bullshit were generated by two websites, a “New Age Bullshit Generator” which compiles profound-sounding words, and a website that combines words from spiritual writer Deepak Chopra’s tweets to make meaningless sentences.

The researchers then asked 280 Waterloo University undergraduates to rate the profundity of 10 bullshit statements on a scale from 1 (not at all profound) to 5 (very profound). The mean profoundness rating was 2.6, which is in-between “somewhat profound” and “fairly profound.” When participants were asked to take a series of cognitive tests, including numeracy and verbal intelligence tests, the researchers found negative correlation between cognitive ability and high profundity ratings.

Several other similarly-structured small-scale tests, using actual tweets from Deepak Chopra, (the study write-up notes “others have claimed that some of the things that he has written seem like “woo-woo nonsense”),” conventionally profound statements (“A wet person does not fear rain.”) and mundane statements (“Newborn babies require constant attention”) support the researcher’s initial finding: buying into the profundity of bullshit in particular seems linked to lower cognitive ability.

The study is fun to read, but the researchers seem to believe their work has serious value. Bullshit is commonplace, write the authors, and “using vagueness or ambiguity to mask a lack of meaningfulness is surely common in political rhetoric, marketing, and even academia.”

It’s likely that we all bullshit some of the time, they add, and perhaps understanding other people’s bullshit can help up cut down on our own.