How often have you been listening to someone drone on and on, and been tempted to say: What a load of crap? At the University of Waterloo’s department of psychology in Ontario, Canada, researchers are currently studying “linguistic bullshit”, with two specific aims: to determine whether there is a correlation between glib BS and intelligence; and to try and decode what constitutes a good piece of BS.
It’s an effort, says lead researcher Martin Turpin, to delve into “how the individual human brain, a fascinating machine, behaves when it has to perform publicly within an organised, social network”. “Bullshitting is interesting because it is a great example of a behaviour that may seem mundane or trivial but which actually reveals a lot about human nature,” Turpin says. “Bullshitting, and all the other quirks we acquire in a social set-up, are expressions of human nature in its purest and most naked form.”
The research team led by Turpin has published two papers so far. The more recent one, co-authored by five others, is titled Bullshit Ability as an Honest Signal of Intelligence, and appeared in the journal Evolutionary Psychology in May 2021. It suggests that the ability to produce satisfactory bullshit (defined as communication that impresses, persuades or convinces, without regard for the truth) correlates with above-average intelligence.
The paper goes on to describe how 1,017 participants were tested to arrive at this conclusion. In one experiment, subjects were given a list of important-sounding terms, many of which were made-up gibberish such as “subjunctive scaling” and “declarative fraction”. They were asked to come up with a convincing definition for each.
“Almost no one who scored low on cognitive tests was able to come up with satisfying bullshit,” says Turpin. Those who were most skilled at producing convincing definitions for fake concepts also scored higher on vocabulary and problem-solving tests, he adds.
What makes for a good piece of BS? Is it the inherent style of the content, or the speaker? The sheer wordiness and impenetrability? The use of terms that signal to the audience that the speaker has secret, advanced knowledge of a topic? That’s the subject of the next phase of research.
Bullshitting is often confused with lying, Turpin adds. But there’s a key difference. Lying is agenda-driven and one knows how much of what they one is saying is actually untrue. With bullshitting, a person is rarely concerned with the truth; they are simply communicating to achieve a goal. The goal could be to impress someone, avoid hurting someone’s feelings, secure a financial advantage, or just make someone laugh.
“I probably have the prerequisite qualities to be a good bullshitter. I am usually willing to say almost anything, true or not, to get a laugh,” Turpin says. “I don’t pride myself on any ability to trick people. I guess I try my best to use these powers for good.”
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