I came across a study this week from the University of Waterloo with a title that is clearly in the running for Best Study Title Ever: “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit,” by Pennycook, Cheyne, Barre, Koehler and Fugelsang. This creatively-named study looked at individuals’ receptiveness to vague, buzzwordy bullshit statements such as those from Deepak Chopra’s twitter feed and compared it to the respondents’ belief in things like religion, the supernatural, conspiracies, and alternative medicine.
In order to collect bullshit statements for their study, they used tweets from Chopra’s twitter feed combined with other meaningless statements derived from algorithms such as those at Wisdom of Chopra (“Culture belongs to spontaneous possibilities”) and The New Age Bullshit Generator (“To embark on the quest is to become one with it.”). They did multiple tests using either college students or Amazon’s Mechanical Turk participants. Each participant was given a series of Chopra-like nonsensical statements and actual but equally nonsensical tweets from Chopra and asked to rate how profound they found them. They were also given tests meant to determine their analytical and thinking ability along with questions about their general beliefs. In total, the researchers did four separate studies where they switched up the order of the test taking, the source of participants, the types of other tests they used to determine analytical ability, beliefs and/or personality, and the use of “control” statements such as mundane or motivational statements. They found consistent results across all forms of the test.
Those of us familiar with the Deepak Chopra brand of bullshit will find that these results mostly confirm what we already thought we knew: people who are more likely to rate a meaningless statement as profound are the same people who are more likely to have high religiosity, believe in the supernatural, believe in conspiracy theories, and think that alternative medicines such as homeopathy and reiki are totally legit. Additionally, the people who generally do better on analytical tests also tend to be more skeptical when presented with meaningless sentences made-up of buzzwords. Even though for a lot of us this confirms our gut on these matters, it’s nice to finally have a study that shows that people who are susceptible to believing in pseudoscience do actually have a different way of processing potentially meaningless statements.
However, before you go around proclaiming that skeptics are so much better and smarter than the people who were fooled into seeing sense in the nonsensical, I have a couple very minor issues with the study that you should first consider. First of all, the researchers studied religiosity by using a test that asked about belief in the afterlife, heaven, hell, miracles, angels, demons, souls, and Satan. Although they found a positive correlation with this measure of religiosity and receptiveness to bullshit, I think it’s unfair to say that religiousness is correlated with finding bullshit profound based on this study. Belief or nonbelief in literal religious supernatural elements is hardly a determination of religiousity. A person can believe in angels but not be religious and vice versa. Not to mention that those are all Christian beliefs that do not exist in many other religions, so a Jew, for example, might not believe in any of those things but still be very religious in practice.
Secondly, they only tested a very specific type of bullshit statement: Deepak Chopra bullshit. As I was reading the study, I was wondering if the more skeptical people in the study would be more likely to fall for scientific-sounding bullshit or bullshit that supposedly comes from a source they trust. If they gave a sciency yet meaningless statement to the participants and said it was a quote from Carl Sagan, I wonder whether the more science-minded participants would have rated it as profound in the same way the supernaturally-minded participants rated the Chopra tweets. Get on this follow-up study, scientists!
Thirdly, as I was reading the study I couldn’t help but think: What if Deepak Chopra is right about everything and we are the ones that are mistaken? WHAT IF ATTENTION AND INTENTION REALLY ARE THE MECHANICS OF MANIFESTATION? My entire world has been turned upside down and I don’t know what is true anymore. Maybe someone should look into this?
Regardless, I’m a sucker for studies like this one that look at individuals’ susceptibility or skepticism towards bullshit. This particular study is well-done and the researchers provide exhaustive details about why they made the choices they did every step of the way along with all results of all calculations. Plus, showing that the study results are consistent even when the test is varied in multiple ways made me confident that their results hold and can be replicated (indeed the researchers already replicated their own study four times). Based on this study, I think we can confidently say that science proves that some people are more susceptible to the type of language used by people like Deepak Chopra and that susceptibility to Chopra-like bullshit is correlated with belief in the religious and nonreligious supernatural elements, conspiracy theories, and alternative medicine.
Featured photo by Jamie Bernstein