We all have that one Facebook friend from high school who constantly posts profound, inspirational quotes superimposed onto photos of sunsets and forests. He clogs your feed with lines like "The greatest mystery of existence is existence itself" and "Those who do not know how to weep with their whole heart don't know how to laugh, either."
Not only are these posts irritating, they might actually speak to the intelligence of the people who post them.
That's according to a University of Waterloo study gloriously titled "On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit."
Published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making, the study quizzed participants on their opinions of pseudo-profound bullshit statements, such as the nonsense phrase "Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty." Researchers then looked at other factors, including cognitive ability and "ontological confusion" (confusing one type of knowledge for another) and deduced the participants' intelligence levels.
As it turns out, people who think bullshit-sounding statements are profound "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." Take that, annoying Facebook friends.
The study: Researchers used a variety of sources to find their pseudo-profound bullshit, including a website that automatically generated "syntactically coherent sentences that consisted of random vague buzzwords."
Hilariously, for their real-world pseudo-profound bullshit, they turned to the Twitter account of Deepak Chopra, noted New Age master. "Bullshit is not only common; it is popular. Chopra is, of course, just one example among many," the authors explained. One sample from Chopra's Twitter, used in the study: "Attention & intention are the mechanics of manifestation."
The authors warn, however, "None of this is intended to imply that every statement in Chopra's tweet history is bullshit." Take, for example, truths like "Deepak Chopra shares 4 ways to be mindful."
To start, they supplied participants with the randomly generated bullshit. Participants were then told to rate the profoundness of the sentences on a scale of one to five. Though the mean rating was 2.6 — "somewhat profound" and "fairly profound" — about a third of the people gave the made-up statements an average rating of three or higher.
They then presented participants with a combination of randomized statements and Chopra tweets and found that, in general, the high profoundness ratings given to fake quotes matched those given to the real quotes, suggesting that the participants couldn't tell the difference. The researchers also looked at those who found the real quotes far more compelling than the fake quotes, and noted these people had a higher likelihood of possessing an analytic cognitive style and propensity for skepticism.
After testing participants' cognitive and reflective abilities and tendency to believe in the paranormal and conspiracy theories, the researchers connected the dots and found that those who were likely give higher ratings to pseudo-profound statements were less reflective, had lower cognitive abilities and were more likely to believe in the paranormal and conspiracy theories.
The authors also had some fun. According to researcher Gordon Pennycook, they used the term "bullshit" roughly 200 times.
There were some other valuable takeaways. According to the study, "One benefit of gaining a better understanding of how we reject other's bullshit is that it may teach us to be more cognizant of our own bullshit." Self-awareness for the win!
At the end of the day, however, the study's authors simply want to encourage "a better understanding of the psychology of bullshit." And though they were willing to poke fun at your annoying Facebook friends, they also found some deeper meaning in their own work.
"Accordingly, although this manuscript may not be truly profound, it is indeed meaningful," they concluded.
Chopra's response, for the record? "'Bullshit,'" he tweeted, "is a response of intellectually challenged self appointed vigilantes for suppression of curiosity."