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Lots of People Think Complete Nonsense Is Profound, Study Finds

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People are incredibly receptive to meaningless buzzwords, according to a new study in the journal Judgment and Decision Making. Yes, the vast majority of people are willing to believe complete bullshit, to use the scholarly term. (Title of the study: "On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit.")

Over the course of four different experiments including hundreds of participants, researchers from Canada’s University of Waterloo and Sheridan College tested how profound people would rate a bunch of buzzwords strung together in a plausible syntactic structure. The psychologists intended to establish a method of testing people’s individual receptivity to bullshit. 

Participants rated statements on a scale of profundity from 1 to 5, 5 being “very profound.” As source material, the researchers used Wisdom of Chopra, a site that draws words from the tweets of holistic health guru Deepak Chopra (sample tweet: “experience is made out of awareness”) and turns them into randomly generated sentences; and a website called New Age Bullshit Generator, which comes up with a slew of nonsense phrases based on New Age buzzwords. In a subsequent experiment, they used actual tweets from Chopra deemed to be particularly vague. In another, they compared motivational quotes like “a river cuts through a rock, not because of its power but its persistence” to regular statements like “most people enjoy some sort of music.” In the fourth, they also tested people’s tendency to agree with conspiracies. The hundreds of subjects in the final three studies were all recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk and paid for their participation.  

The researchers found that people vary in their proclivity to assign profound meaning to vague statements, a characteristic they call “bullshit receptivity.” But some people will find almost anything profound, including not very insightful sentences like “most people enjoy some sort of music.” A quarter of the 280 participants in one experiment rated the randomly generated sentences from Wisdom of Chopra and the New Age Bullshit Generator as a 3 or higher on the 5-point profundity scale, indicating that they found them pretty meaningful. "These results indicate that our participants largely failed to detect that the statements are bullshit," the researchers write. 

This may be the result of a lack of critical thinking. Those who are particularly receptive to bullshit, the researchers found, tend to show lower cognitive abilities (like verbal intelligence); are less reflective; more prone to conspiracy theories; more likely to subscribe to religion and belief in the paranormal; and more likely to be a fan of alternative medicine. (The latter, of course, you could probably have predicted based on the motivational quotes that show up on your hippie relative’s Facebook feed.) 

So why do so many people fall prey to complete nonsense masquerading as deep thoughts? It could be that they’re just categorically open minded, and accept these statements without critical thought. It could also be a factor of verbal intelligence, since people with higher verbal intelligence, the researchers hypothesize, would have greater knowledge of word meanings that might help them detect the banality of a statement. Or, it could be that people naturally assume that the statements provided to them in the course of a psychological study must have some meaning.

Regardless, we should all cultivate a little more awareness of the bullshit around us. As Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt put it in his essay (later book) "On Bullshit" [PDF], "One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit."  

[h/t The Washington Post]

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Yale's Insanely Popular Happiness Course Is Now Open to Everyone Online
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Yale University's happiest course is giving people yet another reason to smile. After breaking registration records, "Psychology and the Good Life" has been repurposed into a free online course anyone can take, Quartz reports.

Psychology professor Laurie Santos debuted the class in the 2018 spring semester, and it's officially the most popular course in the university's 317-year history. About 1200 students, or a quarter of Yale's undergraduate student body, are currently enrolled. Now that a free version of the course has launched on Coursera, the curriculum is about to reach even more learners.

The online "Science of Well-Being" class is led by Santos from her home. Throughout the course, students will learn about happiness from a psychological perspective, including misconceptions about happiness and activities that have been proven to boost life satisfaction. "The purpose of the course is to not only learn what psychological research says about what makes us happy but also to put those strategies into practice," the course description reads.

Each section comes with readings, video lessons, and a quiz, as well as the chance to connect and brainstorm with classmates. After passing the assignments, students come away from the six-week course with a certificate and hopefully a broader understanding of the factors that contribute to a happy life. You can visit the course page over at Coursera to enroll.

[h/t Quartz]

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Overcome Your Fear of Embarrassment by Imagining People Reacting to Your Fart
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Everyone gets embarrassed occasionally, but not everyone reacts in the same way. Some people have a deep-rooted fear of embarrassment, and seek to avoid it as much as possible. You can't go your whole life without ever embarrassing yourself, though, unless you remove yourself from human company entirely. So if you are prone to feeling embarrassed and self-conscious, you have to learn to deal with it effectively. A new study spotted by Big Think suggests that a relatively easy trick can help minimize embarrassment. You just have to get outside of yourself.

The research, conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and UCLA and published in Motivation and Emotion, looked at the problem through a business-school lens—in other words, for people who are really worried about public embarrassment, that fear might affect what they buy. They might hesitate to buy something because they don't want to ask questions about it or don't want to be seen buying it, or they might buy even more of it to avoid embarrassment in the future (say, if it's Beano).

The research was aimed at people who are high in what psychologists call "public self-consciousness." These individuals are ultra-aware of how they appear to others, and are often very concerned with how people see them, so they try to avoid potential embarrassment as much as possible. They “tend to perceive themselves to be in the social ‘spotlight' and focus too much on the situation,” the study's authors write.

In three different tests, the researchers introduced embarrassing situations to UCLA students. First, they had students read a Beano ad involving a yoga student who lets out an accidental fart ("guaranteed to linger forever," as the copywriter put it), then answer questions about how much they identified with the farter in the situation and how they felt. They found that participants who were high in public self-consciousness tended to imagine themselves as the farter in the situation while reading the ad, rather than seeing themselves as an observer, and felt more embarrassed reading it than other participants.

In a subsequent test, the researchers asked students to read an ad about a study in which volunteers would be asked personal questions about sensitive issues like genital herpes. They then answered questions about how likely they would be to volunteer, how they would expect to feel during that type of interview, and how they expected the study administrators would react to them during that interview. They found that self-conscious people were more likely to say they would volunteer if they were asked first about how the people administrating the study would likely react to volunteers, forcing them to consider the outsider's perspective before they were asked if they would take part.

In the third test, the researchers recruited students to again consider embarrassing farts. Two ads for gas-prevention products each showed the same image of four people sitting on a couch together, with one guy sitting alone on one end and three women sitting on the other end. One ad read, "Rip. Accidentally passing gas in front of a crush is one of the most embarrassing experiences. Guaranteed to linger forever." Another added an extra twist: "Others will know what it's like. Put yourself in their shoes … would you giggle? Would you be horrified? Would you stare?"

Participants who read the first ad were more likely to say they would buy the gas-preventing product to keep them from experiencing the embarrassment of a public fart. If they read the second ad, they reported less interest in buying it.

In any social situation, it's probably a good idea to imagine that you are not the center of everyone's attention. For people who are prone to self-consciousness, that kind of thought pattern can be even more helpful than for most. While it's easy to default to thinking of yourself as the star of the movie of your life, it might be better to imagine what it's like to be part of the audience—one that's really, really rooting for you, farts and all.

[h/t Big Think]

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