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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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8 Potential Signs of a Panic Attack
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It's not just fear or worry. In fact, many panic attacks don’t look like panic at all. Panic attacks come on rapidly, and often at times that don't seem to make sense. The symptoms of panic disorder vary from person to person and even from attack to attack for the same person. The problems listed below are not unique to panic attacks, but if you're experiencing more than one, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor either way.


Doctors sometimes call the autonomic nervous system (ANS) the "automatic nervous system" because it regulates many vital bodily functions like pumping blood all on its own, without our having to think about it. Panic attacks often manifest through the ANS, leading to increased heart rate or decreased blood pressure, which can in turn lead to feeling lightheaded or faint.


Feeling detached from yourself is called depersonalization. Feeling detached from the world, or like it's fake or somehow unreal, is called derealization. Both forms of dissociation are unsettling but common signs that a panic attack has begun.


Our digestive system is often the first body part to realize that something is wrong. Panic sends stress hormones and tension to the gut and disrupts digestion, causing nausea, upset stomach, or heartburn.


Panic attacks can manifest in truly surprising ways, including pins and needles or numbness in a person's hands or face.


The symptoms of a panic attack can look a lot like the flu. But if you don't have a fever and no one else has chattering teeth, it might be your ANS in distress.


While it may sound prophetic or at least bizarre, a sense of impending doom is a very common symptom of panic attacks (and several other conditions). 


The ANS strikes again. In addition to the well-known problems of hyperventilation or shortness of breath, panic attacks can also cause dyspnea, in which a person feels like they can't fill their lungs, and feelings of choking or being smothered.


Oddly enough, anxiety about anxiety is itself a symptom of anxiety and panic attacks. Fear of losing control or getting upset can cause people to avoid situations that could be triggering, which can in turn limit their lives. 

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Big Questions
What’s the Difference Between Feeling Anxious and Having Anxiety?
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Whether it’s giving a toast at a friend’s wedding or waiting for the results of medical tests, we all get worried, nervous, or stressed out sometimes. But what’s the difference between feeling anxious and having anxiety?

To find out, we talked with Dr. Karen Cassiday, president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. She says the essential feeling is the same—it’s the intensity that matters, and the effect the feeling has on a person’s life.

“Anxiety is a general human experience,” Dr. Cassiday tells Mental Floss. “It’s feeling some mild apprehension and the physical sensations that go with it, but being able to handle it. In an anxiety disorder, that danger signal gets out of control, and you feel like you have to take preventative action in order to protect yourself.”

A doctor may diagnose an anxiety disorder if someone has been feeling anxious and worried for months, and if their symptoms are making it hard to sleep, study, work, or otherwise live full lives.

“Some people, for example, might not take a raise at work because it means they might have to speak to people,” Cassiday says, “or travel, if they’re afraid of flying.”

Anxiety disorders take three forms: generalized anxiety, in which the stress tends to attach itself to anything and everything; social anxiety, which can make it very hard for a person to interact with others; and panic disorder, which manifests in scary panic attacks.

“People with anxiety disorders avoid normal life activities and experiences in order to avoid triggering their anxiety,” Cassiday says. “They aren’t able to choose to do things that people normally enjoy or that make their lives rich. They lose opportunities to connect with relationships or in the community, opportunities to be productive, to volunteer, and to make money or finish school.”

These conditions are strikingly common, affecting as many as 25 percent of the population.

If you’re experiencing these symptoms—well, we’re not going to tell you not to worry, but take some comfort in the fact that these conditions are treatable. Many people find relief with talk therapy and medication.

For folks who aren’t ready to take that step, Cassiday recommends a free app called Self Anxiety Management, and getting into meditation, yoga, and exercise.

“It doesn’t matter which type,” she says. “The best one is the one you’re willing to do.”


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