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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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What Pop Culture Gets Wrong About Dissociative Identity Disorder
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From the characters in Fight Club to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, popular culture is filled with "split" personalities. These dramatic figures might be entertaining, but they're rarely (if ever) scientifically accurate, SciShow Psych's Hank Green explains in the channel's latest video. Most representations contribute to a collective misunderstanding of dissociative identity disorder, or DID, which was once known as multiple personality disorder.

Experts often disagree about DID's diagnostic criteria, what causes it, and in some cases, whether it exists at all. Many, however, agree that people with DID don't have multiple figures living inside their heads, all clamoring to take over their body at a moment's notice. Those with DID do have fragmented personalities, which can cause lapses of memory, psychological distress, and impaired daily function, among other side effects.

Learn more about DID (and what the media gets wrong about mental illness) by watching the video below.

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Humblebraggarts Are the Worst (Science Says So)
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Humblebraggarts. We all know (at least) one: that person who takes a woe-is-me tack to ostensibly "complain" about something when the real intent is to boast.

"It's noon, I haven't had a cup of coffee, and the espresso machine at this Mercedes dealer is broken. FML!"

"Have been sitting on the runway for 30 minutes. Next time I'm flying commercial instead of private."

In many ways, it's another version of #FirstWorldProblems, and social media outlets like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have only made the practice more pervasive. As TIME reports, a new study has concluded that people see right through this fake humility—and like people less for doing it.

Researchers at Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill conducted a series of nine experiments, including a week-long diary study and a field experiment, to both identify the ubiquity of the behavior and then determine its effectiveness as a form of self-presentation. Their findings, which were published in the January Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, determined that if you're going to brag, people would rather you just be transparent about it.

"It's such a common phenomenon," Ovul Sezer, study co-author and an assistant professor of organizational behavior at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School, told TIME. "All of us know some people in our lives, whether in social media or in the workplace, who do this annoying thing. You think, as the humblebragger, that it's the best of both worlds, but what we show is that sincerity is actually the key ingredient."

Of the 646 participants, 70 percent of them could recall a recent humblebrag they'd heard—the majority of which (about 60 percent) were complaint-based. But the study showed, overwhelmingly, that any statements that could be perceived as humblebragging (whether complaint- or humility-based) "are less effective than straightforward bragging, as they reduce liking, perceived competence, compliance with requests, and financial generosity," according to the study's authors.

"Despite the belief that combining bragging with complaining or humility confers the benefits of each strategy," the study concluded, "we find that humblebragging confers the benefits of neither, instead backfiring because it is seen as insincere.”

In other words: they're not fooling anyone.

"If you want to announce something, go with the brag and at least own your self-promotion and reap the rewards of being sincere, rather than losing in all dimensions," Sezer said—though she suggested that an even more effective tactic is to find someone else to boast on your behalf. "If someone brags for you, that's the best thing that can happen to you, because then you don't seem like you're bragging," she told TIME.

However, Sezer's final piece of advice was not to be too hasty in your dismissal of humblebraggarts as a whole. "We all do it, to some extent," she said. "I hope I don't sound like I'm humblebragging when I talk about this research."

[h/t: TIME]

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