Can You Bullshit a Bullshitter?
New research suggests that you probably can.
Posted April 3, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
Based on my previous posts on "bullshit receptivity" — "The Psychology of Bullshit" and "Does America Have a Problem With Bullshit Receptivity?" — I was interviewed by Cathy Cassata recently for her article about new research on bullshitting. Here's the transcript of our Q&A:
Do you agree with the notion that you can’t bullshit a bullshitter?
In the past several years, both “bullshitting” (the propensity to produce bullshit) and “bullshit receptivity” (the propensity to fall for it) have become legitimate topics of research as well as validated constructs in psychology. Although “bullshitting” is obviously not a novel human behavior, it is a subject of considerable interest these days, especially in the “post-truth” world we now live in, in which reliable information, misinformation, and deliberate disinformation often coexist side by side.
In psychological terms, bullshit has been defined as “information designed to impress, persuade, or otherwise mislead people that is often constructed without concern for truth.” Bullshitting is therefore a deliberate act, but it’s distinct from lying. A liar knows the truth, but makes statements intended to sell people on falsehoods. Bullshitters, in contrast, aren’t concerned about what’s true or not, so much as they’re trying to appear as if they know what they’re talking about.
New research by psychologists at the University of Waterloo tested the familiar adage that “you can’t bullshit a bullshitter.”1 To do so, they explored correlations between a scale that measures “bullshitting” (the Bullshitting Frequency Scale2 or BFS) and a scale that measures “bullshit receptivity” (the Bullshit Receptivity Scale3 or BRS) and found that higher scores on the former were correlated with higher scores on the latter. In other words, those who are most likely to bullshit are in turn more likely to believe bullshit, suggesting that you can indeed bullshit a bullshitter after all.
Do you think those who bullshit (spread misinformation) are more prone to believing bullshit themselves?
That’s where their research gets interesting. The investigators then sought to examine two different types of bullshitting: “persuasive bullshitting” intended to “impress, persuade, of fit in with others by exaggerating, embellishing, or otherwise stretching the truth about one’s knowledge, ideas, attitudes, skills, or competence” and “evasive bullshitting,” used “when responding to inquiries where direct answers might incur negative social costs for oneself or others.” They found that only persuasive bullshitting was correlated with bullshit receptivity or “pseudoprofound bullshit” receptivity (vulnerability to “seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous” as measured by the BSR), but also “scientific bullshit receptivity,” and susceptibility to fake news as measured by other scales. Evasive bullshitting, by contrast, was not positively correlated with pseudoprofound bullshit receptivity—in fact, there was an inverse or negative correlation between greater ratings of evasive bullshitting associated and lower ratings of bullshit receptivity. Likewise, the propensity for persuasive bullshitting was associated with lower cognitive ability, analytical thinking, and intelligence, whereas the propensity for evasive bullshitting was associated with greater cognitive ability.
These findings highlight a kind of inconsistency whereby persuasive bullshitters, who intentionally create bullshit, are more susceptible to the bullshit of others and might therefore also be more likely to spread it unintentionally. The researchers refer to this as a “bullshit blindspot,” which suggests that persuasive bullshitters might in some cases be what we might call “epistemically innocent,” spreading other people's bullshit unintentionally and even unknowingly. Stated another way, persuasive bullshitters seem to regard bullshit as a kind of convincing rhetoric so that they freely employ it when articulating their own thoughts and opinions, but they're also likely to be impressed when other people bullshit them. And so, while you may not be able to con a con artist, it appears that bullshitters not only can be bullshitted, they may be more likely to unwittingly propagate other people's bullshit as well.
In their study, the researchers also found that while persuasive bullshitting was positively correlated with overclaiming and overconfidence, evasive bullshitting was negatively correlated with overclaiming and overconfidence. Evasive bullshitting therefore seems to resemble the kind of bullshitting that politicians might engage in at press conferences or that scientists might fall back on during Q&A sessions where they’re under pressure to comment. In that sense, it may not be designed to sound profound so much as it’s deliberately crafted as accessible if vague rhetoric used as a kind of social smokescreen, either to respond to a query with something speculative, cover for ignorance, or perhaps to avoid conceding that one might be wrong. Meanwhile, evasive bullshitters seem to be able to recognize other people's bullshit for what it is.
Can understanding the type of people who spread and believe misinformation and BS help to understand the processes underlying the spread of some types of misinformation?
When we talk about psychological propensities like “bullshitting,” it’s best not to think of it in terms of “types of people.” The reality is that we all have some propensity to bullshit and we all have some propensity for bullshit receptivity, with individual differences existing quantitatively rather than qualitatively. When it comes to bullshit, we also might use persuasive bullshit and evasive bullshit in varying degrees. By way of analogy, while we often categorize people as “liars,” the reality is that we all lie under certain circumstances and to various degrees. As with bullshitting, sometimes lying is actually incentivized and rewarded within social interactions. For example, older research suggests that we all lie several times a day and that people use different kinds of lies in different social situations, whether by exaggerating attributes, achievements, or possessions in order to impress (e.g. “I’m a genius”) or to ease or facilitate social interactions (e.g. “no, you don’t look fat”).4 That motivational distinction seems similar to the distinction between persuasive and evasive bullshitting.
Which is all to say that understanding the spread of misinformation at a granular level requires that we have better understanding of the many different motivations for creating, spreading, and recirculating it.
Can you share some red flags to look for in a bullshitter or person who is spreading misinformation?
Well, that’s the tricky part. Some of us are better at detecting bullshit than others. Some can smell it from a mile away while others consume it without seeing it for what it is. So, our ability to see a “red flag” depends on our eyes or nose, so to speak. I’m not aware of studies that show how bullshit receptivity can be decreased, or that we can successfully train people to recognize bullshit for what it is, but that’s certainly a subject worth exploring in future research.
To read more on the psychology of bullshit receptivity:
1. Littrell S, Risko EF, Fugelsang JA. ‘You can’t bullshit a bullshitter’ (or can you?): Bullshitting frequency predicts receptivity to various types of misleading information. British Journal of Social Psychology 2021.
2. Littrell S, Risko EF, Fugelsang JA. The bullshitting receptivity scale: development and psychometric properties. British Journal of Psychology 2021; 60:248-270.
3. Pennycook G, Cheyne JA, Barr N, Koehler DJ, Fugelsang JA. On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgment and Decision Making 2015; 10:549–563.
4. De Paulo BM, Kashy DA, Kirkendol SE, Wyer MM, Epstein JA. Lying in everday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1996; 70:979-995.