Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jan 13, 2020

Receptivity to Nonsense Varies across the Political Spectrum

by Artur Nilsson
Man shouting through bullhorn blah blah

People sometimes say things just to sound smart. One common strategy is to try to dazzle others with nonsense dressed up in fancy buzzwords and intellectual jargon—so called “pseudo-profound bullshit.”

Take, for instance, the sentence “Imagination is inside exponential space time events.” This sentence does not really mean anything. It was generated by an algorithm (wisdomofchopra.com) that randomly strings together words from New Age guru Deepak Chopra’s twitter stream into grammatically correct sentences. Yet many people rate it as profound.

Is there a link between how likely a person is to fall for this kind of nonsense and his or her political views? Studies have shown that, in the United States, conservatives tended to be more receptive of nonsense than liberals. Some researchers argue that conservatives tend to have a simpler, more intuitive thinking style that makes them more susceptible to misinformation.

In our research, we wondered if that description was too simplistic and if political ideology might actually have a more complicated relationship with receptivity to pseudo-profound nonsense. To examine this issue, we asked one thousand Swedes to rate the profundity of the following sentences:

The hidden meaning transforms the abstract beauty.

The future elucidates irrational facts for the seeking person.

Health and tolerance provide creativity for the future.

Your movement transforms universal observations.

The whole silences infinite phenomena.

The invisible is beyond all new timelessness.

The unexplainable touches on the inherent experiences of the universe.

The participants also responded to questions regarding their views on a range of moral, social, and political issues, indicated what party they would vote for in a national election, and took tests of analytical thinking.

The results revealed that people with social conservative values, such as respect for traditions and loyalty to your own group, did indeed rate the nonsense sentences as more profound than other groups did. This result is exactly what could be expected from past research.

However, our results were more nuanced than this. We also examined people who have right-wing views on economic issues, such as equality, redistribution, and capitalism. They did not rate the sentences as particularly profound.

What is more, we found further complexities when we considered what party people said they would vote for. People who preferred the green party, which is on the left in Sweden, rated the nonsense sentences as more profound than any other group of voters. Those who preferred one of the social liberal parties, which are on the right in Sweden, were the least likely to find the sentences profound. These findings clearly illustrate differences within the left and the right.

Our findings suggest that the relationship between receptivity to pseudo-profound nonsense and political ideology is complex. Receptivity to nonsense varies across the political spectrum. It is likely to be particularly common among some groups both on the left and the right—and neither side of the political spectrum is immune to nonsense. In other words, receptivity to bullshit is, regardless of what someone might tell you, not the exclusive domain of one party over the other.


For Further reading

Nilsson, A., Erlandsson, A., & Västfjäll, D. (2019). The complex relation between receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit and political ideology. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(10), 1440-1454. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167219830415

Pennycook, G., Cheyne, J. A., Barr, N., Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2015). On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgment and Decision Making, 10(6), 549-563.

Sterling, J., Jost, J. T., & Pennycook, G. (2016). Are neoliberals more susceptible to bullshit? Judgment and Decision Making, 11(4), 352-360.

 

Online bullshit generators:

The New Age bullshit generator. http://sebpearce.com/bullshit

The postmodernism generator. http://www.elsewhere.org/journal/pomo

The wisdom of Chopra. http://wisdomofchopra.com

 

Artur Nilsson is an associate professor of psychology at Linköping University in Sweden. His work focuses on the psychology of beliefs, ideologies, moral orientations, and worldviews in general.

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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