Have you ever found yourself scrolling through a social media feed and all of a sudden stumbling upon a quote like: “By evolving, we exist.”
And at first you’re like Oh, that’s nice and a second later, you find yourself confused?
That is because the above quote is complete bullshit. In fact, it was generated by a website called “ New Age Bullshit Generator ,” a site that randomly creates phony, spiritual, Tumblr-esque aphorisms for geeky amusement.
When Ph.D. candidate Gordon Pennycook stumbled on the site, he found it profoundly entertaining — at first. But then he got a little disturbed:
“I thought, ‘I wonder if people would actually rate such blatant bullshit as profound,'” he told The Huffington Post. “The study sort of went from there.”
His study, “ On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit ,” was published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making in November. Pennycook, along with a team of researchers from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, tested close to 800 participants on whether they could determine if a statement was bullshit.
The study, by the way, mentions the word “bullshit” in it 200 times — and that’s not a bullshit claim.
New paper on the psychology of bullshit https://t.co/VMvkA1Wky6 Open access! we only used the term “bullshit” ~200 times…
— Gordon Pennycook (@GordPennycook) November 30, 2015
The researchers used randomly generated sayings from New Age Bullshit Generator and another site called “ Wisdom of Chopra ” — the last a sarcastic nod to the new age teachings of best-selling alternative medicine author Deepak Chopra — for the study.
They found that people who are receptive to this kind of “pseudo-intellectual bullshit” are less intelligent than those who aren’t. The study also found that they tend to have strong religious beliefs, are not reflective and are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, alternative medicine and the paranormal.
“The basic idea is that people who are more intelligent should be better able to detect that the statements are bullshit,” Pennycook told The Huffington Post. “And, similarly, that people that are more skeptical about supernatural claims should be more skeptical about the bullshit that we presented to them.”
The Huffington Post gave these generator sites a whirl, and we pulled up the following gems:
Defining “bullshit” outside of its literal meaning may seem like a difficult thing to do, but, holy cow, does Pennycook grab this opportunity by the horns. To help him define it, he cites the deceptively deep sentence “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.”
The study explains: “Although this statement may seem to convey some sort of potentially profound meaning, it is merely a collection of buzzwords put together randomly in a sentence that retains syntactic structure.”
“Bullshit, in contrast to mere nonsense, is something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth,” it continues.
In the first of four tests, participants were asked to rate how profound the statements were on a scale of one to five.
About 27 percent of subjects gave an average score of three or more, which suggests they found the sentences to be somewhere from profound to mind-blowing deep.
The second test used more bullshit-generated sentences, mixed in with tweets posted by Deepak Chopra .
True Self pic.twitter.com/pYYla4FkG1
— Deepak Chopra (@DeepakChopra) November 29, 2015
The results of this test were similar. Many participants showed that they had a hard time telling the difference between the generated statements and Chopra’s quotes.
Just to make sure participants weren’t labeling everything as profound, researchers conducted two more tests that threw in mundane sentences like “newborn babies require constant attention.”
Although most participants could spot the mundane statements, around 20 percent found them somewhat profound. Which makes us wonder: do they understand the definition of “profound?”