2 Figurines Talking

Receptivity to False Profundity

Many of you might have already seen this article making the rounds on social media. But unlike your typical sources, EID is dedicated to giving you the deeper truth about the world. So how can we resist a take on profundity, pseudo profundity, and utter bulls**t?

Although bulls**t is common in everyday life and has attracted attention from philosophers, its reception (critical or ingenuous) has not, to our knowledge, been subject to empirical investigation. Here we focus on pseudo-profound bulls**t, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous.

My Take

At first, I thought for sure that this was from The Onion or some other parody source. But it was published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making, which I actually subscribe to. Then I saw it shared by several mass media sources. So it had to be real. Didn’t it? So I decided to roll up my sleeves (so they didn’t get stained by the bulls**t) and read through it like the philosopher that I often pretend to be.

The researchers took content that could be truly profound (tweeted statements from Deepak Chopra – so I will leave that call up to you) and randomly switched around the keywords. This ensured that the statements were grammatically correct, but made no real sense. On the other hand, the brevity and ambiguity of the modified tweets made their falsity hard to know for sure if you didn’t know how they were constructed. And we are used to tweets being somewhat vague because of the forced limit of 140 characters.

Then they showed those modified tweets to samples of participants and looked for attributes that were associated with more acceptance of these random statements (i.e. bulls**t) as profound.

There are a few findings that might be generalizable to domains we work in. So I thought I would share the ones that jumped out at me.

Individual attributes that increased acceptance of bulls**t

  • Participants with a greater trait “need for meaning”
  • Participants with a greater trait “trusting of others”
  • Participants with lower trait “use of System 2 thinking”
  • Participants with lower trait “need for cognition”
  • Participants with lower analytical thinking style (whether by preference or by capability)

Contextual Factors

  • Greater induced cognitive fatigue
  • Greater concurrent cognitive workload
  • Greater requirement for divided attention

Notice, from a Signal Detection Theory point of view there are both sensitivity and criterion issues here. Some participants might be more susceptible to bulls**t because they have less cognitive ability to discern the difference – leading to more false positives and false negatives. Some participants might be more susceptible to bulls**t because they are more believing of everything – leadings to more false positives and fewer false negatives.

I thought this was worth sharing because there are many design situations where we need to accommodate brief and ambiguous communications. This can be from an information signal or from a teammate. Either way, how susceptible to misinterpretation might our users be? It is important to know.

And this was a fun way to find out.

Your Turn

OK brass tacks time. Is this a bulls**t article because we ran out of topics today or does it resonate as having some real value? Do you see any insights in the study that you might be able to apply to your own work? Or should be nominate it for an Ig Nobel Prize?

Image Credit: ed_davad

2 thoughts on “Receptivity to False Profundity”

  1. @John – Sorry I made an assumption about how familiar our readership is with System 2 thinking. It comes from the dual process model of thinking (although I have added a System 3 in my own work – which we covered here: http://ergonomicsindesign.com/2014/07/metacognition-decision-making).

    System 2 is the more analytical/logical set of thinking processes. It is partially in parallel with and partially in reaction to System 1, which is the more immediate, pattern recognition, unconscious, emotional set of processes.

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