"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit," writes philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt in his unmissable short treatise on this defining feature of modern life.
People have, of course, lied since the dawn of time. But the onslaught of spin, exaggeration, truthiness, and wildly inaccurate Instagram filters does seem unique to our times. So much so that you may have thrown up your hands and decided to give in and indulge in a little BS yourself. After all, what do you have to lose if you go along with the general zeitgeist and gild the lily a little now and then?
Quite a lot, according to a new study published in Social Psychology that begs to differ with the old saying "You can't bullshit a bullshitter." In fact, it appears the opposite is true. If you feel no need to pay particular attention to the bounds of truth and accuracy yourself, you're actually more likely to fall for other people's BS.
The BS blindspot
The design of the research, conducted by a team out of University of Waterloo and highlighted on the British Psychological Society Research Digest blog, is actually kind of hilarious. For the first of a series of experiments, the researchers brought 219 volunteers into the lab and had them complete the Bullshitting Frequency Scale (yes, this is a real measure used by psychologists). As the name suggests, it reveals how likely you are to blow hot air on topics that you know little about.
They then measured how receptive the subjects were to the BS of others by having them attempt to tell the difference between pseudo-profound quotes and genuine expressions of wisdom. ("If 'We are in the midst of a high-frequency blossoming of interconnectedness that will give us access to the quantum soup itself' sounds extremely profound to you, you'd probably score highly on this scale," quips BPS). They were also asked to sort real sentences full of scientific jargon from grammatically correct but meaningless strings of scientific terms, and judge whether particular articles were fake news.
The link between spewing BS and falling for it was clear. If you're the type to go around puffing yourself up with a liberal use of BS, then I have bad news for you: You're also far more likely to fall for other people's BS. Researchers termed this the "BS blindspot."
An important caveat
It's worth noting that the researchers distinguished between two types of BS'ing -- persuasive and evasive. Evasive BS is when you talk around the truth to avoid conflict, punishment, or hurting someone else. Persuasive BS is what most of us think of when we think of BS -- trying to convince or impress others while showing a thorough lack of interest in the truth.
It's only persuasive BS that seems to be closely linked with a greater susceptibility to others' spin and exaggerations. "High persuasive bullshitters appear to interpret/mistake superficial profoundness as a signal of actual profoundness," the researchers explain. Sneaky evasive BS'ers didn't struggle as much.
Why might that be so? Possibly because those prone to tons of persuasive BS just aren't that bright. The researchers found those who used the most BS were overconfident in their intellectual abilities and did comparatively worse on tests of cognitive ability.
It's impossible to tell from this study if a consistent disregard for the truth weakens your critical thinking skills or if having weak critical thinking skills in the first place makes you more prone to BS. But until science figures that out, one thing is clear: If you frequently find yourself more interested in your own advantage than the truth, it's not a good sign.
Keeping a bright line between reality and fiction is hard work that demands discipline and practice. Give up on the distinction often enough and you're likely to lose the ability to separate truth from fiction when it counts.