May 7, 2018

Bullshitting has an academic definition.

“Communications that result from little to no concern for truth, evidence and/or established semantic, logical, systemic, or empirical knowledge” is how John V. Petrocelli put it in a new study.

The science of bullshitting goes back further. Petrocelli’s definition is adapted from the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, who wrote a seminal essay in 1986 conceptualizing bullshitting — a phenomenon he said most people take for granted.

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this,” he wrote. “(But) we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.”

Petrocelli agrees.

In his paper, the Wake Forest University associate psychology professor tries to measure what makes people bullshit in the first place. To do that, he ran two separate experiments: One in which he tested how social conditions affect one’s likelihood to bullshit and the other in which he analyzed how being held accountable affected bullshitting.

In the first experiment, Petrocelli used data from a questionnaire that 594 participants on Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform filled out. He found that bullshitting was largely fueled by social pressures.

“… when people do not estimate getting away with bullshit to be easy, they appear to be willing to bullshit only when they feel obligated to provide an opinion. As such, relative to the ease of passing bullshit, the obligation to provide an opinion appears to have a more potent influence on bullshitting behavior.”

Put simply: People tend to bullshit more when they feel pressured to have an opinion on something. Petrocelli simulated that pressure by creating two conditions for a thought-listing task, one in which people were shown a disclosure saying they weren’t required to submit comments and another without it.

In the second experiment, which drew upon questionnaire data from 234 undergraduate psychology students, Petrocelli found that behavior is augmented when people feel like they won’t be held accountable for or have to explain their bullshit. He tested that with four conditions for another thought-listing task, one in which participants were asked to provide opinions with complete candor and three others where they were told their comments would be evaluated by an expert and recorded.

“… people appear to be especially likely to bullshit when it may be perceived as acceptable or relatively easy to pass — when they are not held accountable or when they expect to justify their positions with like-minded individuals. When receiving a social pass for bullshitting is not expected to be easy — when people are held accountable or when they expect to justify their positions to people who disagree with their attitudes – people appear to refrain from bullshitting.”

Although they’re littered throughout his paper, Petrocelli didn’t use the terms “bullshit” or “bullshitting” with the study’s participants because “not only do laypeople have widely varying beliefs about what constitutes bullshit, it seems unlikely that people are generally ready to admit to bullshitting,” he wrote.

Taken as a whole, the findings indicate that bullshitting is more than just a psychological phenomenon rooted in our own delusions — it’s socially constructed, and there’s much researchers don’t know about its intent or effects. And that has ramifications beyond your daily interactions, Petrocelli said in the paper.

“Understanding bullshitting is not simply an attempt to understand the conditions under which bullshitting is most prevalent,” he wrote, “but is also an attempt to understand the psychological processes that both enable people to communicate with little to no concern at all for evidence as well as the processes that explain why people accept so much bullshit without questioning its validity.”

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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