There’s a link between low intelligence and finding nonsense profound

From now on, I’m going to start every piece I write on Alphr with an inspiring quote. Ready? Here’s the first:

“We self-actualise, we heal, we are reborn. The goal of a resonance cascade is to plant the seeds of transformation rather than suffering.”

Profound, right?

No, it really isn’t. In fact, I took that quote directly from a website that randomly spouts plausible-sounding, but meaningless profundity. Don’t worry, I’m not really going to do this from now on.

Now did you nod approvingly or roll your eyes when you read the sentence? According to new research, your susceptibility to this kind of message directly correlates with your intelligence.

Surprisingly, and in something of a first for me, I’m actually being significantly more diplomatic than the researchers who put the paper together. The full title of the paper is “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit”, and a quick search of the document reveals the word “bullshit” comes up a record 200 times.

The work is from PhD candidate Gordon Pennycook and a team of researchers from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. The team used the same website I accessed above to create a collection of dubious fake wisdom, and then presented it to nearly 300 test subjects who rated the profundity of each statement on a scale of one to five.

The mean profundity rating of these statements was 2.6. Nearly a third of the subjects gave an average score of three or more.deepak_chopra

Next up, fake wisdom was mixed with “real wisdom” from the Twitter account of Deepak Chopra. For the unfamiliar, Chopra (pictured above) is described by the New York Times as a “controversial New Age guru”, while the research paper notes that “some” of his writings “meet our definition of pseudo-profound bullshit”, which is about as diplomatic as the researchers get. In testing, Chopra’s tweets got similar ratings to the randomly generated quotes.

Just to make sure the test subjects weren’t impressed by any series of words strung together, the researchers created a third test where they mixed up the fake wisdom with a series of mundane statements such as “newborn babies require constant attention” and “most people enjoy some sort of music” – but no, these truisms were not viewed as profound.

Those who were really taken in by the fake wisdom were, it turns out, not the sharpest tools in the shed. Or as the researchers put it: “Those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.”

The dismissive and flippant terminology used does make the paper feel a touch mean-spirited – to me at least – but there’s a serious point at its heart: people are dangerously easily influenced by words. The next step is to discover what makes these fake sentiments appear so seductive in order to try and protect people against such irrational thinking.

READ THIS NEXT: The science of scientific denial.

Images: Hernan Pinera and lifescript used under Creative Commons

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Disclaimer: Some pages on this site may include an affiliate link. This does not effect our editorial in any way.