There is a global epidemic, but it’s not the sort of epidemic that you may be thinking of. In addition to decades of work by philosophers, this scientific research adds further evidence that b******t is a consequential and rather unwanted aspect of the human condition. Unlike a global outbreak of appendicitis, perhaps b******t is a rather more subtle yet more difficult appendage to be rid of!
This rather eye-opening research was produced by Gordon Pennycook et al. at the Department of Psychology in the University of Waterloo, U.S.A. While on many levels there are aspects of light-heartedness throughout much of the manuscript, which made it one of the most enjoyable scientific reads I have come across in a long time, the underlying message was quite… startling (I hesitate to say profound).
Much of their work appears to be based quite heavily on quotes from a physician, author and public speaker called Deepak Chopra. The authors of this study point out that he has written numerous New York Times bestsellers and has over 2.5million followers on Twitter alone. The first real world example they quote was taken directly from his twitter page, and reads, “Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation”. This falls into the author’s definition of pseudo-profound b******t, which is “something that is not merely nonsense but is something that implies yet does not contain adequate meaning or truth”. I must say that as far as this example is concerned, I am certainly inclined to agree.
The authors present four case studies where they ask study participants to rate statements according to their perceived level of profundity, where 1 was “not at all profound” all the way up to 5, which was “very profound”. Participants for the first study were University of Waterloo undergraduate students in return for course credit, while the remaining three studies had participants recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk in return for pay. All participants had to undertake a series of cognitive tasks and questionnaires to assess their ability to participate and also to provide statistical significance to their results.
The statements that participants were asked to rate included several examples from Deepak Chopra’s twitter feed that fall in line with the authors definition of pseudo-profound b******t. These also included random nonsensical statements generated from a collection of buzzwords from his twitter page that were put together randomly in sentences that retain syntactic structure. In other words, these sentences make grammatical sense, but that’s as far as sense extends. These were therefore essentially the author’s simulated b******t items. You can find all of these statements which were used throughout their investigation in their supplementary data. They also tested participants to see whether they could distinguish between motivational quotations that are conventionally accepted as profound and pseudo-profound b******t items from Deepak Chopra’s twitter feed, alongside the authors simulated b******t items as well as mundane statements which have clear meaning but are not at all profound.
The authors were able to demonstrate, across these four studies, that participants were largely unable to distinguish the simulated b******t items from the Deepak Chopra quotes. This indicates that, on some level, there is a tendency for people to consider b******t as profound. The authors are right to point out however that this is by no means indicating that all of Deepak Chopra’s work is b******t. They also found that people that are more likely to rate pseudo-profound b******t as profound were less reflective in thought, lower in cognitive ability (or intelligence) and more likely to hold what’s termed in psychology as epistemically suspect beliefs and also be prone to ontological confusions. Let me briefly explain what these are:
Epistemically suspect beliefs are those that conflict with common conceptions and understandings of the world. The example the authors quote is the belief in angels and that they can move through walls. This conflicts with the common understanding that things cannot pass through walls.
Ontological confusions describe the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, animate and inanimate or mental and physical. The belief in spiritual healing would fall into this category, for example. This is because it mixes a mental phenomenon (prayer), which the authors point out is both subjective and immaterial, with a physical phenomenon (healing), which is objective and material.
In my opinion, what is most interesting is the clear disparity with perceptions when inside the box compared with those outside of it. When reading this paper it could be very easy to think that what they present to their participants is obviously nonsense and yet they still found meaning in it. The author’s hypothesize two mechanisms that could explain this: firstly is the intrinsic predisposition in believing something to be meaningful from the outset; secondly is the inability to detect b******t all together. Although both are reasonable hypotheses, I am more inclined to believe the first mechanism had more of an impact here. Knowledge that the participants were participating in a scientific study may have exacerbated this bias. I can’t help but wonder how the results would change if their bosses at work said the b******t statements; or their younger siblings; or their parents; or if a random person who has a voice as smooth as Morgan Freeman’s said them on a train during their morning commute. This then points to the impact credibility can have on a person’s perceptions of profundity. We all know how credibility can impact someone’s perception of the truth at least.
Although understanding the fundamentals of b******t receptivity is limited to a very small piece of the b******t pie here (so to speak), I think this is an interesting first cut. Of course, b******t extends to more than just the pseudo-profound and I would love to see future work exploring other aspects of b******t as well as the impact credibility can have on the receptivity of b******t. Perhaps surprisingly, Karl Pilkington may have been amongst the first to insinuate publically that the prevalence of b******t in a broader sense is a genuine problem. In a popular episode of “An Idiot Abroad” he was asked which super power he would most like to have. After a second or two of thought he decides that it would be to have the ability to detect (presumably all forms of) b******t and that he would be called “B******t Man”. Based on this research, that may not have been such a bad choice and perhaps rather more insightful than he was originally given credit for. The authors of this study do however hope that in gaining a better understanding how we reject other’s b******t it will allow us at least to be more aware of our own. Could this be the first step in developing a cure for this b******t epidemic, or will it make the credible more adept at abusing their position relative to the box?
Written by Justin Aluko